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The Girl's Guide to Homelessness: A Memoir Paperback – April 26, 2011

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

I'm trying to decide whether it's fair or not to say that insanity runs in my blood. Certainly it's a statement with which many of my family members would, shall we say, take umbrage. But I don't know that it's much of a stretch, from an outsider's perspective. I'm not talking about the kooky, madcap, adorably dysfunctional brand of crazy, either. The Moonstruck-style family with their over-the-top yelling and gesticulating, followed by reconciliations and hugs and kisses and banquet-reunion meals. The bighearted kind of crazy.

That's not my family. My lineage runs more along the batshit-fucking-nuts crazy train.

As you might imagine, this is enough to give a girl a massive mind trip. There's always that underlying paranoia—wondering whether I have miraculously broken the mold and escaped the curse, or whether the insanity is buried and brewing just below the surface, lying dormant and awaiting the inevitable breakout.***

I was born a fourth-generation Jehovah's Witness. There wasn't much choice in the matter. On my mother's side, the JW heritage goes all the way back to my great-grandparents—Polish immigrants to Canada who met on a bus one day in the early I900s, discovered they each thought the other looked pretty spicy and married a week later. Mary and TaTa Mazur would later convert to the "Bible Students," renamed "Jehovah's Witnesses" in I93I, and pump out nine devout Jehovah's Witness children up through the Great Depression, one of whom was my grandmother, Iris, the youngest and the black sheep and hell-raiser of the family.

The Mazur clan would later tell stories of their persecution as Jehovah's Witnesses during both world wars, including the ban on the religion in Canada from I940 to I943, when members organized an underground resistance. My grandmother would affectionately relate stories of her father's imprisonment when he was caught distributing JW pamphlets, only to find himself the first known believer to be thrown out of jail for singing religious hymns in Polish at the top of his lungs (and horrendously out of tune), distressing prison guards and inmates alike.

I know, I know, it all sounds very charming and "warms-the-cockles-of-your-heart" so far, doesn't it? Believe me, there are plenty more stories where those came from. JWs thrive on the martyr complex, since they believe that the Bible prophesied that members of the One True Religion would be greatly persecuted. Therefore, I've heard every variation of the chuckle-worthy tale in which oppressed Jehovah's Witnesses pull one over on their tormentors.


My great-grandparents also claimed to be "of the anointed." In JW-speak, this means that they believed Jehovah God had spoken to them and revealed that they were among the elite I44,000 chosen ones, selected to go to heaven and reign alongside Him as kings once He brought about a prophesied New Order of Things. This new order, Jehovah's Witnesses believe, involves the brutal destruction of every nonbeliever at a bloody, apocalyptic Armageddon showdown, and the subsequent building of a Paradise Earth populated solely by—you guessed it—the rest of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the ones not chosen to reign as kings in heaven. They don't tell you this stuff on your doorstep, do they?

So. Two ancestors hearing voices and with delusions of kingly grandeur. Check.

My grandmother, Iris, despite a few young years of running wild, raising Cain and living something of a double life few Witnesses would have approved of, remains in the religion to this day. She attends a Kingdom Hall (JWs don't call them churches; they consider churches "pagan" and "of false religion") in California, where she moved and settled down with my grandfather, Jeremiah. They are now divorced, but he is also a Jehovah's Witness and lives a relatively sweet, unassuming life under the radar in Alabama with his second wife.

Iris Wallingford, nee Mazur, carried on the precedent of crazy and inflated it to (apologies in advance for the pun) epic biblical proportions. According to family lore, she abused her three daughters physically, mentally and emotionally. Legendary tales of her heaving vacuum cleaners through the air at their heads, dragging them along the hallway by their hair until it came out by the roots in clumps or grinding pencil lead deep into their knees as they squirmed and fidgeted during two-hour Kingdom Hall meeting sessions were a staple of my childhood. This is all, of course, merely what I've gleaned from multiple sources' whispered tales, including those of family members and friends…but do I believe there's at least some truth to it? Yep. All three girls were destined to run away from home at a young age. First Louisa, the eldest, split for Hawaii, followed by my mother, Linda, at age sixteen. Mom dropped out of high school, took her GED exam and lived on Oahu with Louisa (who had spiraled into drug use) for a year or so before returning to California. Charisse, the youngest, possibly had it the worst—she was afflicted with a severe, lifelong form of alopecia, which caused her to lose her hair and endure torment at school as well as at home. Upon leaving home, she searched for solace in the arms of men, hopping from one to another and sinking two marriages with kind, loving (and non-JW) husbands due to compulsive infidelity. As of this writing, she is imprisoned in Illinois for a period of twelve years, convicted of vehicular manslaughter committed while driving under the influence for the third time. I have not seen her in ages, but, according to family members, she has also had problems with illegal drugs for years and has been "disfel-lowshipped," or excommunicated, from the Jehovah's Witnesses at least twice. Her two young children are cared for by her non-JW ex-husband, so I hold out hope that they may yet have a quasi-normal life, despite everything.

