Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
304 pages
Published January 2006 by Simon and Schuster
Source: borrowed from a friend

Jeannette Walls, father, though brilliant and charismatic, was also an alcoholic who found it impossible to hold down a job.  Her mother was an artistic personality, who appears to have suffered from bipolar disorder and who had not the least compunction about supporting her family despite being educated as a teacher.  And yet these two people thought it would be a good idea to have children.

When she was only three years old, Jeanette set herself on fire cooking hot dogs while her mother was painting a picture in the next room. It was par for the course in the Walls' household.  Rex and Rosemary Walls were so wrapped up in their own dreams that they often couldn't be bothered to take care of their children's needs or supervise them in any way.  They used the excuse that they were helping their children to become self-sufficient and Rosemary believed that children shouldn't be "burdened with too many rules and regulations."

Remarkably, in some ways they were also very good parents in the children's younger years.  Rex taught them about physics, geology, and astronomy and made them believe in chasing your dreams.  Rosemary taught them art, reading and an appreciation for nature.  When Jeannette was young she became afraid one night that there was some sort of creature in her bedroom. Rex not only didn't try to tell her that her fears were not legitimate, he gave her the ability to fight them.  And, to some extent, the children bought into the idea that they were always on a great adventure, even when it meant they had to pull up stakes and leave town with nothing more than what would fit in their car.

But as the children got older they began to realize how much harder their life was than it needed to be.  They started to question why their father should spend grocery money on alcohol and pie-in-the-sky schemes and why their mother should spend her days writing novels instead of working when they could not afford to heat their homes.  When Jeannette was just nine, Rosemary's mother died leaving them money, a furnished home and land in Texas.  Somehow Rex and Jeannette managed to squander it all and soon they were involving their children in bank scams and shop lifting.

Eventually, the family was forced to head to West Virginia and the family that Rex had worked so hard to avoid for so many years.  With good reason.  Everyone in it was also an alcoholic and some of them were even pedophiles.  Things had been bad in California and Arizona; they were much worse in West Virginia.  The family became the laughingstock of the town, there was more often not no heat or electricity. The house leaked, it was falling apart and the children had to dig through the garbage after the other children had eaten at school to have food for lunch. When the children found a diamond ring on their property, Rosemary kept it for herself instead of selling it to pay bills or buy food.  When Rex needed he cash, he once used Jeannette as bait while he hustled a man, essentially pimping out his daughter.

No wonder then that all four of the children left home before they were out of high school.  Their parents followed them to New York where they continued to inflict emotional pain on their children.  When Jeannette was a grown adult, she discovered that what she had assumed was worthless land in Texas was actually quite valuable and that her mother had been holding out on them during all those years of poverty.
"All those years in Welch with no food, no coal, no plumbing and Mom had been sitting on land worth a million dollars? Had all those years...been a caprice inflicted on us by Mom?"
It became harder and harder to read this book as it went on. As a person whose life has revolved around her children for more than 20 years, it is unfathomable to me that any two people could be so selfish, even given their demons. Walls does a marvelous job of portraying her parents as something more than just people who deprived their children for years; she has worked hard to find the motives behind their actions (or just as often inaction).  Rex was very proud of what his children became and he and Rosemary deserve their share of credit for the successes the their children have had.  They would certainly not be the people they are today had they been raised in any other way.  They are all bright, hardworking, contributing members of society despite having not had that example set for them.
"One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree.  I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house.  I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.

Mom frowned at me.  "You'd be destroying what makes it special," she said.  "It's the Joshua tree's struggle that give it it's beauty."

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