Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

A couple years ago, I was visiting a friend and she asked about my family. “I love to hear your stories,” she said, laughing, “because they make me feel so much better about my own life.”

I knew what she meant, but it still stung. I don’t think anyone wants to be that person, the one who others think about when they remind themselves that they don’t have it so bad. The one who makes others grateful for their own family, crazy as they might seem at times.

I didn’t pick up this book because I wanted to feel better about my own family, but rather because I thought I might have finally found someone to commiserate with. I’ve never known anyone with a crazier family than me. And I related to this book more than I expected to.

I had a fairly normal childhood. We had food, we lived in a house, we had toys and celebrated birthdays and Christmas. Money was tight, but my parents made it work. But their struggles with alcoholism and their volatile marriage worsened and eventually prompted a downward spiral that began when I was about twelve years old and continues to this day. We never wanted for basics, but they drank and fought and neglected to behave like other parents I knew (and more importantly, like the parents my siblings and I needed.)

I lost count years ago of how many times police were called in an effort to get them to quiet down. Or how many times we got between them when their fights became violent. Or how many times I lied about why we couldn’t hang out at my house, let’s just hang out at yours again.

I moved out of their house pretty much as soon as I became a legal adult and promised myself that I would never look back.

Except, well…I do look back. I sort of have no choice, as The Glass Castle elucidates. You think of your family and your experiences with them as normal, until you don’t. Your world expands and you get a pretty good idea of what “normal” actually is. And you’re eventually left feeling like there must be something wrong with you now that you know there was definitely something wrong with the people who raised you.

To say that the past decade has been hard for my parents would be a severe understatement. After inheriting half a million dollars upon her mother’s death, my mother proceeded to quit her job and run amok. If you tried to reason with her, she claimed that her mother never gave her anything and she married a man who denied her as well. That she spent her entire life feeling deprived, and this was her opportunity to finally have what she felt she deserved. She spent all of it and then some.

My father was laid off from his job as a mechanical engineer when I was a high school sophomore. He delivered newspapers and food and worked part time, but still couldn’t make ends meet. He spent his entire IRA on the mortgage and bills.

Their drinking got worse and their marriage deteriorated. Eventually, they had no choice but to sell their house. And then everything fell apart completely.

They lived with us off and on, usually until it got to be just too much and we needed a reprieve for our own sanity and the sake of our relationships. My mother spent the better part of the last year homeless. My father bounced around, renting rooms and losing jobs, until his precarious health landed him in the charity ward of a rehabilitation clinic after an infected blister caused him to lose one of his legs from the knee down, thanks to his untreated diabetes. He lived there for nearly a year, fighting with nurses and lying to doctors. My mother would visit him and sneak him drinks or check him out and they’d go straight to a bar or simply drink in their car. She slept there with him as often as she could, but was usually kicked out by the nursing staff. When that happened, she’d sleep in her car.

I finally cut off communication with both of them and haven’t spoken to either of them in months. Last I heard from my brother, they’re living in Pennsylvania.

I hope they’re happy. And then I realize how unrealistic that is, and hope that they’re finally getting it together. And then I settle for hoping that they’re still alive and somewhere warm.

Parts of The Glass Castle made me laugh. Parts made me so angry I wanted to hit something. By the end, I felt very sad. Sad for Jeannette and her siblings. Sad for me and mine. Sad for her parents, sad for my parents. Sad for anyone else who had a similar experience.

But I also felt nostalgic. I think that surprised me more than anything.

When I was a teenager, my brother and sister and I each had a few friends who knew what life in my parents house was really like. Sometimes I would smile and say, “they put the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunction’!” Sometimes we would insist on having friends over and warn our parents for days in advance that they needed to let us have one night of peace. Most of the time, they complied.  They would still drink, of course, but wouldn’t scream at each other, and were almost silly. They would ask our friends questions, and tease us, and trade witty barbs with each other. I would lean against the kitchen counter, listening to them and marveling at my friends’ laughter, and admit that they could be pretty entertaining when they wanted to be.

