The Glass Castle

glass castleJust 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?

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16 Responses to The Glass Castle

  1. Richard Gilbert says:

    I have read The Glass Castle many times because I have taught it, and your review is excellent. As you note, it can be hard to read about the neglect unto abuse, and Walls’s lack of overt reflection as an adult is one reason the literary establishment has been cool toward this huge bestseller. For instance, Francine Prose in the New York Times Book Review noted how well done it is and then sniffed, “But it’s not art.” No one in the literary world wants the “best” memoir to be the one that simply tells the most harrowing story. But as you note, Walls’s story is thoughtfully constructed, and it implicitly does contain reflection—in its careful shaping of all aspects of the story, including the author’s view toward her parents. Interestingly, some memoirists get away with lack of overt reflection and some don’t.

    As for Into the Wild, it is a true masterpiece in my estimation!

    • Jenny says:

      One of the things I wondered about, though I didn’t mention it in my review, was what Walls thought the effects of her childhood were on her and her siblings as adults. She mentions feeling ashamed of her childhood until she writes the memoir, but that’s all. I read A Girl Called Zippy, and the lack of reflection bothered me — but this memoir was far more “artful,” and the reflection seemed built in, somehow, as you say. Still, some pieces do seem missing.

  2. Teresa says:

    I’m glad you liked this (in an appreciative way, not an enjoyment way). I’ve now read it twice, once on audio and once in print, and it impressed me the second time. Her narration is just so clear-eyed without obviously directing the reader toward particular feelings. I do think there’s a lot of deliberation in the way she shapes the story. (And I think Francine Prose is wrong to say it’s not art. There’s a lot of art in staying out of the way like that. It would probably have been much easier to editorialize.)

    As for the question of people who choose to live counter-culturally, my feelings definitely change when children are involved and those children aren’t being properly fed, clothed, and educated. The question of mental illness is interesting in this case. I wouldn’t want to assume that anyone who chooses to live differently is mentally ill–that seems dangerous to me. But when intelligent people, like Walls’s parents, consistently make choices that run counter to their own well-being, you have to wonder what’s really behind it and whether there’s a way to help them make better choices.

    • Richard Gilbert says:

      I think experts might say they had personality disorders. Her father was an alcoholic, and Walls shows perhaps the seeds of that in his childhood sexual abuse or at least extreme sexual imposition, from family members including or especially his mother. Walls’s mother is harder to peg but certainly fits the layman’s definition of an extreme narcissist. Her parents were brilliant and artistic and not “crazy,” I’m sure, in the clinical sense.

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t mean to imply that anyone who lives counter-culturally is mentally ill, by any stretch of the imagination, but when we read about these extremes — Chris Mccandless or Rosemary Walls — it’s hard not to wonder. There’s a continuum of acceptance of societal norms, and of subcultures within society, and it’s interesting to consider how people fit in, or don’t, especially today when so many niches exist.

  3. whatsheread says:

    This one has been on my shelves to read for ages. I think this one, like so many other negative childhood experience books, become catnip or at least enticing to read because it is a chance to experience such situations safely. That and the fact that everyone reacts differently to such situations, so one person’s experiences – either real or fictional – will differ from someone else’s. It is the human experience to observe and learn, and such painful situations all readers to do just that.

    • Jenny says:

      I totally agree with you. That’s the “train wreck” approach, and there are some ethical problems with that. Reading about a fictional bad childhood is one thing, but a real one… I want to learn more about people, and I did, here, but I don’t want to be prurient either.

  4. litlove says:

    Excellent review, Jenny. I read this several years back and found it disquieting because it felt to me like the most amusing book about child abuse that I would probably ever read. It’s the scene with the mother hiding her chocolate bar under the bedclothes so her kids don’t see it that really got to me. I also read an intriguing interview with Jeannette Walls in which she said she didn’t think that her upbringing had been that bad until the reviews of the book came out, and then she reread her own memoir with slightly altered eyes, and realised some of what happened was not as okay as she’d thought.

    The thing is, the underlying tone of this memoir made me think of a fairy tale. Dreadful things happen to the kids but everyone is brave and adventurous and turns out all right in the end. The fairy tale critic, Jack Zipes maintains that fairy tales are as much for the parents as the children, a way of making them feel better about the stuff they may have done to their kids. And that’s the part of the book I struggle with – the thought of all the people who might read this and think: see, what I did wasn’t so bad after all. I’m not at all comfortable with feeling that any level of neglect or abuse might not be so very important. Because the kids that come through okay are okay, we don’t have to worry about them. It’s the ones who don’t make it through and feel the inevitable shame about their sufferings that I fear for. And maybe it’s better literature when we’re allowed to judge for ourselves, and an easier read. I get that. But I still felt squirmy at times with my own ethical concerns, whilst admiring Walls’ memoir very much indeed.

    • Jenny says:

      I can see those concerns. Walls does make it clear that not all the kids were okay — Maureen had ongoing problems, for instance — but it was enough of an adventure, with enough self-sufficiency wrapped up in it, to make the fairy-tale nature of it a danger. I would say that she does touch at least lightly on the fact that her experience with poverty and hunger was not unique, and that other kids in the mining town in West Virginia were not lucky enough to come out okay. She doesn’t analyze that, though — maybe those were the kids who got eaten by the witch, while she and her siblings were the smart ones. It’s not like that in real life.

  5. Christy says:

    I re-read this last year. One of the reasons I like it is because of how the siblings help each other out – well at least the older three, as the youngest finds her own path to safety as a child, though had a harder time as an adult, as I recall. I like your comment above about it being like a fairy tale or one of those fantasy stories where the children are left without responsible adults around and must eventually rescue themselves.

    • Jenny says:

      As Litlove points out, the fairy tale trope is problematic, because kids in fairy tales don’t starve or get abused (well, sometimes they have low points in a witch’s cage, but you see what I mean.) They come out on top. Not all kids in this situation do. It’s a problem to present the idea that we can leave kids in this kind of poverty and they’ll just magically rescue themselves, or each other. Lots don’t.

      • Christy says:

        I get that it’s problematic. I was just saying that I liked the comparison because it explains the appeal. I can’t deny that I’m immune the appeal of Walls’ story, but at the same time, I’m aware enough to know that kids often can’t rescue themselves from those situations.

  6. Jeane says:

    I read this book eight years ago, and still remember how much it astonished me. That someone would choose to live like that. I was outraged that the children were dirty and starving, and shocked that later when the children had grown and lived on their own, their own parents were homeless in the streets and wouldn’t accept help. I don’t understand it, and I suppose that’s why it fascinates me to read about.

    • Jenny says:

      It is fascinating — and I think important to remember that for most people in this situation, it’s not a choice. It was certainly not a choice for the kids! And yes, outrage was a strong feeling for me, reading it, too.

  7. Anne Simonot says:

    I devoured this book, while at the same time feeling angry and horrified by her feckless, selfish parents. It resonated with me in many ways; not the least of which was feeling like my ex-husband or one of his siblings should write a memoir. So much of their childhood felt like it could have formed part of Walls’ book, and vice versa. I have recommended this book to a lot of people as an un-put-downable read, even if it does make us angry & uncomfortable.

  8. Pingback: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (re-read) | A Good Stopping Point

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