The Glass Castle is a memoir of journalist Jeannette Walls’ childhood. We begin with the three-year-old Jeannette boiling hot dogs on the stove in her family’s trailer and setting her tutu on fire – an incident that saw her stuck in hospital getting skin grafts until her dad decided to check her out ‘Rex Walls style’ on the grounds that hospitals were for the enfeebled and Jeannette wasn’t that.
From the early days where the family travelled through desert mining towns, sleeping in cardboard boxes and doing ‘the skedaddle’ in the middle of the night due to the latest trouble her wild, charismatic father had gotten himself into, to the author’s adolescent years without indoor plumbing or heating in a ramshackle ‘house’ in dreary Welch, West Virginia, no one could say that the Walls children had a conventional childhood. But this is no misery lit memoir. In fact, there’s no sentimentality about Jeannette’s portrayal of her upbringing at all – she is strikingly matter of fact.
When the family were living in Welch, the wiring in the house was so bad that, on the rare occasions that the electricity bill had been paid, the Wells kids would get severe shocks in the kitchen that they affectionately called “the loose-juice room”. Jeannette recalls: “If we got a shock, we’d announce it to everyone else, sort of like giving a weather report. ‘Big jolt from touching the stove today,’ we’d say. ‘Wear extra rags’”. That’s about as close as the Wells kids get to complaining. I’m serious.
When Jeannette’s buck teeth make her a target for bullies and her mother dismisses the idea of braces, Jeannette makes her own braces out of a coat-hanger, rubber bands and a sanitary pad – and they seem to work. When she moves to a rough New York neighbourhood where she keeps getting mugged, she is completely unfazed, so accustomed is she to fighting, often physically, for survival. “Good job we raised you kids to be tough,” her dad might have said, as he does elsewhere in the book, and it is undeniable that it was often a useful lesson.
When I finished The Glass Castle, the first thing I did was seek out interviews with the author. In the book, she gives surprisingly little away about her feelings and I was curious. In an interview with gothamist.com she says of her first draft of the book that it “was too distanced; I was writing it as a journalist. It wasn’t emotionally raw enough”. I found this interesting because I’d hardly describe the final version as raw or emotional – and for me this was one of its strengths.
Jeannette says she “made a conscious decision not to extrapolate or comment on the events … when something is that complex, it’s reductive to sit there and try to describe it” and I couldn’t agree more. There’s so much raw material in this book that makes you gasp or tear up or smile that you really don’t need to be shunted around by the author. No one needs to try and make you feel anything or any way about the book. Jeannette says “I hope you wouldn’t be able to come away from it without feeling one thing or another, but that’s entirely up to you; it’s sort of a Rorschach test.”
Certainly you can imagine her parents polarising reader opinion. As the author herself says “Some people think my parents are absolute monsters and should’ve had their children taken away from them. Some think they were these great free-spirited creatures who had a lot of wisdom that a lot of parents today don’t.” As for me? I’m somewhere in the middle, able to appreciate the adventures the kids had but well aware that I wouldn’t have wanted them at the expense of eating meals or being able to have a wash before school.
More depressing than the tales of the family’s rootless days in the desert when the kids are young and their parents are still their heroes (even as they sling the family cat from a moving car on the grounds that he wasn’t getting into the spirit of the ‘adventure’) are the days when they return to Rex Walls’ childhood home of Welch. Here, icicles hang from the kitchen ceiling and one unwise step could see the floor fall through; here the kids root around in the rubbish for a school lunch or simply hide in the bathroom to avoid the embarrassment of being seen with no food; here there are a stream of physical and mental battles, not least with the other local kids.
Amidst the demon hunting expeditions with her father, amidst the planning for the beautiful glass castle he was to build, amidst the dancing, the singing, the bits that Jeannette refers to as a ‘magical, surreal childhood where rules don’t apply’, are moments of real desolation. Not eating for days as your mum scoffs a secret supply of chocolate, having to fend off paedophiles with an axe because your parents refuse to close the doors of the house at night (even after the paedophile invasion), having to sleep under a tarpaulin and later a rubber dinghy to stop the winter rain falling onto your bed at night – these things would be tough on any adult, let alone a child.
Then again, if you judge parenting performance by results, you’d have to admit that Rex and Rose Mary Walls must have done something right. Lori is a successful illustrator, Jeannette a journalist and author, Brian a policeman – only the youngest, Maureen, seemed to struggle with getting her life into shape. You could imagine the outcome being far, far worse. When quizzed on her feelings about the past Jeannette says: “One of the reasons I could write [the book] now is because I am happy with where I am. Ten or fifteen years ago, I was very confused about my feelings toward my mother and my father, and myself”.
The effects, to some extent, have been hard to shake off. She recalls: “When I left home and got married to my first husband, I was overcompensating to get the absolute opposite of what my father had been. There was no way I was gonna hook up with a handsome, manipulative SOB. I got this man who was so risk averse, he never got a driver’s license.” Perhaps this safe choice contributed to the author’s healing. She eventually ended her first marriage (around a year after her father’s death) and married her now-husband, the writer John Taylor, who, she says, was the person who encouraged her to write The Glass Castle.
