Interview with Brianna Karp, author of A Girl’s Guide To Homelessness
1. After the publication of your book did you receive emails from readers who had been designated as scapegoats in their own families and/or physically abused (because so much happens behind closed doors in America)?
Yes, and I still do, on a daily basis! Many of them are even teens or young adults with abusive or mentally ill parents, and they’re conflicted between loving their parents very much (as you do) and wanting to escape a bad situation. Obviously it’s terrible to realize that this stuff occurs on a much larger scale than you realize or want to believe. But on the other hand, in a way it makes you realize that however alone you felt at the time, you’re not alone. There are others who have been there and survived and understand and have your back. The letters and emails I get from other abuse survivors are among the most touching for me, on a personal level. I’m honored that there are people out there who feel that the book gave them something to connect to.
2. I would guess that many women identified with you in terms of being scammed by a man they met on the internet (where so much can remain hidden). Did you hear from them? Has this happened to more women than we think?
That’s probably the part of my story that gets the most controversy, funnily enough. I do hear from women who have been through bad relationships, including ones with men they have met online. A lot of people (mostly women) get really angry about that, and they slam me for it, call me stupid and saying they would never make that mistake. But I think if most people are honest with themselves, just about everybody has been through a bad relationship, especially at a young age. You make these mistakes while you’re young, and that’s why I figure it’s relatable to many.
I don’t know if it’s necessarily the internet that’s the problem, per se. I’m not anti-online dating, and I wouldn’t be averse to meeting someone online again, though I haven’t been looking. I think the internet is so ubiquitous, it’s just another place to meet someone, and if you’re careful about it, it can end positively. Much can remain hidden initially on the internet, but then, it has also made it more difficult to hide things – we hear about people’s privacy being lost to Google and Facebook every day.
Matt and I met on the internet, but then we also met in person after that. We lived together for quite a length of time, under some pressure-cooker circumstances. There were a few red flags that I admit I missed, but I also knew him as many did – a really beloved public figure who cared about social causes and did noble things like fight homelessness. In the book I tried not to make him a hero or a villain, just tell the story as it happened to me. The relationship ended badly, but I don’t know that you can chalk that up to meeting on the internet so much as just sometimes relationships go sour and people do terrible things. What happened in the end would have been just as tragic if he and I had met in a bookstore or something, wouldn’t it?
There’s a stigma to online dating, but I also have friends who have had incredibly positive experiences with it and ended up in lasting long-term relationships or even married, so I’m not going to blame the internet for the failure of my relationship. It just was what it was. It’s a coming of age story. When you come of age, you make some mistakes. Bad things happen. Then you learn from it and move on.
3. When I read your book I felt a sense of home when you described your horse, your dog and your piano. Do you feel that not having an actual place of residence takes away from a person’s sense of self-worth and dignity?
Absolutely. There’s so much shame involved in being homeless, just read the comments section of any article on the subject. People start hurling insults and making assumptions. I’ve been called everything from lazy, dirty, a con artist, a prostitute, a drug addict, mentally ill…when the truth is, I’m none of those things, I just don’t have a home. You find yourself feeling dirty and guilty no matter how hard you’re working to get your life back on track, just because of all the slurs that get tossed your way.
Add to that the overwhelming feeling of being adrift, having no privacy, no sense of belonging, loneliness, being begrudged even the small things that you work hard for, and scrabbling hard; pedaling frantically for what often seems like just staying in place, never mind moving forward…yeah, there’s no dignity there. It’s dehumanizing. It’s definitely not a life that anyone in their right mind would choose if they were “lazy”. There’s too much work involved in day-to-day life being homeless to be lazy. It’s just an exhausting way to live.
4. When reading your book I first felt foreshadowings of betrayal when you were monetarily supporting Matt when he was in America (because even mentally ill people can have at least temporary jobs and help with expenses), and I felt a sense of foreboding when Matt said he didn’t want you to make him stay in a trailer for Christmas (where you’d been staying all along). Do you think that having to support your mother and sister from an early age made the role of supporter and “bread winner” seem natural to you?
