Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Glass Castle

Author: Jeanette Walls
Published: 2005
Length: 288 pages
Source: Local Library

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4.5/5

First Line: I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.

I've avoided reading this for a while because I was afraid of it. From other reviews it sounded pretty gritty and traumatizing. I also don't really like memoirs.  I'm too mistrustful of memoir writers. I feel like they're lying to me or embellishing the facts or making themselves into heroes. I probably would have left it alone forever if it had not been chosen for a book club. It turns out that I either trust Jeannette Walls, or she told such a gripping account that I forgot to doubt her.

I suppose it's funny that I should be so believing of such an unimaginable account. It would make sense for me to insert here a few examples of the appalling situations Jeannette and her siblings find themselves in as a result of the unconventional lifestyle of their parents. But I figure those who have read it already know. And for those who haven't, I don't want to lessen the impact by sharing bits and pieces out of their proper order.  Walls unfolds her story perfectly, and the reader grows and learns and survives with her.

Walls withholds judgment of her parents in such a way that made me as reader need to compensate for it.  I was ANGRY with her parents.  Very angry.  I believe that Jeanette's parents threw off the burdens of parenthood and let them fall on the shoulders of their children.  They did this in the name of teaching their children self-sufficiency.  I'm all for teaching my children to be independent.  But in this case, it only served as a justification for their extreme selfishness.

Am I too harsh?  I wasn't able to go to the book club, so I don't know if others felt the same.  Both parents were clearly mentally ill.  Alcoholism and depression smothered much of what was positive about their approach to raising kids.  But I can't bring myself to excuse some of the things they did or allowed to happen. Am I a perfect mother myself?  Absolutely not.  But I have to say that reading this book puts my ugly moments into perspective.

Thankfully, Jeanette and her siblings were molded into strong and successful adults despite and/or as a result of their experiences.  What makes the memoir bearable is the survival story of these remarkable children. One thing I've learned about parenting is that one and one don't always equal two.  The equation is complex with too many variables to predict what the product will be.  But we still try to do our best with the tools we have, and love our children the best way we know how.  I suppose in some way, that's what the Walls parents did.  I'm just grateful that I have at least a few more "tools" than they had--food, shelter, and mental health (most of the time, anyway.)

On a somewhat related note--Happy Mother's Day!

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  1. I thought EVERYONE had read this book by now! :)
    It's one crazy childhood.

  2. Yes to all of this. I for some reason didn't question her narrative as she told the story. I just got sucked in. I was angry at her parents too. I'm just blown away that they could turn out a well-adjusted child in that environment. I think it did add to the impact that the author didn't try to berate her parents or try to garner sympathy from the reader. She just told the story--as horrifying as it was in parts. I read it while 8 months pregnant and I think that made it that much harder to stomach.

    1. Kristi, I'm glad you agree. This would be a hard book to read while pregnant!

  3. I have avoided reading this memoir because I didn't want to deal with the emotional intensity that I suspected would be part of the reading experience but I've been seeing this book come up increasingly lately so maybe I need to rethink my resistance.

    1. Satia, I avoided it for a long time, but it was really good, and has kind of a positive aspect in the resilience of the children. I think they are making a movie of it, which I don't think I'll want to see.

  4. I haven't read this, though I do occasionally like memoirs. This does sound like a tough book to read, and I think I would probably feel the same sort of anger that you did at the parents. You can teach independence without abdicating parental responsibility!

  5. I think the very fact that Wells withholds judgement of her parents is part of what makes the memoir believable. But I had the same reaction as you did - I was so mad for those kids and so mad that the parents never, ever seemed to understand what they were doing to their children.

  6. I enjoyed reading this one as well and I don't read a lot of memoirs either. I couldn't resist passing it on to both my Mom and sister either :) It wasn't an easy read at times for the reasons you mentioned but I still really enjoyed reading it. I believe that she has another book out but I haven't tried it yet.