The Glass Castle
Jeannette Walls (Memoir)
Jeannette Walls’s earliest memory was when she was just three years old. She was living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town with her parents and two siblings. She was on a chair cooking hot dogs. She was wearing a pretty pink dress bought for her by her grandmother. And she was on fire. She was burned so badly that she spent six weeks in the hospital and endured a series of painful skin grafts. Yet quite unbelievably, things for Jeannette and her family would only go downhill from there. Always one step ahead of the FBI, gestapo, or Mafia (cleverly disguised as bill collectors), Jeannette’s father Rex skeddadled his family across the desert from one little mining town to the next. Dealing with bullying, squalor, hunger, a brilliant alcoholic father, and an apathetic artistic mother, this is Jeannette’s remarkable story, candidly and humorously told without fear or favor. This is her early life presented as transparently as the glass castle that her father had always promised to build.
The Glass Castle is one of those stories that if it wasn’t true, you’d scoff at the bizarre storyline and ridiculous lengths the author puts her main characters through. As I turned page after page, the one sentence I kept repeating to myself was, “How did this woman ever survive childhood?” Walls was severely burned at three (and ironically developed an unhealthy fascination with fire after that) and by the time she turned four, she not only survived being thrown out of a moving car, but handedly acquired such “basic skills” as firing her father’s pistol, throwing a knife by the blade, and shooting her mother’s bow and arrow. On top of that, she conducted experiments with toxic and hazardous waste found at the dump, nearly drowned during her swimming “lessons” with her father, hunted for perverts in the dead of night with her brother, escaped several sexual deviants (many times due to her father’s lack of good judgement), and climbed under a fence to pet a cheetah at the zoo. Growing up, Jeannette clearly had more luck than sense, but her ability to see the good in everything and her unfailing faith in her father often led to heartbreak and disappointment, but clearly made her the tough and grounded adult that she is today.
American game designer and sci-fi novelist Aaron Allston once noted that the difference between tragedy and comedy is that “tragedy is something awful happening to somebody else, while comedy is something awful happening to somebody else.” Indeed, there are parts of Jeannette’s story where you momentarily suspend the idea that this ACTUALLY happened and allow yourself to laugh at the sheer outrageousness of this family’s history (while secretly realizing that your own family and life REALLY aren’t so terribly bad). The only thing that will undeniably make you throw this book against the wall (repeatedly) are Jeannette’s insufferable parents: Rex and Rose Mary Walls. These are two people who clearly should not have been responsible for the lives of other human beings. Although their intentions MAY have been unselfish and well-intended, you just can’t get past their self-indulgent, self-destructive, self-righteous, and self-pitying behavior and how their actions caused unnecessary hardship to their situation and to the health and lives of their children. Kudos to Walls for writing a book that immerses you so totally in her story that you often find yourself yelling at the characters and their misplaced ideologies and lofty platitudes of optimism. Well done, Ms. Walls…although my wall is still cross.
In one of Jeannette’s most humiliating moments (and that’s saying something), her mother candidly told her, “Life is a drama full of tragedy and comedy. You should learn to enjoy the comedic episodes a little more.” The life of the Walls family indeed had its share of comedy and tragedy. Theirs was a family torn apart by alcohol and self-indulgence, but also held together by loyalty and love. Novelist Georgette Heyer wrote, “But it is only in epic tragedies that gloom is unrelieved. In real life tragedy and comedy are so intermingled that when one is most wretched ridiculous things happen to make one laugh in spite of oneself.” After finishing this book, I couldn’t imagine how on earth Jeannette Walls not only survived her childhood, but managed to emerge as a successful, happy, and fulfilled adult. Attribute it to grit, willpower, or sheer obstinance, but I think Jeannette realized that sometimes Mother does know best and that the only way to navigate the broken promises, failed illusions, and mounting disappointments of life is to simply just laugh.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
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