Jeannette Walls: The Glass Castle (Book Review + More)

It will work out in the end if you believe in yourself. . .
education is a great equalizer ~ but also, hope and belief in yourself.
And then you can get through just about anything.
– Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls had a pretty cool career as a gossip columnist for New York Magazine, USA Today, Esquire, and MSNBC (The Scoop) before her memoir, The Glass Castle, became a perennial best seller.  It took a little while for the book to get wings, but it has been on the best seller list for 239 weeks (4.6 years).  She’s living the good life now on a farm in Virginia with her husband John Taylor, who convinced her to tell her story.

Her colleagues and neighbors on Park Avenue in New York City had no clue that the gossip girl had her own secrets.  Her parents, Rex S. and Rose Mary Smith Walls, were homeless squatters who rustled meals from dumpsters.  Their lifestyle was more a factor of mental illness than financial necessity:

Mom and Dad. . .had options. . .Mom could work.  And she was not destitute.  She had her collection of antique Indian jewelry. . .two-carat diamond ring. . .owned property in Phoenix. . .land in Texas, the source of her oil-lease royalties.

When Ms. Walls expressed her concern, her mother admonished:

You’re way too easily embarrassed.  Your father and I are who we are.  Accept it.

 Everyone who is interesting has a past.
– John Taylor
Brilliant, Narcissistic, Neglectful, and Abusive
When she was just three years old, Ms. Walls was “lucky to be alive.”  She received third-degree burns while trying to cook hot dogs so she could eat:
That was the thing about the hospital.  You never had to worry about running out of stuff like food or ice or even chewing gum.  I would have been happy staying in that hospital forever.
While she was in the hospital for six weeks getting skin grafts, her sister Lori was stung by a scorpion and went into convulsions; her brother Brian “cracked his head open.”  Neither child received medical attention because:
. . .one kid in the hospital at a time is enough.
Although the Walls kids’ medical, nutritional, shelter, and hygienic needs were rarely met, there was an abundance of unconditional love and books to read.  Mr. and Mrs. Wells were exceedingly brilliant people whose narcissism and lack of a sense of responsibility caused them to concoct elaborate rationalizations to justify their eccentric lifestyle and child abuse and neglect.  Mr. Walls was a charismatic alcoholic, and Mrs. Wells was an “excitement addict” who thrived on chaos.  When overwhelmed with financial responsibilities, Mr. Wells would pile the family into the car and do the “skedaddle.”  He was more proficient at getting jobs than keeping them:
Dad was an expert in math and physics and electricity.  He read books on calculus and logarithmic algebra and loved what he called the poetry and symmetry of math. . .Dad’s main interest was energy. . .He said there were so many untapped sources of energy in the world that it was ridiculous to be burning all that fossil fuel. . .Dad was always inventing things.
. . .wondrous things he was going to do.  Like build the Glass Castle. . .a great big house he was going to build for us in the desert.  It would have a glass ceiling and thick glass walls and even a glass staircase. . .solar cells on the top that would catch the sun’s rays and convert them into electricity. . .own water-purification system. . .He carried around the blueprints for the Glass Castle wherever we went. . .All we had to do was find gold. . .

I was hungry.
I’d broken one of our unspoken rules:
We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.
Jeannette Walls
Grandma Smith’s Ranch Was a Refuge
When life got too challenging, the family would visit Mrs. Walls’ mother in Phoenix or on her ranch near Fish Creek, Arizona and the Grand Canyon:
Grandma Smith was a West Texas flapper who loved dancing and cussing and horses.  . .a tall, leathery, broad-shouldered woman with green eyes and a strong jaw.
Ms. Walls loved her maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, who taught in a one-room schoolhouse and owned substantial real estate and drilling rights:
Grandma Smith’s big white house had green shutters and was surrounded by eucalyptus trees.  Inside were tall French doors and Persian carpets and a huge grand piano that would practically dance when Grandma played her honky-tonk music. . .
Grandma Smith had strong opinions about the way things ought to be done. . .she and Mom fought each other. . .Mom felt that Grandma Smith nagged and badgered, setting rules and punishments. . .It drove Mom crazy, and it was the reason she never set rules for us. . .I liked all of [Grandma’s] rules.
Mrs. Smith’s daughter Rose Mary was a free spirit who had collected twenty-three marriage proposals before she accepted the one from a guy in the Air Force from Welch, West Virginia.  Mrs. Smith paid for a big diamond ring which Mr. Wells pawned.
When Grandma Smith passed away from leukemia, Mrs. Wells inherited a fourteen-room adobe house filled with antiques in Phoenix.  In a series of drunken rages, Mr. Walls destroyed his wife’s inheritance.

The truth is never simple. . .
I was lucky. . .my parents believed in me. . .the human spirit can be very resilient.
Jeannette Walls

Abject Poverty in Welch, WV

Mrs. Walls bought a 1956 Oldsmobile clunker for $200 which “out-Okied the Okies,” and the family headed for Welch, WV.  The trip took a month.  Welch is an Appalachian coal-mining town that is so poverty-stricken that President John F. Kennedy went there to personally distribute the first food stamps.  The county didn’t have a sewer system.  Ms. Walls said her paternal grandparents were “genuine hillbillies.”

