The Glass Castle

My book group met today to discuss Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle.  I have this idea about myself that I don’t like horrible-childhood memoirs, but I’ve read two of them recently and liked them both (this one and Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, although Diski’s book is a travel book as well as a memoir).  Perhaps I need to revise my opinion?  I don’t like the idea of these memoirs, but the secret truth might be that I really do enjoy reading about other people’s difficult lives.

Walls’s book is a fantastic read.  She is a good writer who knows how to tell a story, and I had trouble putting the book down.  The “stars” of her story are her parents, both of them highly intelligent, capable, imaginative people who never should have had children, although they wound up having four of them.  The father has a wealth of knowledge and a genius for mechanical things, but he’s also an alcoholic and can’t seem to hold down a job for very long.  Soon enough he is stealing money from the family to spend at the bar.  The mother is a painter.  She has a teacing license, which she uses occasionally, but she really wants to devote her time to her art — and she believes she has a right to do this, no matter what is going on in the family.

Walls spends her early years moving from place to place, but the family eventually settles for a while in Phoenix, and later in West Virginia.  It’s the West Virginia part of the story that’s the most harrowing.  Here they buy a place that might charitably be called a shack, which slowly deteriorates from very bad to much worse.  It’s tiny, the roof leaks, they only occasionally have electricity, and their toilet is a hole in the ground.  Walls tries to improve the place by painting it bright yellow, but she can’t reach the whole house and no one will help her out, so she ends up making everything look worse.  The stairs to the front door fall apart until they can no longer use them and have to enter the house through a window.

I could go on and on with the harsh details — I haven’t mentioned any of the worst ones — but what is so memorable about this family is that the parents seem completely unbothered by all the troubles.  The mother transforms all their problems into opportunities for adventure or for learning experiences or for character-building.  She is supremely self-absorbed, angry when she is pulled away from her art.  The father escapes partly by dreaming impossible dreams about the future (the book’s title refers to the castle he plans to build for the family), but mostly through drinking.  Neither of them are able or willing to face up to and take responsibility for their children’s suffering.

It’s easy to get angry at these parents, but they evoke a more complicated response.  They both, especially the mother, have a free-spiritedness about them that is admirable, and they are counter-cultural in all kinds of good ways — they are anti-consumerist, they value creativity and art, they are willing to be brave and take risks, and they raise very smart, creative, and talented children who are years ahead of their classmates (whenever they are in school to actually have classmates).  They are happy living on very little, being squatters in an abandoned building in New York City, for example, finding all they need from dumpsters.  I, at least, admire people who can happily live on the margins of society in this way.  They spend a good chunk of their lives homeless, but it’s by choice — they have the skills and resources to live solidly middle-class lives if they wanted, but they don’t care about how the middle class lives.

But my God, if people want to live this way, they shouldn’t have children!  It’s not just that the children led unconventional lives — which would be difficult enough but not uncommon or unbearable — but their lives and health were regularly in danger.

Walls sticks to fast-paced story-telling and rarely stops to reflect on her experience.  I understand why she has done this — it makes for a tense and exciting reading experience and it allows the story to speak for itself, making it even more gut-wrenchingly powerful.  I did want to see some more reflection, though, if only because I’m fascinated by how people process their childhood experiences and integrate them into their adult selves.  What I liked about Jenny Diski’s suffering-childhood memoir was the way she told the childhood story but also described how she’s dealt with it (or failed to deal with it) as an adult.  But this is asking Walls to have written an entirely different book than what she wrote.  Actually, it strikes me as possible for Walls to write a second book on the subject, this time telling how her adult self has dealt with this childhood legacy.

I also can’t help but wonder if Walls feels that she has exploited her family’s eccentricities and her siblings’ suffering for her own gain.  I’m not criticizing Walls for telling her story; it’s just that I felt odd at times reading about her harsh life with a certain amount of enjoyment, and it’s strange to sit around a table with solidly middle-class friends chatting  pleasantly about just how awful those poor people had it.

But, on the other hand, I’m glad that Walls has found success and made what is probably a fortune on her book, after all she experienced, and I’m glad for the opportunity to think a little with friends about parenting and childhood suffering and materialism and free-thinking.  Maybe I won’t become a fan of childhood memoirs, but I should recognize that there are very good ones out there.

19 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

19 responses to “The Glass Castle

  1. I am not willing to write my horrible childhood memoirs until my parents and siblings have passed away. That should be several decades from now.

    This post struck a note, because last night we were discussing nostalgic feelings. I have a few, but there are many other things I would rather leave in the past.

  2. maryb

    Hi, I’m one of your regular readers who never comments. I too unexpectedly liked this book a lot. I was prepared to dislike it. I was surprised by how much I liked it.

    What really struck me was how she was able to write this story so non-judgmentally, which I think is difficult in a memoir. She just told the story and let her readers decide what they thought about it. So, like you, I saw the parents in shades of gray and I had both anger at and sympathy for them. But, yes, they should NEVER have had kids!

    Anyway, love your blog. Keep up the good work.

  3. This was an incredibly moving book. I read it a couple of years ago and can still remember a lot of the book.

  4. I agree that this was an excellent book and extremely well-written. I also remember “reading about her harsh life with a certain amount of enjoyment” and feeling somewhat uncomfortable about that.

  5. Oh I just have to read this. I think I will substitute it for Bad Blood this weekend and get started. As you say, the parallels between de Lempicke and Walls’ mother are going to be interesting to follow up, although de Lempicke painted in order that the family should live in luxury (well, so she should, and of course that meant her dependents could as well). Wonderful review again, Dorothy. And I must just add that I think there is a big difference between this kind of literary book and a misery memoir about a child struggling against abusive foster mothers, etc. Literature has always been defined by its ability to write exquisitely and ambiguously about the worst of life, whilst some misery memoirs are sentimental wallowings, designed to make people cry. Well, it looks like a big difference to me, though I guess others might think not.

  6. You know I don’t think I read these sorts of books much either, but I agree this was an excellent read. It’s almost amazing that she grew up to be not only an adult able to function normally in society but a success as well. I still have vivid memories of reading this–that house you mention and when her father ‘taught’ her to swim by throwing her into the water. It makes you wonder about people who do choose to be homeless (I realize not everyone has a choice, but some people prefer to live on the streets)–what makes leading a ‘normal’ life so unbearable for some people? Imagine being an adult and living on your own and seeing your parents digging in dumpsters–how do you deal with something like that. I still need to read Jenny Diski, too.

  7. Thanks for your review Dorothy. You make me want to read Walls’ book, even though I usually steer clear of non-fiction.

  8. Great review, Dorothy! I read this a few years ago for my book club and couldn’t put it down, yet found it very disturbing.

  9. I think part of the problem with horrible childhood memoirs is how much they flooded the market for awhile, so many exploiting, self-indulgent ones taking away from the ones done well, like this one sounds it is.
    That said, while I wrote a memoir (not a horrible childhood one, but still) for my MFA, and had great support for several of the chapters (most of the Vietnam-related ones) I realized I would never, ever submit for publication until after my parents had passed, because it did feel, well, just wrong, somehow…

  10. I agree with Courtney, it seemed that for a while there all memoirs were of ugly childhoods. And, unfortunately I read a lot of them so I kind of got tired of memoirs. I’ve slowly gotten back to them and this one is at the top of my list.

  11. verbivore

    I enjoyed this book as well, despite my initial misgivings. The scene that got me actually angry at her parents, and it’s strange because there were several which could have done the job just fine, was when the mother is hiding in her bed (or under a blanket on the couch, I can’t remember) eating a bar of chocolate when her children are starving. I was appalled.

    Like you, I was curious at how much distance Walls kept from the story. I agree it made the reader experience smooth, but I also wanted a bit more analysis.

  12. Bikkuri — that’s a really hard decision, whether to write about living people or not. I don’t know how all of Walls’s family feels, but I heard her mother didn’t mind about the book at all (but the fact that her mother doesn’t mind is a problem in and of itself, since she’s not exactly a saint in the story).

    Maryb — thank you! And thank you so much for commenting! It’s nice to hear from new commentors now and then. Yes, the non-judgmental tone must have been hard to achieve. I can only imagine how much emotion she went through just recalling all the details. It really does let you make up your own mind.

    Marg — you’re right; it’s a very moving book, and it makes you feel a whole range of emotions, not just simple anger or sadness.

    Charlotte — isn’t that an odd dynamic? That we can enjoy reading about someone else’s suffering, and yet we don’t think of it as an entirely reprehensible thing to do. In fact, we do it all the time. Perhaps it’s the feeling that we’re learning something along the way that makes it okay?

    Litlove — I just saw your comment that you are enjoying the book, and I’m very glad to hear it. I can’t wait for your review! And I see your distinction between Walls’s book and the worst of the misery memoirs — as you know now, Walls doesn’t do any sentimentalizing at all, which makes her story even more powerful.

