Interview with Jeannette Walls, Delivering the Scoop
Jeannette Walls, gossip columnist for MSNBC.com, has exposed her soul in her recent memoir, The Glass Castle, which has spent weeks on the New York Times Best Seller’s List. The details of her growing up years with her two sisters, brother, alcoholic father and emotionally unavailable mother are harrowing in places, comical in others and sometimes so sad you have to remember to have the tissues around.
Once I started reading this book, I literally couldn’t put it down. I carried it with me in my purse and snuck reading time in between everything. Right from the start you know this book is going to be a little different than the usual when on the first few pages you sit in the taxi with Walls, dressed in her finest, trying to decide what to do while watching her mother root through the dumpster.
I read along and followed Jeannette from place to place as her parents decided to skip town every few weeks, and I couldn’t help but compare that to my own childhood where I lived in the same place for 17 years. I don’t know that I could have imagined a life so very different than my own in that regard. Her writing style is so open and candid and honest. You feel like you are a part of the story and it gives you a chance to see the people behind the poor lifestyle which gives you a better understanding and compassion for those living without.
Her story encompasses adventures such as falling out of the moving car and waiting around in the dark, injured, and waiting for someone to notice she was gone, making hot dogs on the stove at age 3, since she was ‘mature for her age’ according to her mother, and the subsequent trip to the hospital when her dress caught on fire and she was burned so severely that she needed skin grafts. Her father then ‘rescued’ her from the hospital a few weeks later, ignoring the outraged hospital staff. During high school, Jeannette goes through the garbage to get enough food to eat. She and her siblings come up with wonderful ways to take care of each other and eventually save enough money to all move away one at a time and start over in New York, leaving behind the tiny shacks and cardboard boxes they’ve been sleeping in.
I was so touched that throughout the book, you never get the sense that Walls is holding anger or resentment towards her parents. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Her matter-of-fact honesty allows you to feel compassion for them as you realize that they are really doing the best they can for their family. Her father, usually drunk and constantly embarrassing them, still manages to make Jeannette feel special, loved and wanted. Her mother, a master at rationalization who is basically too immature to take care of anyone else, is still able to transfer a sense of confidence to Jeannette that helps her throughout difficult high school years and beyond. In her book, Jeannette makes it possible for us to wish we could reach out and help her and her siblings while not having to hate the people that are putting her through hell. We see the good and the bad. We see that both are tied up in her family relationships. We see that good people are capable of doing things that hurt the ones they love. Which is actually how real life is.
Jeannette called me from Long Island so we could talk about her book.
Leahpeah: When do you remember realizing that your life was different than other kids?
Jeannette Walls: There were hints from very early on. People would stare at my parents and whisper. Going into the city was hard. People would point. Going into a restaurant was hard. Dad would be condescending about the other people and it dawned on me very slowly. I ignored it as long as I could.
You know, our car didn’t have a muffler on it – things like that. People would hold their hands over their ears when we drove by. In Phoenix I think I realized it for real. We were going to a good school and at 8 years old, I knew.
Lp: Why do you think no one stepped in to help you?
JW: No one realized it then, not the school or other parents. I mean the severity of it. But I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to anyway. I didn’t want to think that my parents couldn’t take care of us. The thought of losing my siblings – that thought was horrifying!
Lp: Are your family members supportive of your book?
JW: My mom read it and liked it. My younger sister not so much, which is understandable. My brother thinks it’s great but he remembered some things a little different than me. Everyone has their own experience and he remembered many more details than I did. And my older sister wants to read it, tries to read it, but finds it hard. She’s more sensitive.
Lp: Did it matter to you whether they liked it or not?
JW: Yes! It mattered a great deal! It is one thing to share your own secrets, things about you, and it’s another to do it to the people you care most about. I tried to not whitewash or be too generous about anything I wrote about. I wanted it to be honest. But I also didn’t want to embarrass anyone, either. You know, my family is great. Things were hard, life was hard, but they are great. I have no desire to hurt my mother or change her defense mechanisms. After all, they have worked for her for so long.