At school, the Walls kids were bullied:

. . .they called me poor and ugly and dirty, and it was hard to argue the point.  I had three dresses to my name, all hand-me-downs or from a thrift store. . .We were also always dirty.  Not dry-dirty like we’d been in the desert, but grimy-dirty and smudged with oily dust from the coal-burning stove.  Erma [her grandmother] allowed us only one bath a week in four inches of water that had been heated on the kitchen stove and that all of us kids [Lori, Jeannette, Brian, and Maureen] had to share.

Horses are a mirror of who you are.
I came to horses late ~ I was 42  ~ and they’ve taught me to trust myself and to take charge.
– Jeannette Walls

93 Little Hobart Street

Mr. Walls bought a “dinky” three-room shack with no bathroom, running water, or electricity for $1,000.  The mortgage was $50/month.  Mr. Walls planned to build his Glass Castle on the property.  In the winter:

It got so cold in the house that icicles hung from the kitchen ceiling, the water in the sink turned into a solid block of ice, and the dirty dishes were stuck. . .no matter how many blankets I piled on top of myself, I still felt cold. . .We fought over who got to sleep with the dogs. . .they kept us warm. . .

By New Year’s we had washed our clothes only once since that first November snowfall. . .by January we were all so rank that Mom decided it was time to splurge:  We would go to the Laundromat.

The family subsisted on the income from Ms. Walls’ babysitting, Brian’s weed cutting, and Lori’s paper route.  After a man from child welfare showed up, Mrs. Walls got a teaching job.

The challenge is not to be defined by the hardships or difficulties you’ve encountered.
We all have our texture.
Some of us are lucky enough to have the silky texture, and
some of us are lucky enough to have texture that’s a little bit rougher.
Whatever your texture, whatever your scars, those are your stories. . .
Embrace your stories, face your demons, love your texture and build your own Glass Castles.
Jeannette Walls

A Journalist Is Born

Mr. Walls had named his daughter for his high school English teacher Jeannette Bivens.  Ms. Walls found her safe haven working on the school newspaper under Ms. Bivens’ guidance:

I loved the newsrooms’ purposeful atmosphere. . .I decided I wanted to be one of the people who knew what was really going on. . .I began to feel like I was getting the whole story for the first time, that I was being handed the missing pieces to the puzzle, and the world was making a little more sense.

She got a job for $40/week at the local jewelry store.  She started a fund to escape Welch.  She continued babysitting and tutored for $2/hour.  Brian contributed his earnings to the fund.

Mr. Walls had lucky poker hand and bought a gold Cadillac he called Elvis:

. . .to live in a three-room shack and own a gold Cadillac meant you were bona fide poor white trash. . .It crossed my mind that Dad ought to sell Elvis and use the money to install an indoor toilet and buy us all new clothes.

Instead, Mr. Walls broke open his children’s piggy bank and went on a three-day bender with the money they had saved for a year.  Her older sister Lori escaped Welch by becoming a nanny for a family moving back to Iowa.  At the end of the summer, Lori moved to New York City to study art.  One-by-one, her siblings joined her:

Lori had become an illustrator at a comic-book company.  Maureen lived with Lori and went to high school, and Brian. . .had become a warehouse foreman and was serving on the auxiliary force until he was old enough to take the police department’s entrance exam.

Secrets are like vampires.
They suck the life out of you, but they can only survive in the darkness.
Once they’re exposed to the light, there’s a moment of horror, of recognition,
but then poof ~ they lose their power over you.
Jeannette Walls

Barnard to Best-Selling Author

Ms. Walls was accepted into Barnard and scrambled to pay her tuition via grants, loans, scholarships, and employment.  When she was still $1,000 short for her final year’s tuition, Mr. Walls gave her $950 in crumpled bills from his poker winnings.

After graduation, she got a job writing a weekly column and moved into a Park Avenue apartment with her first husband Eric.  When her Uncle Jim passed away, Mrs. Walls asked her daughter for a million dollar loan from Eric so that she could buy her brother’s land:

“Uncle Jim’s land is the same size as your land. . .So if Uncle Jim’s land is worth a million dollars, that means your land is worth a million dollars. . .You mean you own land worth a million dollars?”  I was thunderstruck.  All those years in Welch with no food, no coal, no plumbing, and Mom had been sitting on land worth a million dollars?

 If you’re going to write a memoir, you darn well better be able to spill.
Jeannette Walls

Mr. Walls passed away.  Maureen moved to California.  Eric and Ms. Walls split up, and she married John Taylor.  The couple met while working at New York Magazine.  They bought an old country farmhouse in Virginia with 37 acres of land, four horses and two rescue greyhounds.  Mrs. Walls lives on the property.  Click here to watch a video.  Ms. Walls told USA Today:

Some people think I had a horrible childhood.  I think I got love and some self-esteem and I got great material.  People ask why I’m not bitter.  I have a great life.  Why complain about how you get there if you get there?  I have four flush toilets!

Ms. Walls’ second book, Half Broke Horses, is based on her grandmother Lily Casey Smith’s life.  USA Today called Mrs. Smith “Annie Oakley in a biplane.”

She survived.  She’s thriving and has found joy.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month.  Please join me in wearing your purple and celebrating survivors.

Related Posts:

Book Review:  The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

Book Review:  Dish by Jeannette Walls, 10/26/13


2 responses to “Jeannette Walls: The Glass Castle (Book Review + More)

  1. Pingback: Which Parent is the Best Parent for a child? | How to Get Divorced·

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