The Glass Castle

When Dorothy reviewed Jeannette Wall’s memoir, The Glass Castle, on her site last weekend, I knew I had to read it. Jeannette grew up as the second of four children to Rex and Mary Jane Walls, he a delusional alcoholic, she a self-centred chaos merchant. The story is written from deep within the perspective of the child who still loves and admires her parents and believes the tales they spin, but what it recounts is a catalogue of traumas. The family live a shiftless existence, ‘doing the skedaddle’ from place to place when the bills mount up, sleeping in cardboard boxes and finding their best food source in dustbin leftovers. What the book recounts so brilliantly is the duality of this world, on the one hand, its ugly, abusive reality, and on the other, the fantastic myths that the family work together to weave over the top of all the awkward truths – that this life is a marvelous adventure, that their father is a brilliant inventor, their mother a gifted artist, that they embody a spirit of unorthodox resistance to capitalism and the exploitation of the planet. These last are given with seeming candor as the reasons why the children are repeatedly separated from any belongings they possess, and why it is an ethical act to live in a house with no indoor plumbing. Inevitably sometimes the fairy tale veneer wears thin, and their mother takes to bed with depression, the father’s need for money to fund his drinking leads to some appalling acts, rats and school bullies terrorise the children. But what Walls does so brilliantly in this book is produce an account of such balanced ambiguity, such neutralized horror, that the reader witnesses a family on the verge of perpetual meltdown without ever having to suffer for them. The Glass Castle is that most extraordinary of narratives, an entertaining account of child abuse.

I thought this was an extremely good book, but it made me feel deeply uncomfortable. What the parents do is, on an objective scale, inexcusable. The scene where the mother is snaffling bites out of a big chocolate bar hidden under the blankets while her children are going hungry is quite shocking. As is the scene in which her father takes Jeannette to an unsavory bar where he’s fleecing money off the customers playing pool and seems prepared to pimp her as a panacea to his latest victim. These are not the actions of loving parents, no matter how much the narrative might insist that they are loving parents. But the voice that recounts, the voice of the child who is wronged again and again, insists on the fine qualities her parents possess and the indomitable spirit of the family. I wondered, though, how this story would have sounded if it had been told by Maureen, the youngest of the children, who ended up in juvenile reform for a while after an attempt to stab their mother to death with a knife. Jeannette Walls, successful journalist and gossip columnist, a woman who made a miraculous escape from her parental legacy through her own hard work and determination, has perhaps a safer position than some of her siblings from which to view the past.

But I worry about the way this book is received. In a lot of the reviews I read (not Dorothy’s of course), and the publicity interviews, there is a tendency to glorify the spirit of love and forgiveness in Jeannette Wells, her marvelous refusal to judge her parents, the amazing way that she has escaped unscathed from her traumatic childhood. I don’t know about that. I was interested to come across this lengthy interview, in which Wells undeniably comes across as a sane, balanced and sorted individual. But some of the things she says seem telling to me. For twenty years she struggled to find a way to tell the story of her childhood, and The Glass Castle is in fact the second attempt, her first being too journalistic and devoid of any emotion. The dissociation Wells felt from her childhood was coupled with a profound fear that if she told the truth about her family, she would instantly lose her friends and her job. It’s a masterstroke, therefore, to write from the point of view of the young child, who still idealises her parents, and in the interview Wells admits that this point of view was one she persisted in maintaining: ‘I was defending dad much longer than everybody else was. In a way it was stupid, and in a way, it was my salvation. He was all I had. He really believed in me when I thought that nobody else did. If I were to believe that dad was a complete fraud, what would I have left?’ I noticed also that Walls says that writing the story and having others comment on it brought her unexpected insights, like the fact that every time her father actually made an effort to get sober and clean up his act, it was her mother who insisted on moving the family back into trouble, as if she were literally addicted to disaster. Again it was interesting that she hadn’t picked up on that herself. The book reads to me like a return to a time that has been frozen in the past, unexamined, unexplained, unexplored, preserved with the love and loyalty of the young child, who has no choice in the matter.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, I felt that the best part of the memoir was the early section when the children were young and living in the desert, and that the narrative turned darker in many ways when they moved to West Virginia, and an adolescent’s creeping sense of doubt and injustice entered into her perspective. Once the narrator starts to feel exasperated by her parents, then so do we, and the reality of their acts is unavoidable. What makes it so well done is the seamless union of ghastly experience and childlike optimism, but it’s an attitude that few adults can hold comfortably in their heads without the help of a fair dose of top-strength denial. Walls says: ‘I guess I bought into, okay, you’re lovely, we just don’t have enough food. I think I have a little of my mother’s ability to see what I choose to see. Writing the book was an eye-opener for me; like, so, we had it really bad. It was supposed to be an homage to mom and dad. I knew that, I knew we went without the food and all that, but when I sat down and wrote the book and looked at it, I thought, dang, they don’t always come across so well, do they? I think I rationalized their behavior for so long.’

