There is something very appealing about a person who doesn’t talk about herself. Jeannette Walls is one of those people. Now we know why.
Romulus and Remus had a better upbringing. The mythical twins reared by a she-wolf in the Roman hills at least ate regularly. In Walls’s memoir of an execrable childhood, The Glass Castle, family mealtime gives new meaning to the concept of curb service. A tasty meal for the Wallses could be anything from warm roadkill to spillage from an overturned semi.
Until her rootless, feckless family–consisting of her parents Rex and Rose Mary, two sisters, and a brother–came to roost in a leaking, plumbing-free shack in Welsh, W.Va., the kids were squashed into the back of whatever ramshackle automobile Walls’s father wired together. Aimlessly, sometimes looking for work for Rex or a bar where the adults could party, they wandered the highways and byways of the great Southwest. What money they scrounged went for gas, Rex’s cigarettes and beer, and Rose Mary’s art supplies.
At night, they would set up camp on the desert floor or find an abandoned hovel and if lucky, cardboard boxes to sleep in. When they occasionally found a place to stay, they often left in a hurry, pulling what Rex playfully called a “skidaddle” to escape the hot pursuit of what he told the hapless children was the FBI or CIA trying to steal his ideas, information, or his secret knowledge of conspiracies afoot in the land.
On the move, her mother, a self-styled “excitement freak,” lived in a pastel netherworld in the front seat blithely labeling everything that happened an “adventure” and telling the children how lucky they were. Instead of boring cooking and cleaning, Rose Mary would paint and read Balzac. When they finally settled for good in a hut clinging to the side of a mountain in Welsh, W.Va., she announced that it was the perfect place to be because, as an artist, there wouldn’t be any competition in a town that small. What pennies they scrapped together she spent on canvas and brushes.
Rose Mary’s motherly advice ran the gamut from assuring the kids that a ham from a dumpster with green mold on it was often perfectly fine in the center, to warning Jeannette and her sisters that wearing white after Labor Day was not the done thing. Because they had no toys, Rex would fashion cardboard toboggans when they had snow, made costumes out of old army blankets and wove endless stories of the wonders to come in their lives. Because they had no radio, TV, or social life, they read books Rose Mary brought from the public library and collected shiny rocks.
Rex promised a shimmering Xanadu was just around the corner. There he would build them their glass castle. When the starving little band settled into the listing shack in Welsh, Jeannette and her brother dug an enormous hole on the slope to start the castle in which they utterly believed. Ray couldn’t or wouldn’t pay to have the weekly garbage picked up. Guess where it went?
This riveting, lyrically written story of her childhood can only be fully appreciated by knowing Jeannette Walls as an adult. In full disclosure, I have known Jeanette for more than a decade. She is the most rewarding of friends. She is funny and uncomplicated with a booming laugh and a whip-sharp intellect and sense of irony–the most solid, least neurotic person one could know. With the possible inclusion of Diane Sawyer or Candace Bergen, she is one of the most beautiful women in New York. Six feet tall and as pale and slender as a calla lily, she has long red hair Mr. Phyllis could never find in a bottle. And, as if to be in your face about her height, she climbs onto five-inch heels to earn her a living as a journalist for MSNBC and on-camera commentator at big-time celebrity events. Her diction is perfect and when she once answered when pressed to having spent her teenage years in West Virginia, I assumed she had surely left the state to attend a finishing school and had the glossiest of upbringings.
In reality, she had made it through the public high school in the dismal mining town eating other kids’ leftover lunches, living in a home devoid of running water–let alone hot water–and washing her face in snow. It is not without irony that we note that the TV-and-toy-free Walls kids had the highest grades in their classes.
By 17, Jeannette was ready to escape the grinding poverty and the dysfunction of her family. She climbed aboard a Trailways bus for New York City and watched her tearful father, who gave her a jackknife as a parting gift, recede into the distance. Once in the city, she found menial work and asked where the best college was. She was told Barnard College, a part of Columbia University. Her mother’s breezy assurances that her kids could do anything they wanted to do finally paid off. She didn’t know it was impossible to get in with no money and no clout. So she applied, won grants and scholarships, went, and eventually graduated, only to receive a pay-phone call from her parents. They were in New York so that they could all be family again. and no, they didn’t want help. They would be just fine. They would live in their old van parked on a city street or, failing that, in Central Park. And they did.
The story of how she managed this development is as riveting as her earlier years.
In interviews, Jeannette has said she was convinced that if she admitted to her real background, she would lose all her friends and even her job. Now, with the encouragement and emotional support of her writer husband, John Taylor, and her own extraordinary ability to relive pain, she has told that story.
Amazingly, for all the stomach-clenching disappointment, broken promises, humiliation, and relentless perversity on the part of her psychotic parents, this is a love story. As wacko as they were, as dangerously irresponsible (Jeanette burned herself terribly trying to cook a hot dog when she was three. Her father kidnapped her after six weeks in the hospital in order to skip out on the bill), Rex and Rose Mary loved their kids and that love was returned. That love illuminates the work like the stars Ray “gives” each child on a toyless, foodless Christmas night.
The Glass Castle will at times exhaust you, occasionally fill you with fury, and finally leave you in slack jawed wonderment at the resilience of the human spirit, the inborn need for family love and the remarkable strength of the author herself as Walls recounts her life free of self-pity or apology. She blames no one.
The last few pages, an homage to her father, are difficult to read. He died of TB at 59, still living with the drawings of his glass castle in a cluttered walkup surrounded by Rose Mary’s unsold paintings. It is difficult reading not because it is tragic but because reading a daughter’s words of such understanding and gratitude for a parent so flawed clouds one’s eyes.
Jeannette Walls has done an extraordinary thing. She has faced her secrets, shared them with the world, and thereby robbed them of their power to humiliate and torment. There can be no freedom like it. It is an enormous personal and artistic achievement.
–Lucianne Goldberg is a syndicated talk-show host on Talk Radio Network and the publisher of the online news forum Lucianne.com.