My grandmother, meanwhile, spends most of her time in a rocking chair in front of the TV at home. Once a slim, lovely young woman with mischievous eyes who attracted men like flies to honey, she has ballooned to ghastly proportions and relies on a walker to get from place to place. Her house is in a condemnable, Grey Gardens state—decades of hoarded trash and junk piled from floor to ceiling, with the exception of walking paths hewn out from room to room. I'm pretty sure I've seen McDonald's containers in there dating back to the I960s. You think I'm kidding? In Iris Wallingford's warped mind, every bit of junk is a treasure or a memory to add to the magpie's nest. In the past, I have attempted to spend time with my grandma, but could only ever handle her in small doses, as her grating chief hobby is living in the past, reliving imaginary grudges and slights dating back some seventy-odd years. Many of these are against her own brothers and sisters, all but one already passed on—respect for the dead means nothing to her. She and my mother hate each other with a passion. Although they attend the same congregation, they don't speak, but always have an arsenal of nasty digs on hand ready to fling at the other. Despite Iris's extraordinary disregard for her own health, which would seem to invite the most massive heart attack in the history of heart attacks, my mother jokes grimly that Iris will outlive us all out of spite.

I tell these stories because I think it's important for me to establish up front, before I go into my own saga, that I believe I understand, or at least try to understand, why my mother is the way she is. For much of her life, she was indeed victimized—pair cult indoctrination from birth with unabated abuse by a bitter, raving 350-pound maniac, and you've got a recipe for disaster. To this day, I don't know exactly how much of my mother's own particular instability is a product of nature or nurture, but I've got my suspicions that one didn't exactly help the other.

Having returned from her less-than-successful jaunt to Hawaii, which left her broke and disillusioned for such a young kid, my mother endured a brief period of abuse again at home with Iris. At eighteen, by Jehovah's Witness standards she was actually an old maid, though she was young, lovely and vivacious—popular at school, something of a class clown in compensation for the dark home life of which she was so ashamed. She finally escaped (or so she thought) by marrying the first man she could at nineteen, and getting pregnant with me right away.

Bob Neville. Bob was not short for Robert. Just plain Bob. He was a gawky, scarecrow-esque kid a year older than my mother, most often said to resemble Peter Pan. He definitely didn't look like a monster.

Mom met him at the moped repair shop after an unfortunate accident in which a neighbor backing out of his driveway neglected to notice her coming up the street and ran over her scooter. She would later point out to me the hedge that had obscured the driver's vision: "If it weren't for that hedge, you would never have been born!" She would come to regret that damn hedge.

Jehovah's Witnesses don't date non-Jehovah's Witnesses, and they definitely aren't supposed to marry them. They view it as marrying a walking corpse—what's the point of falling in love with someone the great and powerful Jehovah is just going to roast with a flaming meteorite at Armageddon, anyway? Members can be privately counseled, publicly reproved, disciplined or even disfellow-shipped and shunned for pursuing a relationship with a nonbeliever. Ergo, Bob accepted a "Bible study" with my mother, toward the goal of conversion, and they married quickly and furtively. I was born March 6, 1985.

Bob turned out to be the classic wife beater, belying his sweetly youthful appearance. My mother claims that a week after their wedding, he woke her up in the middle of the night, accused her of cheating on him, bundled her into the car and drove her out to the desert in silence, pausing to open the door and shove her out into the sand, dumping her in only a T-shirt and no underwear. Then he drove home and went back to sleep while she walked until her feet were bloody, finally hitching a ride home from a concerned passing motorist and his wife around dawn. Other stories centered around the time Bob put my mother through a wall in their house, leaving a perfect Linda-shaped indent, and when he picked up a set of heavy stone coasters from the coffee table and started bashing his own forehead in during an argument until blood spurted and coated the furniture, all the while screaming at her as though bestowing an unavoidable curse.