There’s an awful lot of glib stuff said about forgiveness these days. Now of course I agree with the ultimate destination; no one wants their life blighted forever more by the bad things that happen in it. But for most people, the serious traumas (and serious here is measured by the effect they have on you, not on some external scale of judgment) take many, many years to overcome. No one can force their emotions into a shape they do not naturally have; it’s as ludicrous to think you can choose to love someone as to think you have chosen to hate them. Emotions are the last bastion of authenticity and demand respect, most of all from the person who has them. So I feel very disquieted by any suggestion that this is a memoir showing people how possible it is to make the most of a bad start, how to love parents who have behaved atrociously, how to somehow miraculously rise above trauma out of sheer good will. I don’t think that’s the book that Jeannette Wells wrote, either. The Glass Castle is more internally troubled than that, situated in the band between turbulence and control that intrigued her father’s intellectual brain, and which stands as a wonderful metaphor for the mesmerising and alarming phenomenon that was her family life.

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21 thoughts on “The Glass Castle

  1. What an insightful analysis. I have to say as soon as I read the oxymoron “entertaining story of child abuse,” I was troubled by the same things you wrote about later on. The book might be more marketable, or perceived as such, if the reader doesn’t feel any suffering, but then it is catering to the same denial that made it possible for those parents to be abusive. A mother eating and hiding her chocolate bar while her kids are hungry can’t in any way shape or form be called a caring parent. I agree that forgiveness is thrown around in too glib a manner. There is a difference between letting go and hanging onto a love that is based on lies and self-delusion for the sake of survival. A kid has to. But an adult can live with the truth. I think that sometimes “forgiving” the unforgivable is another form of denial. A person doesn’t have to hold onto rage or hate or have any desire for revenge, but to let it go doesn’t require a sacharine love or placating the harsh reality. What her parents did was wrong. Their behaviour speaks of self-serving lies and uncaring for their children. There is no need to forgive that or to love them if loving them means taking the truth out of what they did. The way to break the cycle of violence is to see it for what it is. Otherwise it is either passed along or internalized. People can be successful and still internalize violence in some way. The price might be something only they know, an addiction or self-hate or a lack of compassion for others. But the price is there. It is possible to see the truth and to have compassion for the real suffering of the child that a person was and still to stand tall as an adult. It is when we, as a society, can tolerate the discomfort and suffering of the hurt children that we can ensure that all children will be loved, for there will always be someone to see them as they are and to give a hand of real love to bring them out of the dark places.

  2. Lilian – I agree with you absolutely, and you express what I’m feeling about the issues at the heart of this better than I could. Walls’ memoir is clever, in that you feel queasy enjoying her story, and sometimes her idealising, loving vision makes what the parents do seem worse, but this is because it’s literature. Memoirs are literature first and a life a long way second. When we’re talking about life I would stand right by everything you say, and it’s really important not to lose sight of authenticity in the rush toward some spurious hope of feeling better.

  3. I haven’t read this book, but my mother did, and her reaction to it made me recoil from it. She praised the book to the skies, saying that the author had had a terrible childhood, but “She’s remarkably forgiving and loving about it … and so well-balanced and sane.” The obvious subtext, at least to me, was: Your childhood wasn’t nearly this bad, and yet you are unforgiving and also certifiably insane — what’s wrong with you???

    Not all readers are going to be sensitive enough to pick up on why the book is disturbing … or perhaps more to the point, why it should be disturbing.

  4. Great, great, great review! I remember being sickened while reading this as well. Why any reader would think that this memoir about deprivation and mental illness is an uplifting story of forgiveness and the power of love to overcome all obstacles is beyond me.

  5. David – having read the book, I’d have to feel there was an awfully big guilt response working in your mother. After all, Walls states quite clearly at the end that her mother was sitting on a piece of land worth a million dollars, but she refused to sell it because she’d been ‘brought up to keep land in the family’. If I had had nothing but margarine for dinner, or indeed gone hungry for weeks, I would not feel terribly sane myself once I’d taken that knowledge on board. But if you see the way the parents insist absolutely that they are justified, you’d hear an interesting echo of your mother’s comment.

    Chartroose – well I am glad to hear you say that! The tone of several reviews did quite alarm me and made me wonder if we’d read different books. I should have known that bloggers would be more sensitive. :)

  6. Interesting review, Litlove. In my book group, someone mentioned the fact that Walls says she’s never had therapy, and we were all a bit suspicious at that point. I understand that therapy isn’t for everyone, but she’s now in a situation where she can get it, in a culture where that’s encouraged, and her refusal makes me wonder just how well she’s come to terms with everything that happened. I didn’t like what she had to say about the book in her interview with Colbert — she said the main point of the book is about the power of telling the truth, and that strikes me as a not very interesting or accurate thing to say. Surely the book says more about the multitude of ways people mess each other up?? What bothers me, I think, is that I’d prefer to believe that if someone can spend years writing about their childhood and can produce a good book about it, they will come to a strong understanding of what actually happened. But it’s not necessarily true.