It did, though I didn’t really recognize it until later. I’m used to working and at the time it felt like just what you did when you were in love. It wasn’t legal for him to work in the U.S., but I did know he was running his website and caring for a community of homeless people and that felt like something bigger and more important than myself. If anything, in some ways it felt like he was carrying the bigger emotional burden than I was. There were times I felt like all I was doing was bringing home a measly paycheck to get us by, while he was out there changing lives and making a difference. In my mind, it evened out. Later on, when people point it out to you, you can see the unevenness there, you can spot the red flags. But yeah, I was definitely re-enacting a lot of the dysfunctional patterns I learned during my own childhood. That’s unfortunate and it’s something I’ve sought not to do again in the future. You just try to learn from it.
5. To me you seem to have become, through destiny and your own efforts, a leader, in this instance through
this book about homelessness. Do you think that readers have learned to be less judgmentaltowards homeless people by identifying with your struggles?
A lot of them have, I think. One of the common threads in many emails I receive is “You made me think differently about homelessness”. To me, that’s the highest compliment that I could possibly be paid, because I know how hard it is to change anybody’s mind about anything (myself included). People are very set in their notions, so it’s exciting to know that your writing could have that kind of persuasive effect.
People are so likely to have this knee-jerk reaction and try to hold the homeless at arms’ length, stick a label on them, and categorize them as “other”. “This is not me, this is not anybody I would know”. They’ve got a mental picture of homelessness and it’s a dirty guy with torn clothes sleeping on a park bench, or pushing a shopping cart full of junk, and they’ve already written a story for him in their heads, so why should they care?
With the recession though, I think people are becoming more aware that it could be them. And that scares them, and sometimes makes them angry or hostile. Nobody wants to believe it could be them. So I think for a lot of people, being introduced to someone like me, and seeing that I’m just a normal, friendly chick who could be their sister or daughter or wife or friend or them…that’s the first step. And often that’s what gets them to care, and if enough people give a crap, then maybe legislation could be introduced that would make real changes in the way our society approaches and treats homelessness. But they’ve gotta care first. So it means a lot to me that the book has gotten even a handful of people to take notice of the issue.
6. Your honesty is refreshing: how did you decide to tell “everything” when writing your book?
Thank you! Not gonna lie, I was sorely tempted to gloss over or leave out a lot of the harsher personal stuff. There were memories I didn’t want to dredge up again – I didn’t want to write about being raped, and the last third of the book was written pretty much as it was happening – the twists with my relationship with Matt. That stuff was actually harder to write about than the childhood and family stuff, because at least I had more distance from it, had been through therapy and could view it a little more objectively.
The book was supposed to end on a much more positive note. For a while there, it was looking like a happy ending for myself. Then you learn that life doesn’t always have a neat little Cinderella ending, and that’s OK, because I’m young and I have all the time in the world to make the rest of my life happen. So I guess at least the end is realistic. Bittersweet.
I ended up writing in depth about a lot of the darker stuff I’d originally planned to leave out because I learned my ex was shopping around exclusives with tabloids, and he knew everything about me and my past. More than anyone in the world knew about me. I figured it was better that the skeletons in my closet came from me, and nobody else, so I included the parts of my past I’m ashamed of or that are harder for me to talk about. In the end, I’m glad that I did. It was cathartic, and it’s given many more readers even more chances to connect with the story and relate to aspects of it.
7. Do you think Matt destroyed whatever he could on your laptop in order for you not to have any “evidence” against him (since he later told the press there’d been no infidelity)?
To an extent, I think it was just an attempt to be hurtful; feel like he’d gotten the final word or parting shot – a common occurrence in dysfunctional relationships. But I don’t know for sure, and I may never know. That’s OK, though. I’ve stopped needing answers to the questions I used to have. I’ve moved on.
