On May 18th, I attended a talk by Jeannette Walls, who wrote a memoir called The Glass Castle. I had not heard of her or read her book, but I am always interested in other writers and their experiences, so I went. I decided to read her book beforehand; I devoured it in under 24 hours.
The book is well-written and noticeably devoid of judgments, despite the fact this woman’s story is one of crazy family interactions, abject poverty, and child-rearing that consists of neglect and abuse. One of the many miracles in this book is that Jeannette and her three siblings grew up to be successful adults despite the irresponsible role models they had in their alcoholic father and self-centered mother.
Over and over, the children take care of themselves as well as their parents, in extreme and horrible circumstances. When their parents’ arguments were loud enough to be heard in the street, the children played in the yard, hoping to convince the gathering neighbors that nothing was wrong. The children asked their parents for basic things – stop drinking; get a job; why don’t you sell that old jewelry/ring/land so we can eat? – and got nowhere. They were much clearer on what was happening in the house than the adults were; they knew what was needed but were unable to bring about the changes themselves. They found ways to survive, but they were difficult ways, and their core needs were never met by their parents.
Despite their beginnings, all the children worked their way out of the dead-end West Virginia town they lived in and made the move to New York City. They got apartments, jobs, and educations all on their own. The only real help they had was from one another. All of them became successful professionally, except for the youngest, who had a breakdown and is apparently still in a place her sister is not comfortable talking about.
Their parents followed them to New York and continued to live the marginal, hand-to-mouth existence they always had. They slept under bridges and in abandoned buildings. They dug Christmas presents out of dumpsters. They thought nothing was wrong with their lifestyle and it was clearly a choice. While he was homeless and unemployed, their father made $950 gambling so his daughter could finish her college degree.
Jeannette and her siblings were in the awkward position of being better off than their parents and unable to help them despite a laudable desire to do so. The siblings tried in many ways, but in the end, their parents were who they were. Nothing Jeannette or the others did or said ever changed that. Even the one thing Jeannette said that affected her father drastically (“please stop drinking”) only had a temporary effect.
Jeannette Walls herself is amazing. She is positive, optimistic, and sees that her difficult childhood has given her the ability to deal well with adversity and obstacles as an adult. She knows the difference between want and need. She still marvels at some of the things she has today (like a thermostat and the ability to buy anything in the grocery store), and yet she thinks everything is – and has been – great. She has pulled the gem out of every dismal situation she has survived and made herself a crown of glory. Her message is full of hope: you too can overcome your difficulties. Life is worth living, even though it may at times be less than pleasant. We are all equal, complex, interesting, gifted, compassionate, and flawed beings. Everything is a blessing and a curse; you choose how to perceive it.
I stood in line a long time to get my book signed. When I got to the table, I complimented Jeannette on the book and her writing, and asked if it was traumatic to write. She said it was. She got the draft done in 6 weeks, but it took five more years to get honest. She said initially everything was written at a journalist’s distance and she really had to work to get to her own feelings about her childhood. I wasn’t at all surprised by her answer and it was clear she felt it was all worth the effort. Not only did she learn while she was writing the book, but the discussions she has had since with her many readers have taught her even more. It’s heartening to think that her readers daily confirm what she believes – that we are all compassionate and understanding beings, so there is nothing for us to fear or hide.