Until recently, I had never heard of Jeannette Walls or The Glass Castle. I had, however, heard accounts of my own parents’ childhoods. Walls’ book is a heart-breaking tale of a fractured family riddled with neglect and substance abuse. The stories of my parents are slightly less heart-breaking tales of, well, fractured families. Riddled with… okay, neglect and substance abuse… I was going to say that they were similar, but. Yeah.
I opted to listen to the Audible version of The Glass Castle, something I am doing more and more these days. Walls reads her own memoir in this edition. After initially being put off by her somehow shrill tone, I kept listening. Soon, I was seriously hooked.
The story accessed that dirty, thrill-seeking part of my psyche that enjoys horror and family gossip (often the same thing, right?). I was mesmerized by the shocking selfishness of Jeannette’s idiot-savant parents and their disinterest in protecting or providing for their own children. Walls does a fantastic job of describing her early family life through the eyes of a child, painting inspiring portraits of her parents through an immensely compassionate lens. More than they deserve, I kept thinking.
Jeannette’s father, though brilliant, was a gambler and “thoroughly pickled” alcoholic; her mother, a self-proclaimed artist. The two of them made sure the Walls kids read the classics and studied geology, maths, and history early at home. But they didn’t seem overly concerned with feeding or clothing their brood. In one scene, four children, including a screaming infant, are shoved into the back of a dark moving van for fourteen whole hours. And it gets worse.
From time to time, I would stop dead in the garden, doing chores in the farmhouse, or vacuuming the car to breathe, “Jesus,” or shake my head. High schoolers eating from the bathroom trashcan. Bathing twice in the course of one winter. Ugly racism. Terrors of jailbait neighbor kids firing buckshot at one another. Dangerous, horny uncles. Dangerous, horny grandmas. That’s right.
And my analytical brain would try to make sense of it. I believe the mom may have suffered from undiagnosed manic depressive disorder; the father, from alcoholism, compulsive lying, and perhaps a slight case of schizophrenia. At the end of the day, maybe it doesn’t matter what you suffer from if your actions culminate in child abuse and neglect. Kids who find themselves in the position of raising kids have it tough, but never as tough as their children.
I walked away with three big ideas from this piece.
Firstly, as my mom often says, “Every family has something.” I sure have a few of those relatives I don’t speak to anymore. Every family has that grandpa who hides secret sins behind the mask of belonging to “the greatest generation.” Or maybe a cousin whose new husband hits her sometimes, a family of distant relations who lives on handouts from the local church because their dad has been jobless for two decades, or great uncles who won’t attend a wedding because the groom is from South Korea.
The second is that you can’t help everyone. Jeannette writes that she tried feverishly to help her parents help themselves, attempted to gift them warm clothing, rent money, and kitchen appliances that worked. But generosity isn’t always accepted, and it doesn’t always provoke change. It’s okay not to be everyone’s savior, something I’m learning lately.
And finally, my initial reluctance to read this piece was wrapped up in it’s truth. For the longest time, I thought my love of fiction equated to an appropriate eschewal of nonfiction. But they aren’t mutually exclusive, and truth is powerful. I’ll wager that every one of us has a few stories from childhood that we can recall with perfect clarity, stories that, when compiled, will draw a sketch of who we’ve turned out to be as humans.
And I’m all for that.