"Look how much I love you! I'll even hurt myself for you! Look what you're making me do to myself! Look what you're making me do to you!"

I hurt you because I love you. Of course. It was a constant refrain of his, definitely not the most original line ever thought up by an abusive husband. Interestingly, it would turn out to be a recurring theme in my own life as well, that persistent, lingering stench you just can't get rid of no matter how hard you scrub.

My mother became pregnant again with my little sister, Molly, mere months after my birth. My sister was born on May 7, 1986 with a congenital defect requiring open-heart surgery, which set the local congregation elders in a tizzy. At that time, only a handful of infants had ever received bloodless heart surgery, and Jehovah's Witnesses apply the archaic biblical command to "abstain from blood" (Acts I5:29) to the ultimate possible literal interpretation—blood pudding isn't the only no-no! The command was previously misapplied to organ transplants, considered cannibalism, for many years. However, "new light" from Jehovah eventually revealed to the old men in the head honcho seat in Brooklyn, the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses, that—oops!—organ transplants (and later blood fractions, though not whole blood itself) were OK after all. Sorry about all those faithful Witnesses who died (or allowed their children to die) under the "old light," folks. Move along, nothing to see here.

At the time of my sister's birth, however, even the use of medical treatments utilizing blood fractions, such as plasma, albumin, immunoglobulins and the like, were not an option for members (they didn't become a "conscience matter" for Jehovah's Witnesses until I989, when Molly was three years old), and my mom, barely more than a kid herself, was beset upon by elders waving power of attorney forms in her face. Molly's primary hospital insisted that she required a blood transfusion, and that they were prepared to go to court to seek and enforce an injunction making sure she received it. The circus reached its peak when my mother snatched my little sister from the local hospital and took her to Texas, where Dr. Denton Cooley, the world's foremost "blood-free surgeon" (and at the time, one of only two in the United States who performed such procedures on children), completed the two operations that would save Molly's life and leave her with her two scars: a thick, ropey one all the way down from sternum to belly button, and a thin crescent-shaped one under her left breast, toward her armpit. Though only a year old at the time, I distinctly recall the sight of my frail, emaciated sister in a hospital crib, wailing, covered in tubes and surrounded by stuffed animals my mother purchased for her. Her crib and hospital apparatus were all covered in large stickers bearing the words "Jehovah's Witness—No Blood!" Moll's recovery and success story were heralded by Jehovah's Witnesses everywhere as a triumph of Jehovah over Satan, and proof that their religion's ways were the best after all.

Though Mom attempted to escape her abusive marriage, however, the congregation elders were having none of it. Despite the angry bruises and welts covering her from head to toe, and an "unpleasant incident" in which Bob leaped up on the hood of our van in the parking lot of the Kingdom Hall (in front of dozens of witnesses) as my mother attempted to flee and I screamed in confused terror in the backseat, they advised her to "wait on Jehovah, be a better wife and perhaps things would get better." Divorce is scripturally prohibited for Jehovah's Witnesses, except in the case of adultery. Even abused spouses are advised to remain in their dead-end marriages and "set a good example" for their abuser, "that he might be won over without a word." (Read: Maybe if you're really, really nice to him, he'll realize what a jackass he's been, feel sorry and repent. Even if it takes a decade or three.)

And, they said, if he did kill her, as he threatened and she feared, she would be resurrected to Paradise. God would fix everything eventually. Just not right now.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harlequin; Advance uncorrected Proof's edition (April 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0373892357
  • ISBN-13: 978-0373892358
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #879,786 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Lena P. on May 29, 2011
Format: Paperback
When I was eighteen, I was disowned by my family. For a year and a half the help and support of my friends was able to keep me afloat, until I lost my job, my lease ran out, and I had nowhere left to turn. After sleeping on a church floor for a week, I found my way into a more permanent shelter, where I spent the better part of the next year before getting a job and being able to move out. A year later, I'm scraping by. I am the same age as Karp, and when I saw the book in the supermarket, I was automatically pinged by the title. The first chapter or two (which I read there) were interesting enough for me to pick up the book with my groceries.

Now that it's done, I'm not sure what I think.