Our relationship and engagement, however, are very well-documented. I’ve retained hundreds of hours’ worth of Gmail chats and emails, and of course our relationship was documented in scores of newspaper publications and interviews. I guess for legal purposes it’s safeguard to have that much documentation of a relationship, but there will always be an element of frustration in knowing that the internet lives forever, and I will forever associated, on some level, with one of the most difficult periods of my life and a man I’d prefer to forget about. C’est la vie.
8. Have you been accused of getting revenge on Matt through exposing his actions to the masses in your book?
Not a ton, though there’s the occasional person who accuses me of chronic victimhood. The thing is, I don’t believe in being a “victim” and I make a great effort not to paint myself that way. There are a few people in the book who hurt me, yes. I also go to great lengths to portray them as whole and complex human beings with back stories and motivations, not as cardboard-cut-out villains twirling their mustaches. They all have good qualities as well and there are reasons that I loved most of them. Matt was very intelligent; had some great ideas and theories about homelessness. I loved him very much and at many times he treated me and others very well. Some bad things happened and some good things happened. I related them all. I just told my story. Different people will read the exact same book and have completely different takeaways from it. That’s the beauty of it.
The best part of the book, to me, is all of the awesome and amazing people who came out of the woodwork to help a complete stranger with absolutely no expectation of repayment or recognition. They didn’t have to, but they did. They’re the heroes of the story. When you look at my life overall, a relatively small percentage of the people who have entered it have hurt me. An overwhelming percentage of them were, and still are, my friends and my adoptive family – brilliant and kind human beings. Them’s pretty good odds.
9. Has publishing your book (and talking to others about it) given you a sense of well-being and healing?
It really has. I didn’t realize how cathartic it would be, I really stressed over putting everything out there, but in the end I’m so glad I did. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.
10. Are you still homeless?
The government would consider me so – I am still on the lot in Riverside, though I’ve moved into a garage/shed on the property converted into an apartment, because code enforcement recently cracked down on the property owner and most of the trailers/vehicles had to be removed from the lot. A lot of people were forced to leave. A few came back.
I consider myself in sort of a limbo stage – not really home, not really homeless. I have it a lot better off than I did in a parking lot, and I’m grateful for that. I think it’s a travesty that the man who owns the property is getting hassled for doing what the government won’t – keeping these people off the street and giving them somewhere better than a sidewalk or a parking lot to sleep in. At the same time, I’m aware that my situation is legally dubious and tenuous. It’s not a permanent long-term solution, so I’m just taking it one day at a time. Trying to scrape up enough for first-and-last-month’s-rent-and-deposit somewhere permanent. My car engine caught on fire a couple weeks ago (I kid you not), so I watched those savings circle the drain, and am starting over from scratch. It happens. Life happens.
People who don’t know a ton about the publishing industry go, “but you wrote a book! Surely that means you’re rich and can buy a house now, right?” But seriously, that doesn’t happen unless you’re, like, Stephen King or something. And I’m under no illusions about that. I don’t have unreal expectations; I don’t expect anybody to hand me anything. The overnight Cinderella story is a myth, or at least an extreme rarity. Writing the book has opened up a lot of doors for me and I’m so appreciative for that – now I have to work really hard to actualize the possibilities. I’ve got a 9-5 job that’s helping me get by, and I’m really enjoying getting to talk to people about the book and social issues on the nights and weekends. This has been the experience of a lifetime, I’m helping make a difference in the world at least on a smallish scale, and anything else on top of that would just gravy. Who could ask for more?
Reviewed by Christina Zawadiwsky
Christina Zawadiwsky is Ukrainian-American, born in New York City, has a degree in Fine Arts, and is a poet, artist, journalist and TV producer. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Award, two Wisconsin Arts Boards Awards, a Co-Ordinating Council of Literary Magazines Writers Award, and an Art Futures Award, among other honors. She was the originator and producer of Where The Waters Meet, a local TV series created to facilitate the voices of artists of all genres in the media, for which she won two national and twenty local awards, including a Commitment to Community Television Award. She is also a contributing editor to the annual Pushcart Prize Anthology, the recipient of an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Library Association, and has published four books of poetry. She currently reviews movies for , music for , and books for .