Walls talks about not wanting or needing to be a victim, and you can see that in her. She has no desire for pity and holds nothing against her parents, accepting her mum as the child she always was (‘When she met my niece, her granddaughter, for the first time, she wasn’t that interested. It’s not a selfishness, it’s an egocentric-ness; there’s a difference’) and loving her father for the things he did give her. When asked in another interview: “Would your father have ever been capable of building the glass castle?” Jeannette replies “As far as I’m concerned, he did build it. It wasn’t a physical structure, but rather a dream: the hope of a better life.” I thought that was rather beautiful, and, when you look at the Walls children’s adult lives, you can see the truth of it.
Jeannette says “I think people are only capable of giving what they know” and I believe in that very much. In different times maybe we would have called Rose Mary Walls amazing – she could have been a strong pioneer woman or a formidable revolutionary. In modern times we see her as crazy – to choose to be homeless when you could live in comfort is beyond the comprehension of most. But, that is who Rose Mary Walls is. Jeannette says: ‘Somebody asked me, is she bipolar? I honestly don’t know. Maybe, it might be, sometimes these psychological disorders, they’re what make people great. You know, Peter the Great, I’m sure that he probably could’ve used medication.’ Well quite.
But returning to the subject of mums, because this book had me ruminating on the nature of motherhood… Lovely Mum bought me this book – and I wonder whether it brought my Nan to mind when she read it. Lovely Mum is very much a Jeannette – a highly efficient, no nonsense lady who appreciates her creature comforts. Jeannette’s parents, meanwhile, remind me of the two similarly wild sides of my Nan. The dad’s fantastical stories (which were probably grounded somewhere in the truth, knowing him), the mum’s whimsical moods and thirst for adventure – she was just like that. Like Jeannette’s parents she treated me like an adult even when I was quite a young child. She would offhand tell you things like “your brother is nicer than you – that’s just his nature” or “your parents are career people, they never should have had children” – but the wonderful thing that this book captures is the truth behind the bald statements.
You could look at Rose Mary’s decision not to sell the diamond ring her kids found even when they were literally starving and freezing and think she was a terrible mother (and I’m not denying that that is indeed poor mothering). You could take all the blunt things she said about her daughter, like: “no one expected you to amount to much. Lori was the smart one, Maureen the pretty one, and Brian the brave one. You never had much going for you except that you always worked hard” and say she was an unkind mother. But this book goes deeper than that. Without passing judgement, it attempts to give you the whole person.
Jeannette’s dad is both an alcoholic nightmare and a loveable, charismatic genius. Her mother is a selfish, childish handful but also a free-spirited, loving sophisticate. My Nan was an unpredictable, sometimes spiteful creature but also one of the most interesting, wonderful women I have ever met. Ten years after her death, I still miss her all the time. Like Rose Mary, who chose to be homeless rather than do the conventional thing, my Nan only ever slept on the floor, insisting that beds were bad for your back. She gave me my first cigarette, told me all the family secrets and probably told me a lot of fibs. But, as people like Rex, Rose Mary and my Nan remind us, love isn’t a checklist of things that people must do – it doesn’t require anything. It can only be given and when it is returned it is not always in a form we like or recognise – but that’s just tough luck.
Jeannette says “Luck is the hand you’re dealt…and life is the way you play it.” I think that’s very true. She says: “in many ways I was incredibly lucky because I did feel loved and my parents both put a huge emphasis on education and self-esteem”, and you can see that all the way through the book. Because the Wells kids were never given boundaries, they were never told they couldn’t achieve certain things – and in fact they almost all ended up overachieving. So is the Walls method a good blueprint for parenting?
Would I rather have my Nan as my mum – inviting random tramps home to Christmas dinner, telling me a variety of half-true stories about my absent father and struggling to make ends meet? Or would I pick my own fiercely stable mum, organised in all aspects and always ready to be the parent? I’ll stick with my own hand, no doubt.
But I also look at the difference between my mum and me. She is one of the toughest people I know when it comes down to crunch time. When she got cancer, she squashed my blubbering that I was going to come home from university with a ‘don’t be ridiculous’. She shrugs off the memory of being the only one of her peers to grow up in a single parent household. “I just used to tell people my dad was dead.” When my dad lost his job she didn’t even seem to flinch – she just carried on – and that’s a running theme in this book. Whatever happens to Jeannette she just dusts herself off and carries on.
No doubt it was her lack of self-pity that helped her to become the successful journalist and author she is today. She says in the book that, growing up, she loved stories of people battling against the odds – survival stories. I am the same – and hers is one of the best, most riveting and most moving that I have ever read. Among the many wonderful aspects of The Glass Castle, the best is that there are no heroes and no villains among the characters – just real people all playing the hands they were given in the best way they know how, however badly that turns out.
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To read/watch the full interviews with Jeannette Walls visit: