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.