Just recently, I read a post by Swistle, one of my favorite bloggers, who was giving her opinion of the film Boyhood. One of the things she said is that the movie made her very uncomfortable in several different ways. The fourth is the one that resonated with me, since I’d just read Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle:
Fourth type of uncomfortable: Children going through child experiences: dealing with a mean kid at school, being in a car with a teenaged driver who’s not paying attention, going to a party their parents would never have let them go to if their parents had known, dealing with a kid who’s making them uncomfortable but they feel trapped, being introduced to risky/mature things by other kids, their parents saying something hurtful, overhearing grown-ups fighting, experimenting with alcohol/cigarettes/sex/drugs, dealing with painfully awkward lectures from clueless adults, having very little control over major aspects of their lives and too much control over others. I don’t like it at all. But again: I know lots of people LOVE this and read young adult fiction ON PURPOSE, so what makes me want to break things and run away is going to be CATNIP to others. (http://www.swistle.com)
This discomfort — and The Glass Castle did make me very uncomfortable — might stem mostly from difference, at least in this case. Walls’ entire memoir is made up of this kind of stuff, only often far worse, because her story is much more extreme than most (middle-class) people’s experience of childhood.
Teresa read this book back in 2010, and her excellent review gives a good sense of what it’s like. Walls’ father, Rex, was an alcoholic and a gambler, spending the family’s money before it even reached the bank. Her mother, Rosemary, stayed away from drink, but was perhaps even more dangerously addicted to excitement and chaos. The pair were radically unpredictable as parents, sometimes paying close attention to their children’s education (all four learned to read before they were five); sometimes “doing the skedaddle” to escape creditors in the middle of the night; sometimes forgetting about food, bathing, heating, or danger.
Walls was mostly not abused, though she and her siblings were horribly neglected. It’s difficult to watch the process as Walls goes from a trusting young child who goes along adventurously with her parents’ choices because it’s her version of normal, to a child (still quite young) who is disillusioned with her parents and knows she must fight for herself if she is ever to change her circumstances.
It’s not that uncommon to write a memoir about a terrible childhood. Two main things make this book stand out. The first is that Walls writes about her parents with respect and love, even though she is perfectly clear-eyed about their horrendous shortcomings. She writes especially gently about her father when sober: his big dreams and plans, his understanding of childhood needs and desires. There’s a moment when Walls is still very young, when Rex has spent all the household money and there’s nothing for Christmas gifts. Instead, he takes her outside and tells her to pick a star for her very own. Long after all the rest of the kids in town will have lost or broken their gifts, he says, you’ll still have that star. It’s a magical moment — tender and charming. But the realization comes fairly quickly that the lack of more tangible gifts is the parents’ fault, and so are the hunger, the lack of socialization, the dirt. The kids have so little control over their situation, no matter how hard they try: even their best efforts are often spoiled by the utter selfishness of their parents. Yet Walls is still able to point out her parents’ good sides, the moments that made living with them an adventure.
The other thing that makes this book stand out is related to the first: there isn’t an ounce of self-pity in this book. We see danger, abuse, neglect, hunger, fear — but Walls is calm about it all, almost detached. She doesn’t sugar-coat her childhood, to be sure, but neither does she sensationalize it or make it seem as if she was unique. She lets us, as readers, draw our own conclusions about the Rex and Rosemary style of parenting, and where it leads.
A question that arises for me as I read this is how we understand people who choose to ignore some of the basic expectations of our society: get a job, be a citizen, care for your children, be clean, live in a house. Not long ago (and also at Teresa’s urging) I read Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s book about the young man who graduated from college and headed into the Alaskan wilderness. Rex and Rosemary were also suspicious and contemptuous of mainstream culture, prompted perhaps more by addiction than by principle. Now admittedly, I’m not someone who thinks those societal expectations I mentioned are bad or vulgar or blind, and I also don’t think it’s necessarily morally superior to live counter-culturally. But how can or should we care for people who have rejected resources that are available to them, in order to live differently and apart? Does our thinking differ when they’re holding four children hostage? Walls doesn’t mention mental illness in her account. Maybe she doesn’t want to play psychologist on her parents. But maybe she doesn’t consider their choices the result of illness at all (except to the degree that addiction is illness.) Walls herself worked hard and made choices that eventually freed her from her situation and made her successful. It’s possible she’s applying that same rigor to her parents.
I can’t exactly say I enjoyed this book — it wasn’t exactly what I’d call catnip — because it was often terribly painful to read. But it’s a strong, well-written, interesting, immersive book, and I’m glad I read it. Have you read it? What did you think?