  7. Dorothy – I also wonder how anyone could survive what she did without a little extra help. And I couldn’t agree more – telling the truth, certainly in the sense of having insightful comprehension, is not at the heart of this book. I would love to have been at your book group – this must have been such a good book to discuss.

    Care – oh thank you so much!!! :)

  8. Litlove, this is a wonderful review. You’ve very carefully outlined many of the reasons I strugged with this book, although I believe I read it in one sitting, so in that sense I “enjoyed” the reading experience. But ultimately I did not put together any sort of review for it. Too many niggling questions. I did not seek out any of Wells’ interviews, and perhaps that would have helped me sort through my reaction to the book. You mention the scene with the chocolate bar, which for me was just astounding. A perfect example of the pure selfishness of the parents. They may have loved their children, as much as they were capable of love, but to my mind they were both very ill and one of the characteristics of that kind of mental illness, as I understand it, is an inability to really consider much beyond the self.

  9. Amazing review. I haven’t read this book, but I have it on my shelf. I have hesitated, because I have a good friend who really struggled with this book, too, for many of the reasons you give. She read it in her book group. And she has a father who is bipolar, but who wasn’t diagnosed until late in life. She suffered all through her childhood because her father was so difficult to live with and her mother was in denial about his behavior. For my friend, it was very problematic that the author doesn’t ever label her parents as mentally ill. She felt this writer was still in big-time denial about what her parents really are–ill. Anyway, my two cents–without having read the book, no less :)

  10. Verbivore – thank you! I had just the same experience – I couldn’t stop reading the book and I enjoyed it very much, but at the same time it was so very disquieting. One other issue of that kind of illness is that the person suffering from it refuses to accept there is anything wrong. That’s a thought that crossed my mind several times when reading it. The chocolate scene is just extraordinary, and almost incredible when you have children of your own. There always seemed to be money for the mother’s art supplies, too. Still, I’ll stop now!

    Grad – thank you so very, very much.

    Gentle Reader – Ooohh I can see where your friend is coming from. If you’d had to deal with similar experiences and struggled to express the right (which children often cannot articulate until adulthood) for essential protection and security, and then someone comes along and suggests the madness is just fine, just part of family fun. Yes. That wouldn’t be comfortable. I feel for her. And that was a very relevant comment from you, whether you’ve read the book or not! (And if you ever feel like it, I’d be very interested to know what you think.)

  11. I haven’t read the book but I have been enjoying both your post and Dorothy’s and all the interesintg comments it has inspired. I have the book and will get around to it one of these days. And I will be prepared for it to be book of horrors made palatable. Though I don’t think I will be any more comfortable as a reader for it.

  12. I read this a few years ago and still have some vivid memories of what she went through. It was an uncomfortable book to read–it’s sad when children who are probably the most at risk in society and are the most trusting are treated so carelessly. I’ve not read any of her interviews but now I’m curious about what more she had to say. Have you ever read Haven Kimmel? She wrote a similar story (not quite such bad experiences).

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  14. i pretty much wanted to choke the living sh*t out of jeanette walls’ parents throughout this entire book. the only “uplifting” thing about walls’ ability to move past the pain is the fact that she has made a life- a real life- for herself now. i “enjoyed” the book in much the same way an accident victim “enjoys” the ambulance ride to the hospital- wishing to god the accident hadn’t happened, but grateful to have survived it.

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  16. Litlove – What an absolutely wonderful review. Thank you. I just read The Glass Castle and Half-Broke Horses back to back, and decided to look up other reviews of The Glass Castle. I was likewise disturbed by the number of people who viewed the book with rose-coloured glasses, gushing over how wonderfully forgiving and strong and resilient the Walls children, as if the parents were really just loveable scallywags who had a few odd quirks. They were abusive, irresponsible and neglectful, to put it mildly.

    I understand why Walls wrote the book in the manner that she did. Every child wants to love and respect their parents, to find that silver lining in the middle of the worst abuse. When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you also grow up with a very warped idea of what is normal. She may still, even after having written the book, not truly realize how bad her parents were. They were and are her “normal”.

  17. Not to hate on Americans, as I am one of them, we do have this annoying habit of creating these (often times false) Horatio Alger rags to riches stories out of…well, everything. I think, largely because this is an American work, many of the responses that portray Walls’ narrative as a triumph over the neglect and trauma of her childhood, can be attributed to our love of “picking ourselves up by our bootstraps”. Interestingly enough, Walls’ work actually criticizes the disparity between the American dream and the American reality.
    Wonderful analysis, litlove!

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