Don't get me wrong: I agree wholeheartedly that homelessness can vary wildly. In the shelter and in the church I met a huge range of homeless people: some who camped in the woods in the summer, some recovering from illness or addiction, some parents with children who couldn't bring 3-4 people into a friend's basement or couch. I met a father who quit his job and moved into the shelter to help support his ex and their children, a man who had been in and out of the shelter over the past few years, and one woman who had savings but was sick enough that she needed to keep them for medical expenses, and hope to apply for assisted living. There are all kinds of homelessness, and none is more or less legit than the other. As long as you don't have a place that is safe, with electricity, running water, and heat in the winter, and is ultimately your own? That's homeless. Park benches have nothing to do with it.
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45 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Shelleyrae TOP 500 REVIEWER on May 1, 2011
Format: Paperback
"The review for this is going to be hard to write" is what I wrote immediately after finishing the book. I have had a few days to digest it now but I am still unsure how to address my thoughts.
The Girl's Guide to Homelessness is a memoir from twenty something Brianna Karp. Abused and neglected as a child by her bipolar mother, Brianna grew up in a dysfunctional Jehovah's Witness family. Despite her truly shocking childhood circumstances, Brianna establishes herself as an independent adult, until redundancy and the current state of the economy, forces her back home to live with her mother and stepfather. Brianna is immediately victimised by her mother until in a nasty confrontation, Brianna is told to leave. With no where to go, Brianna tracks down her recently deceased biological father's trailer and moves into a Walmart carpark with her beloved dog. Starbucks' free WiFi allows her to keep job hunting and unemployment benefits keep her fed but it's a struggle to keep body and soul together in such soul crushing circumstances.
Briana Karp is to be commended for highlighting the face of homelessness that people would prefer to ignore. It is far more comfortable to blame homelessness on drug addiction, laziness or mental illness, than a combination of circumstances that could befall anyone, especially in times of global financial stress. For most people living payday to payday the thought is truly terrifying and so to push it away they choose to ignore the issue, and brand the 'homeless' with stereotypes. I have heard the complaints that Briana faced from those I know - wanting to know how do the homeless justify cell phones and laptops but it seems sensible to me that these are tools that in this age are essential for anyone seeking work, just as much as a good suit and access to transport.
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61 of 70 people found the following review helpful By J. Sever on May 27, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I dearly LOVE my Kindle, but this is one of those times when I wished I'd bought this as an actual book, because that way I could resell the book and get a little of my money back.

I thought this book should have been entitled "The Girls Guide to Bad Choices." It really has very little to do with the realities of being homeless, and frankly I'm not sure that choosing an alternative living arrangement is tantamount to being homeless. Plenty of people choose to RV full time; they generally don't consider themselves "homeless." I've known people who camped on the beach for months who didn't consider themselves homeless.

I kept wanting to call her and ask her why she was spending her hard-to-come-by money on trips and other things, instead of socking a bit of cash away. I kept wanting to ask her why she didn't move someplace with a slightly cheaper cost of living than Orange County. I get why she chose not to live with family, but I thought the telling of her family story was melodramatic and over-the-top.

Finally, I didn't feel like this was very well written. Her work is, in my opinion, rife with cliches, and I just wonder how accurate her telling of some of these anecdotes really is. Judging from some of the things I've read today (which I wish I'd read before I bought this book, alas) there's some indication that this could be the latest "Million Little Pieces" moment of 2011.
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152 of 185 people found the following review helpful By Preston on May 25, 2011
Format: Paperback
I haven't read past the first chapter of this book but I do know the author. I'm not calling this book pure fabrication, but I also know enough to question it. My then girlfriend was room mates with Brianna when she had that job as an executive assistant. I know that her 6 months working as an executive assistant were not spent in a cottage by the beach. She lived with 3 other room mates in a house next to a man-made lake in the city of Lake Forrest California. I don't know why she was fired, but I do know that she called out sick once or twice a week. I don't know what her mother was like, but it was her mom that moved her stuff out of the house when she left. I don't know what she had against us, but she told the neighbors that we were physically abusing her and that she had to move for her own safety. Since she spent all of her time holed up in her room we didn't know what she was talking about, or why she was telling it to the neighbors, but she hadn't paid rent in 2 months and we were glad to finally look for a paying room mate. Again, lots of the stuff in this book probably happened in some form or other, but the parts I can corroborate don't jive with what happened. I wish her well and good luck, but it's hard to see something you know is not true without commenting. So, I hope the readers enjoy this book. Though I can't recommend it, I'm sure it's entertaining. Read with a grain of salt.
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