The Glass Castle: a Memoir, by Jeanette Wells. Originally published in 2005. 289 pages.
One of our daughters asked me about 6 months ago if I had ever read The Glass Castle. I answered in the negative, but assured her that I would get around to it. I hadn’t gotten around to it as of a month ago, either. So when our local library dropped it on my doorstep I knew immediately who had ordered it and that I needed to get reading. Obviously the book had impacted her enough that she wanted someone to share her thoughts on it with.
If you don’t want to sink, you’d better learn how to swim.
This well worn axiom, uttered by Jeanette Walls’ father while he “taught” her to swim jumped out at me for several reasons. The first was that it is the way my husband described his father’s parenting philosophy. Second, was that the Walls’ kids had better learn to swim because if they found themselves sinking, their parents were in no way equipped to throw them a life raft, even if they wanted to.
As I began reading this memoir I was hooked from the first page, finding myself pulled in to a dysfunctional and chaotic life that was just another day at the office for Jeanette Walls, her parents, and her three siblings. Her recounting was equal parts astonishing and heart rending, but I was horrified enough that neither of those emotions were able to take root as I continued to read the book.
Rex and Mary Walls were highly intelligent and gifted people who were also far too eccentric and self-centered to be good parents. On the one hand they educated their children much more effectively than any school they attended or could have attended. But what good was that when the children were dirty, the family often went without food, and the children were reduced to scavenging dumpsters for a bite to eat?
They taught their children to be strong and make their way in the world by refusing to be overprotective. However, their utter refusal to protect their children when it mattered most revealed that any self-sufficiency they acquired was a result of that sink or swim dynamic I opened this post with. It certainly wasn’t a calculated parenting strategy.
My thoughts on the overall presentation of the book are mixed. Quite frankly, I have a pretty big wall of skepticism when it comes to recounting early childhood memories in vivid detail the way Walls does in this book. Whether it was that skepticism or the utter disbelief I felt that such gifted people could be such terrible parents, I often found myself incredulous and looking at the book as if I were reading a novel rather than a memoir.
The chapters were short, snippets of moments which one can assume must be those things that left the greatest impression on the author. That the children were able to escape, with three of the four experiencing unexpected levels of success, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.
Walls’ descriptions of her parents, despite their failings, are wrapped in the residual affection of a woman who as a young girl was awed by her father and fascinated with her mother. Her understanding of her parents’ clearly unbalanced nature softens the veracity with which she reveals the shortcomings which caused she and her siblings so much pain and instability throughout their childhoods.
Worth a read.
Content advisory: Mental illness, domestic violence, alcoholism, instances of child sexual abuse (not at the hands of the parents)