    Danielle — it IS amazing that Walls is a functioning adult. Someone in the book group mentioned that Walls has never been in therapy, which makes it even more amazing. The book really does leave you with some vivid memories — for me, it’s the image of everyone crawling into the house through the window. I admire people who refuse to be a part of the mainstream (unless they do a terrible job raising children …), but it is hard to understand the mindset sometimes.

    Jess — Walls’s book reads very much like a novel, although the fact that it’s all true makes it even more compelling than it would be if it were a novel. I think you’d like it!

    JoAnn — thank you! It’s a great book group book, isn’t it? Lots to discuss.

    Courtney — you’re right about having too many of these memoirs; it makes it easy to lump them all together and then dismiss them. I’m guilty of that myself, definitely. But some of them really are great! That’s a very hard decision about what to publish when; it seems like you have a clear idea of how to handle it, which is good.

    Iliana — this is a good book to return to the genre with! I can see that one might overdo it with them, but also that some are worth returning to.

    Verbivore — yes, I found the passages dealing with hunger really hard to deal with too. I mean, you can deny your kids some things without it being child abuse, but to deny them food? When you have it yourself? I’m wondering now whether the analysis would have added to the book or detracted from it. I’m wondering this because I wasn’t very impressed with the way Walls talked about the book in an interview I saw, and I’m afraid of finding her written analysis disappointing.

  13. Thanks for the review. I think what makes The Glass Castle so poignant is the resilience of the children and the loyalty and love they have for each other. I’ve found a video of JW and her mother talking about the book, and had posted it at the end of my review. You and your readers might be interested to look at it.

  14. I had very mixed feelings while reading this book. It was, of course, a real page-turner. I was waiting for Walls to be the only child who came out alive, or something, from all that neglect. And, I too, had the feeling that on a certain level, I respected the parents (except for the father’s alcoholism), but that no one who lives that way ought to have kids. However, I felt she wasn’t really sure what she wanted this book to be. Was she angry at her parents (she was, but there were times when she almost seemed to be saying, “Yes, I’m angry. Look at all these horrible things they did. But, you, reader, are not allowed to be angry, because look how wonderful they really were)? Was she proud to have survived such an upbringing? And she was a bit smug in relating how easily she and her siblings seemed to be able to “make it” in New York, after growing up the way they did, when countless numbers of others don’t (but, dammit, I was also fascinated by that). Overall, though, I thought it was much better than most “look-at-me-I-had-a-horrible-childhood-and-am-now-dumping-it-on-you” memoir, which shows that, despite my protestations to the contrary, I have more than a fleeting acquaintance with the genre.

  15. I have the book on a shelf somewhere and have every intention of reading it one of these days. Perhaps one of the things that makes horrible childhood memoirs so appealing is their voyeuristic feel. You get to see how someone else was brought and fell better about your own childhood that wasn’t have as bad. And even though it sounds like Walls doesn’t do much in the way of reflecting, maybe writing the book in the first place was one way for her to exercise the demons of her childhood.

  16. I read this a little over a year ago and enjoyed it. I had much the same feeling as you regarding the parents putting the children into dangerous situations. However, one thing that bothered me about the book itself is the fact that the author seemed to recall events in minute detail that happened when she was 2 or 3 years old, including dialog. I just found that a little young for such detailed memories.

  17. I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages, but I’ve put off reading it because sooo many people have talked about how great it is that I’ve begun to suspect that it’s all just hype. (It doesn’t help that much of the praise that I’ve heard has come from people who always jump on the latest bandwagon.) I’m glad to hear that you thought it was a good read because you do have good taste (as do several of the commenters here who liked it).

  18. Pingback: The Glass Castle « Tales from the Reading Room

  19. Arti — I will definitely have to take a look at the video. I’m curious to see what her mother is like!

    Emily — I’m beginning to think that the most interesting thing about the book is the uncertainty about Walls and how she has dealt or failed to deal with her past, and all the ambiguity there is about her feelings for her parents. She’s a troubling character, and I’m not sure she fully realizes that.

    Stefanie — there is definitely a voyeuristic appeal to this book. You can’t help but wonder just how bad it will get and you’re dying to find out. It can make you feel very uncomfortable! There are some small (very small) ways my parents resemble hers, so I can relate in tiny ways without experiencing any of the real hardship.

    Lisa — you’re right that she does remember an awful lot. I’m curious what kind of process she went through to dredge those details up and how many were made up (consciously or not). I wonder — would her siblings have described the story in the same way?

    Teresa — thank you :) This is a book that has gotten a lot of good press, not all of which does it justice. In fact, I don’t really like the way Walls has talked about the book herself. But if you can set all that aside, it’s a great read.

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