My Review of Jeanette Walls “The Glass Castle: A Memoir” for my ‘Studies in Memoirs’ at UI&U 2008.
A look at Tough Love
Through the Walls of The Glass Castle
Many families suffer problems such as alcoholism, neglect and abuse; however Jeanette Walls’ family appears to have been allotted an alarmingly disproportionate share of these and much more. What seems to sustain this courageous family through the difficult trials and tribulations is their fierce love for one another. Merely the fact that the four Walls children survive their childhoods is incredible. The love which enables them to do so is borne from a ferocious loyalty and a tough, courageous defiance to ever accept defeat in the face of adversity. Despite her numerous shortcomings, Walls’ mother’s wisdom is apparent when she advises her children; “What doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger” (179).
This motto should be engraved in the Wall’s Family Bible, if indeed they own one. They never stay anywhere long enough to have it engraved above a mantle or even taped to the refrigerator. Most times they never even own a refrigerator. For the majority of Walls’ childhood, her family lives like nomads. Whenever they are on an adventure is when Wall’s parents, as well as she and her siblings, are happiest. Wall’s humorously refers to doing the “skedaddle” (261) which is her Dad’s term for pulling up stake and leaving, mostly in the middle of the night, on a whim.
The impulsive, carefree and irresponsible nature of both Wall’s mother and father render it necessary for Walls and her siblings, Lori, Brian and Maureen, to become self-sufficient, cunning and street-smart. In many families this dictates that the children must adopt a mature outlook and grow up fast; in the Walls family it also dictates that they must become tough or die. The very natures of the Walls parents make it necessary for the Wall’s children to become self-sufficient, depending ironically on characteristics inherited from their parents such as: intelligence, savvy, street-smarts, innovativeness, creativity, resourcefulness, adaptability, independence, nonconformity, stubbornness and strength and indomitable pride.
Walls’ first memory is of catching on fire while cooking hot dogs when she is three years-old, while her mother paints in the next room. Even though she almost dies, her father abducts her from the hospital and brings her home before she is to be released. Two days later, she is cooking hot dogs again. “Good for you,” her mother says, “You’ve got to get right back in the saddle. You can’t live in fear of something as basic as fire” (15). In fact, thanks to her father’s overzealousness to have her “face down her enemy” (29), she becomes something akin to a pyromaniac, developing an intense fascination with matches and fire.
The Walls capriciousness, abuse and neglect of their children are terrifying. The Walls children are taught to fire a gun and use a bow and arrow before they are three years-old. Later on, Walls and her sister fire their dad’s pistol (in self-defense) at a juvenile delinquent boy carrying a BB gun, almost killing him. Jeannette’s father throws her into a hot natural sulfur spring repeatedly, nearly drowning her, until she realizes that she must swim or die. Her parents make Walls and her siblings, including her three month-old baby sister, ride in the back of a U-Haul in the dark for fourteen hours. These are just a few examples of the neglect and abuse Walls and her siblings must endure.
But throughout the alcoholic rages, the fighting, the starvation, the shame and poverty–which causes Walls and her siblings to literally forage in the garbage for food– the constant moving, sleeping in cars, outside of bars, in cardboard boxes, under the stars in the desert, Walls and her siblings remain devoted to their parents. As a result they become a strong, close-knit family unit, especially the children. They must take care of their parents, whose erroneous love and guidance Walls and her brother and sisters learn to accept, although they find it difficult to forgive. Although she is angry, hurt, and indignant, Walls’ love for her mother and father, like the radiance of the star, Venus, which her father “gives” her as a Christmas gift one year, never diminishes.
Walls acknowledges her mothers often endearing idiosyncrasies, childlike innocence, creativity, and wisdom as well as her father’s well-meant guidance, spontaneity, eccentricity, intelligence and above all, his ability to teach her and her siblings how to meet life head on, fearless and with gusto; thus they become the brave, resilient warriors who face adversaries and embrace life with an energy and strength that few people shall ever realize. Their tough love is as resilient as their father’s unbreakable dream of The Glass Castle.
Walls, Jeanette. The Glass Castle: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2005.
By Sharon Lynn Van Meter (Union Institute and University 2008)