The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Glass Castle is a memoir about Walls’ turbulent childhood and how she finally escaped her family. My dominant emotional reaction throughout this book was outrage toward Walls’ parents. I just could not believe the way these people treated their children and the way they were content to live. The Walls family lived a nomadic lifestlye in the Southwest, “doing the skedaddle” whenever bill collectors caught up to them. Eventually they ended up in Welch, West Virginia, which must be the saddest place in North America. The descriptions of their houses and living conditions are really horrific: no running water, a roof that leaks so bad that one of the kids has to sleep underneath a raft to stay dry, never enough coal in the winter, and eating food fished from the garbage. The father is a drunk with illusions of grandeur, convinced he’ll strike gold or invent something amazing. The mother is a failed artist who blames her children for her failure and refuses to work or leave the dad. Her two worst moments are when she reads some self-help books and gets the idea that she should be doing what makes her happy, rather than providing for her family, and when she hides a giant Hershey bar from her starving children because she has such a sweet tooth, and cries when they find it and split it between them. The worst incidents of all were when the parents refused to believe the children when they said their grandmother had attempted to molest one of them, and when the father took the thirteen-year-old narrator to a bar with him, and told her to go in a back room with a creepy man, where she barely escaped rape. “Have I ever let you down?” Walls’ father repeatedly asks, especially when he’s pressuring Walls to give him her hard-earned babysitting money for “beer and cigarettes.” YES! I yelled out loud in my car, talking back to the audiobook as if the jerk could hear me.
Attached to my emotion of outrage was my continual surprise at the fact that Walls herself expressed so little anger toward her parents throughout the narrative. In fact, her dominant feeling toward her parents, especially in the first half of the book, is a childlike wonder at the way they made life seem like a great adventure, even when the “adventure” was nothing more than a trip from living in one shithole to living in another shithole.
The central question of this book is: is it better to be interesting or to be secure? The Walls parents chose interesting every time; the highest praise they give the father at the conclusion is that life with him was never boring. Walls doesn’t glorify or vilify this choice; she shows both the beauty of their lifestyle and the many horrific consequences of it. She shows incredible restraint in the way she discusses events that must have been very painful and traumatizing. Walls must be an amazing and forgiving human being to be able to show the strength and creativity of two people who were obviously horrible parents, and to capture the innocent trust she had in them at one time. I couldn’t help but admire her.
I do plan on becoming a parent in the near-but-not-too-near future, and this book makes me feel a lot less anxious about that. No matter what, I will be a better parent than Rex and Rose Mary Walls. I hope that when I’m feeling judged or inadequate as a parent, for silly yuppie reasons like not feeding my children all organic food or letting them watch too much TV, I remember this book and feel good about the fact that I’m not an unemployed, nomadic, deluded, manipulative, selfish drunk who literally steals food and money from my own starving children. I’ll remember how resilient the Walls children were and remind myself that if Walls could look back fondly on her childhood and write a bestselling book after enduring starvation, neglect, and abuse, then surely my children will be ok, even if I have to send them to daycare.