Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Glass Castle

If there were ever two parents who should have beat themselves up about being unfit, it was Rex and Rose Mary Walls. I'm about 3/4 of the way through reading "The Glass Castle" by their daughter Jeannette Walls, a NYC journalist. It is a memoir that details her childhood growing up with two parents who were flighty, irresponsible, and downright dangerous to their children. Walls doesn't really go out of her way to portray her life that way, though; she simply speaks the truth and lets the reader decide.

It is amazing to me, not only that she survived her reckless childhood but that she has any positive feelings about her parents at all. They were smart people, both of them, but they had no idea how to bring up children or how to do more than simply survive from day to day.

The Walls patriarch, Rex, was an alcoholic (I don't know if he's still alive, because I haven't finished the book yet) who was prone to stealing and cajoling money from his wife and from his children (when they were left in charge). He always had grand schemes for money-making, but they usually dissolved into his next beer. During their time in Welch, WV, he planned to build the Glass Castle, a grand home he had planned which would run on alternative energy sources. His kids got started digging the foundation, because he was always off somewhere drinking or carousing. When they had dug the foundation, he told them it would be awhile before they could afford the concrete, so they were to toss the garbage in there for now. (He didn't pay the bill to have their trash collected, so they started their own landfill in the back yard). This garbage pit resulted in much bullying from other kids they went to school with.

The mother, Rose Mary, obviously had some signs of mental illness. She was by turns both depressive and manic, sometimes spending her time painting instead of taking care of her children, working, or teaching (which she was certified to do). In fact, the story of Walls' childhood begins when she catches on fire while cooking herself hot dogs (unsupervised, of course) at the age of 3. She ends up in the hospital getting skin grafts and fluids, but before she is completely healed, her parents sneak her out of the hospital and "do the skeedaddle" out of state. I don't know any mother who could imagine seeing such an event as "adventurous" or something that would "toughen" the kids up.

It wasn't unusual for Walls and her siblings to eat out of the Dumpster or pick other kids' lunches out of the trash when they had been discarded. It was a treat when they had real food or had water, electricity, any of the creature comforts we all take for granted.

There are times I have to put the book down and stop. It all becomes too much, and I find myself really upset. It's impossible for me to put all of the details here, but that should give you a taste of what this memoir is about.

It's an important book, if only to prove to those who have suffered humble beginnings, setbacks, or failures that there is always hope. Walls overcame such horrible circumstances that it is amazing she survived, much less ended up working for major news agencies such as MSNBC. I find her writing to be smooth, familiar, and warm. The way she tells her tale is matter-of-fact, not whiny. I like a memoir like that. She doesn't want us to feel sorry for her, but she does want to tell us about what shaped her.

If you like, you can watch a video of the author and her mother talking about the book and about her mother's paintings here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/mpd/permalink/m233QKFTE79AHO

Enjoy - D


Akelamalu said...

OMG how totally irresponsible as parents! I hadn't heard of this book, thanks for the link.

Daryl said...

There are a lot of this sort of biographies out ... it makes me wonder how these authors survived ... and where the heck Child Protection Services were ... wait what am I asking .. nothing has changed, kids are still being mistreated and no one does a thing about it ...


Jay said...

I've read a couple of these 'Tragic Life Stories' as they are now designated at one of our local book stores, and I won't read any more. I know it goes on, and I marvel at the ability of children to survive abuse and neglect on the grand scale, but it will not enrich my life to read more, it will only stress me unreasonably.

It's good to hear that Walls' tone is not whiny, because far too many of them are, and sadly, I fear that this new genre of biography is beginning to feed the voyeuristic tendencies of the bored middle classes.

I don't include you in that description, by the way, I know you to be a thoughtful, well-balanced person. But there are some who wallow. :(

RiverPoet said...

Akela - Yes, her parents were really smart people but very, very flighty. They never really grew up themselves.

Daryl - You're right. Just look at some of the news stories... One woman here in the DC area killed all 4 of her girls, and it went unnoticed for nearly 5 months. The bodies were too badly decomposed to tell exactly how they died. The mother is schizophrenic and shouldn't have had those kids without constant supervision.

Jay - I know what you mean. One can only read so much of this stuff. I found that Walls thought it was a big adventure, as a kid, until she got old enough to know better. And she speaks with such love about her parents and siblings. It's really inspiring.

Peace - D

Lavinia said...

I can't stomach books like this. More and more I find I have to shy away from the unpleasant, whether on the news or whatever....its too upsetting and if affects me negatively. Having said that, I do applaud the author for having pulled herself out of her early circumstances and dramatically improved her life. A happy ending !