Lp: How did you find a process for healing your self and your life?
JW: After my father died, the book started really forming. It took about five years to write. I tried over and over again every so often since about the age of 19 but it just wasn’t right. The timing, I mean. I was too removed or too detached from the story. I eventually ended up writing it from the perspective of a child so it would be emotional and vulnerable and true to those feelings.
Lp: How does speaking your truth affect how you feel about your life now? Has it changed you?
JW: It has changed how I feel hugely and immensely. I feel emancipated. I was so worried that people wouldn’t like me or my story. But people have responded in such a positive way. It’s taken me this long to realize that people could be astoundingly kind to me. People share back their stories with me. Everywhere I go, someone talks to me on this deep and loving level. Everyone has embarrassing things in their past. Mine might be ‘more’ but it hasn’t mattered. People have this huge capacity for understanding each other. You know, it’s like the clouds have cleared. We’ll have these heart-to-hearts and I’m enjoying every moment of it. It’s amazing what people carry around with them.
Lp: How do you balance your past, present and future?
JW: My life is not just about the past. That is the main focus right now and it’s odd as a journalist to focus on myself. I think every journalist should go through this, where the tables are turned and suddenly it’s them under close scrutiny. It’s exhilarating and I’m sure I’ll also be glad when it dies down a bit.
Lp: How would you classify your parent’s behavior? Do you think their might be an element of a mental illness?
JW: Mental illness. Hmm. I don’t know. Maybe. Bipolar or something? Maybe they had conditions of some kind. Mom is utterly brilliant in some ways and then won’t know how old I am or where I work. Maybe that is some kind of syndrome? My father was definitely an alcoholic. We know that.
That is a good question. They were never diagnosed with anything. My mom functions in certain ways so well… She’s happy, optimistic, and has way more friends than me. (Laughs) Yet, she gravitates towards chaos. I don’t know if that adds up to a condition.
Everything in life is gray, you know? My brother sees things in black and white but I see only shades of grays. That’s how life is. That’s how people are, too. No one is completely sane. If my dad could have stopped drinking – would things have been different? Maybe. Probably. But what good does it do anyone at this point to dwell on those kinds of things? People ask me if I have or will be able to forgive my parents for what they’ve done. I tell them, it’s not about forgiveness – its acceptance. My parents – they did the best they could. I’m very happy and have a good life. Why focus on the bad or negative?
I wanted to thank my mom. I told her I wanted to get her something. Something big! I was thinking a car or something. Or something that could really help her in some way. She told me a bit later that she had found what she wanted. It was an amber bracelet with filigree around it. (Laughs) Who am I to say that is not what she needed? She knows herself better than I know her. This is a lifestyle choice on her part. Mom has many wonderful qualities. You know, everyone is dealt a certain hand. I was so much luckier than some kids. We were poor but we were never made to feel bad about ourselves. I knew some kids who got such mixed messages from their parents, who would pull strings for them, confuse them and make them feel so bad about themselves. I never had any question that my parents loved me. I had a real sense of self confidence. I knew I could do anything. I knew I could get into the best schools. I walked right in there and never even thought I wouldn’t get in! I think about that now and I marvel at my audacity! (Laughs) But my parents instilled that confidence in me.
Lp: The part of your story where you talk about making your own braces I think is my favorite part.
JW: Really? You’d be surprised how many people have done things like that. I actually met someone else that did almost the same thing!
Lp: Your book is just wonderful, Jeannette. I think it will do many people a lot of good.
JW: People use this book for their own agenda. That’s just the way it is and its human nature. And that’s a good thing! I just found out that my book is assigned reading in a Westhampton school. 9th grade English! I hope it helps them understand poor people so they can be kinder to them. If that happens, it would make me so happy. We don’t realize the things that happen to someone else. We’re so focused on our own lives. We don’t see the connections. It’s nice to know that you can take down the barriers and see how connected we all are.
Thank you so much, Jeannette!
Her book is available on Amazon: The Glass Castle
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