The Glass Castle is a haunting story of all-too-real tragedy. Jeannette Wall’s best-selling memoir chronicles her childhood in a family that was dysfunctional and abusive. Her tale presents a horrifyingly honest picture of her parents and the pain that they created. Despite her raw honesty and evocative writing, emotional detachment and a lackluster ending left the book just shy of greatness.
Jeannette Walls was one of four children born to Rex and Rose Mary Walls. Her parents were free as the desert wind, wild as the animals that dwelt there, and full of dreams as big as the sky. They were also as fickle as the rains and poor as dirt. Despite their apparent intelligence and captivating visions, they could never reach their goals. More often than not, they failed to even provide housing or food for their children.
Walls recalls constantly being on the move, living in their car, foraging for food, and running from bill collectors and child protective services. Her parents’ care was generally marked by neglect and absence, but in darker periods, they became outright abusive. Rex, an alcoholic, would threaten them and raised hands against them. Rose Mary would refuse to take them to the hospital for serious injuries. When friends or family members sexually assaulted them, Walls’ parents turned a blind eye.
Although pain and hardship dominated their lives, Walls and her siblings discovered occasional pockets of love and joy. During their desert adventures, they received a unique education from their parents that they could never have gotten from schools alone. Walls describes memories of going “demon hunting” with her father, listening to her mother play piano outside in the evenings, or of the Christmas when their father told them each to pick out a night star as their gift.
In the end, though, the sibling relationships formed the true strength of the family. They banded together and defended each other from the villains within and without. They shared food and supported each other. Eventually, they left for New York together and escaped the darkness consuming their home.
Walls and her siblings found success and security ripe for the picking once they were free from the cancer of her parents’ selfishness. Walls got her degree and accomplished her goal of becoming a journalist and writer. She found love and watched her siblings pursue their own dreams.
All was not rainbows and sunshine from then on, however. Walls’ parents followed them to New York. Instead of finding work or accepting help, they chose homelessness. Neither parent ever tried to acknowledge or repair the damage they had caused, but simply demanded to be accepted for who they were. Walls and her siblings continued to be haunted by their past, even after their faither drank and drugged himself to death.
Walls closes her book with an image of holiday festivities, family unity, and warm acceptance, but the picture seems thin and fragile, as if at any moment, the truth might come clawing out from behind the canvas.
Despite the raw, real horror of Walls’ childhood story, I did appreciate reading the book. Being exposed to something new and different is part of the great appeal of stories for me. The truth is often difficult to face, but it is important that we do so. Walls’ wrote captivatingly about that truth, both the ugly and the beautiful. Yet she held herself back emotionally as a narrator, and her ending lacked the resolution and victory I hoped for.
Her writing transformed her pain into art, reminding of the value of telling our stories. Walls created small, brightly colored snapshots, and pasted them together into a collage of beauty and pain, humor and heartbreak. She was careful not to overwhelm her readers with too much darkness at once; between some of the darkest episodes, she inserted gentle memories that revealed her parents’ humanity and their own hurt.
Two serious flaws plagued her work. Her narration style kept a careful emotional detachment, which on the one hand, made the story more palatable. If Walls had fully engaged with the emotions of her experiences, passages that were already difficult to read would have been impossible to stomach. On the other hand… should such a story be palatable? Shouldn’t we be sick to our stomachs when people hurt others? Especially when parents hurt their own children? We should be horrified and nauseated and enraged, but Walls held back from those emotions.
Walls’ conclusion also fell short of its potential. Of course, Walls’ cannot rewrite her life to create a happy ending (and one wouldn’t expect her to), but it seemed that there were few lessons learned. The story’s ending wasn’t one of dramatic healing or of triumph over pain. They escaped their parents’ toxic control, true, but they continued to suffer the effects of abuse. It seemed that she and her siblings just… learned to live with it.
On a Personal Note…
One of my favorite aspects of The Glass Castle was the perspective it gave me on voluntary homelessness. I believed that chronically homeless people were largely the victims of circumstance. Despite Rex Walls’ alcoholism, his and his wife’s situation was ultimately their choice. They refused help, they refused to get or keep jobs, and they refused to change or grow. Somehow, they found satisfaction in homelessness and hunger. They preferred filthy rags to responsibility.
While their choices may have been indicative of mental illness, their story drove home for me the idea that people have to desire change. The church, the nation, or the world can never solve the problem of poverty and homelessness, as long as there are people who would rather live as beggars than do the hard work of life–the grueling job of growing up, taking responsibility, and asking for help. No one can save those who don’t see themselves as needing salvation. In order for people to be helped, they have to want it, and in order to want it, sometimes people need a radical, heart-level transformation.