When Jeannette Walls was 3 years old, she was hospitalized and given skin grafts after burning herself making hot dogs while her mother was happily painting in another room. Not long after her parents took her out of the hospital, she was home and hungry and got right back on the chair by the stove to make herself some hot dogs. This is one of the less shocking incidents in The Glass Castle, Walls’s memoir about her childhood and early adulthood.
Walls’s parents are dreamers. Her father, Rex, dreams of taking down the unions, coming up with new and better ways of mining gold, and building a castle made entirely of glass. Her mother, Rosemary, dreams of becoming a great artist. Both of them are intelligent and, by all appearances, talented and bold enough to actually achieve something in their chosen fields. But they lack any sort of discipline, and this lack not only holds them back from achieving their dreams, but also prevents them from giving their children anything approaching a stable, secure life.
Rex was an alcoholic and a gambler; given the opportunity, he would gamble or drink away any money his wife or children earned almost as soon as they earned it. Rosemary, on the other hand, never drank anything stronger than tea. Her drugs of choice were chaos and excitement—or sugar, as her children learned when they found her eating a hidden candy bar when there was not a morsel of food in the house and no money to buy more. Both of the Walls parents lived almost entirely in the present moment, and they seemed to think of nothing much but their own momentary comfort.
The Walls family spent a lot of time in Jeannette’s early years on the road, traveling from one tiny western town to another, “doing the skedaddle” as soon as the situation got hairy because of bill collectors or, in one instance, a shootout involving the Walls children and a neighborhood boy who attempted to rape Jeannette. Wherever they lived, the four Walls children were largely left to fend for themselves and sometimes ended up providing for their parents out of their own meager savings. Their parents impressed upon them the importance of book learning almost from the start, and all four learned to read early. But they learned basic life skills only through hard experience.
As a child, Jeannette bought into her parents’ belief that life should be an adventure, and so the story feels almost like an adventure in the early chapters. Readers can see the magic of having a father give you a star for Christmas instead of a wrapped gift under a tree. And were it not for the parents’ selfishness and general lack of responsibility for their offspring, much of their outlook could be seen as charmingly nonconformist. But even as Walls is able to pick out the sweet moments, when she felt loved and inspired, she does not fail to share the moments of disappointment and fear that came with this life. As she gets older and more aware of how different her life could be, the magical moments get fewer and farther between and the frustration and heartache increase.
One of the most impressive things about this memoir is Walls’s ability to describe the events of her life and her feelings about those happenings without a lot of editiorializing and judgment against her parents. She takes an almost detached approach, merely recording what happened and how she felt about it at the time, with little mention of how she feels now.
What I liked about this approach is that it never feels like Walls has an axe to grind. She’s not trying to get back at her parents for making her life so hard, nor is she trying to make excuses for them. She doesn’t appear to be playing the “poor me” card or trying to win readers’ sympathy for herself. She doesn’t appear to be making a point about the welfare system or the dangers of alcohol. Instead, she seems merely to be trying to own her story, to acknowledge her identity as a woman who had this childhood. As a reader, I was horrified by what I read; the neglect and abuse the Walls children experienced is nothing short of shocking. But I think I would have been less angry if Walls herself had more openly expressed anger. I was infuriated by the situation, not pushed into fury by the author’s own anger.
I must confess, though, that I wonder about the value of these kinds of memoirs for readers. I hate to say I enjoyed this book, because enjoyment is the wrong word, but I was immersed in the story from start to finish. It’s well crafted, interesting, and full of shocks and surprises. And in the end, seeing how Walls and her siblings forge their own paths is outright inspiring. But does my appreciation of this book and books like it arise from a prurient interest in watching a train wreck as it occurs or from a desire to understand others and how others live? Or perhaps the prurient interest is the doorway leading to some form of understanding?