The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is the first memoir I’ve ever read and I’ll be damned if I give this book anything less than 5 stars. I cried while reading this on the skytrain.
Growing up, Jeannette’s life was anything but normal and this was because of her dysfunctional family. Her father was an alcoholic, but when sober, a genius. Her mother was an aspiring artist, both selfish and adventurous. Together with her two sisters and brother, Jeannette’s family was constantly on the run, jumping from place to place. Between having no heat, no food, no money, and parents who hovered between the borders of negligence and individualism, the Walls children learned to grow up and survive by themselves.
This memoir will have moments of outrageous parenting that fires you up on the inside, yet at the same time, have moments of love and warmth that leave you in awe. Walls’s life story is a deep look into the dynamics of a nonfunctional family that somehow seems to function in spite of all the nonsense and misery. It is clear that no matter who our parents are or how they treat or mistreat us, they are our family nonetheless. And in the case for all of the Walls children, it is clear that no matter where you come from, it is nothing compared to where you can go.
WTF is wrong with her parents?
“Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” she’d ask us, “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that will last forever?”
The memoir begins with Jeannette’s earliest memory at 3-years-old and she is on fire. Actual fire (-cue the mixtape jokes-)! She lights herself on fire by accident while trying to cook sausages for herself and is later “saved” from the hospital by her father. From then onwards, Jeannette pulls readers along her crazy life, a life of always doing the “skedaddle” from who-knows-what (the police? loan sharks?). Along the way, readers quickly get a sense of how negligent her parents are, specifically in moments where she falls out of the freaking moving car and has to wait in the desert for them to come back for her because they didn’t notice her disappearance right away, or when there’s no more food in the house so the children have to eat a stick of margarine, or when her father brings her to one of his gambling sessions and leaves her to be almost-raped.
The absurdity of her parents’ actions angered me throughout the memoir. There are plenty of parents who are eccentric and prefer to home school their kids and live the life of nomads, but Jeannette’s parents travel far beyond that line. They never abused their own children, but allowed them to be abused by other people. When the children complained, they belittled them by blaming it on “victim mentality”. Their desire to raise their children to be independent and nonconforming is so extreme that I could hardly believe this was a memoir.
It is always awkward to judge a parent on how they parent (especially since I am not a parent myself), but in Jeannette’s case, it is obvious that the way her parents treat her and her siblings is not acceptable – especially when they are fully capable of providing the basics (food, shelter, hygiene, etc.) if the two of them got their shit together instead of drinking, painting, whining or bluffing all day.
Well, they can be alright sometimes…
We laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa Clause myth and got nothing but a bunch of cheap plastic toys.
“Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,” Dad said, “You’ll still have your stars.”
So why didn’t I just get angry and throw this book out the window? Because in between all the crazy mistreatment were the moments where Jeannette’s parents shone. Whether that be Jeannette following her father into the zoo and petting a live cheetah, or the year the Walls children received stars as presents, or the fact that the Walls children actually grew up to be intelligent adults with the right morals – all of these made me wonder if maybe I was the one who didn’t truly understand Jeannette’s parents.
These are the moments when Jeannette’s father tries to quit drinking (even though that didn’t last long), when Jeannette’s mother is able to see the good in people – even in Hitler (“Hitler loved dogs”), or when Jeannette’s father eventually becomes homeless but still is able to pay for her post-secondary tuition in crumpled dollar bills. These kind of little surprises make me wonder what her parents were thinking.
I don’t know what to think
You should never hate anyone, even your worst enemies. Everyone has something good about them. You have to find the redeeming quality and love the person for that.
I finished the book with a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Even though I stand my ground on how Jeannette’s parents mistreated her and her siblings growing up, I can’t deny that they still loved her and cared for her and ironically enough, raised her to be who she is today – a successful writer and New Yorker with a normal lifestyle.
Some of her father’s last words to her were, “When I look at you, I realize I must have done something right”. And although he never built that glass castle, never did all the things a father should have done, I couldn’t hate him. I couldn’t hate him for myself, and not even for Jeannette, who dealt with all his shit for so many years. In fact, I wondered if her father hated himself for all the things he did and all the things he didn’t. It amazes me how Jeannette could even write this memoir in such a forgiving voice. The way she explains her life story – the good memories and the hardships – are all told in a manner that didn’t hold bitterness or vent-up resentment. She presents her parents with all their flaws and goodness clashing against each other constantly, making readers hate them and then love them and hate them all over again.
The Glass Castle is a roller coaster ride of emotions and at the end of it all, you’re not sure what to think about Jeannette’s life – did she live a bad childhood? A good one? Were Jeannette’s parents good parents in some way or were they just bad?
And if everything was all bad, could you still love them?
“Have I ever let you down?”