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.