To this day, if someone asks about my parents, what they’re like, what they do, I will say “My mother is very type-A and loves to garden and take photos. She always wanted to open an Irish step dancing school.  My dad is the smartest guy I’ve ever known. He obsessively watches Jeopardy and even tried out for it when I was a kid. He could tell you the history of the Beatles or either World War without so much as glancing at a book. He writes screenplays and has been working on one for a while, and it’s actually really good.”

Perhaps some could see this as lying or skewing the truth. But it’s part of the truth. It’s part of them. And it’s the part I want others to see sometimes because it’s so well-hidden that my parents sometimes forget about it themselves.

I read an article in Psychology Today over the weekend about the concept of a “true self.” The problem, the article posits, is that too many people feel stuck or backed into a corner because they are trying to live up to their “true self,” as though there is only one possibility for each of us. Would my true self wear this?, we ask while shopping. Does my true self want to live in the city or the suburbs? Would my true self like this genre? Watch this movie? Drink this wine?

We are comprised of so many different parts. Attributes and faults. Experiences and ambitions. My father’s sister abandoned her two children and left them to be raised by her mother. By anyone’s definition, she was not a good mother, or really even a mother at all for all intents and purposes. But if you ask her about her kids, you would think she was the greatest mother who ever lived. I asked my dad about it once, pointing out that it was pretty shitty of her to fail to acknowledge the truth. He told me that if she admitted it to anyone, she would have to admit it to herself. And if she did that, she’d probably kill herself.

We are also comprised of the lies we tell ourselves so that we don’t have to live with the true self that our actions have reduced us to.

I think The Glass Castle imparts a valuable lesson about this. Jeannette Walls told her story the way Anne Lamott advises us to:

She reveals her childhood and the impact that it has on her adult life in a way that suggests she has no singular conclusion about her parents. It was crazy and scary and unconventional and infuriating and sad and an adventure. She begins the book by telling her mother (and us) that she is ashamed of the truth about her parents, that they are a secret she keeps well hidden. But as her story is unraveled, Jeannette is sometimes amused, sometimes defensive, sometimes horrified, and sometimes doesn’t seem to know how to feel about certain things.

I’ve read numerous reviews that comment on her parents and how disgusting it is that people “like that” are allowed to have children. I’ve read reviews where the reader just can’t believe that anyone could live the way they did. I’m sure these reviewers don’t intend for their words to be demeaning, just as my friend who asked for yet another crazy story about my crazy parents so that she could feel better about herself probably didn’t intend for her words to hurt my feelings. But really, it’s more complicated than just “good” or “bad,” and “crazy” or “sane.’ We are a lot more complicated than being defined or defining others as one true selves.

Life with my parents was crazy at times, and I wouldn’t wish the worst of it on anyone. But I will also readily admit that they weren’t all bad. And that having them as parents probably made me a much stronger and more independent and more compassionate person than I would have been otherwise. I’ve learned lessons from their mistakes and feel pretty confident that I will do things differently. I appreciate the everyday boringness that comprises my current life more than anyone else I know. Sometimes I all-out revel in it.

The Glass Castle gave me the gift of looking at the whole picture of my own family and realizing that there is no one true conclusion. I spent the second half of the story rooting for Jeannette and her siblings to escape so that they could build a life of their own away from the destructiveness of their parents. Just as I continue to root for myself and my siblings to cultivate our own lives away from our parents.

But I also found myself rooting for her parents to the very last page, as I’m sure I always will for my own. I wistfully remembered the good times with my family. All of the promises and plans, some kept, but most forgotten over time.

“We had some times, didn’t we?”
“We did.”
“Never did build that Glass Castle.”
“No. But we had fun planning it.”

Lucky are those who dream of glass castles. And lucky are those who are born in them. And lucky are those who have one built around them as they grow. But still lucky are those who grow up and build one for themselves.

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