The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Read: 5 - 14 September 2020
Release year: 2005
The Glass Castle is a memoir by Jeannette Walls in which she talks about her unconventional childhood leading up to adulthood. Although I was a little disappointed at the end, I was very impressed by her childhood story and I think it is important to dedicate a blog post about it. The way your parents raise you has a huge effect on who you become as a person. Many people go through trauma in their childhood and parents are not always aware that they are the cause. I truly believe that this is a topic that needs to be addressed more.
While the author never addresses it in the book, I'm convinced both her parents are living with a mental illness. At the beginning of the book, for example, she describes one of her earliest memories. At the age of three, she accidentally sets herself on fire while cooking hot dogs. While the hospital staff are shocked to learn a three-year-old is allowed to do this, Jeannette's mother encourages her to continue cooking for herself, believing no one should live in fear of something as basic as fire. During her hospital stay, she was also told she had won a helicopter ride after her mother had entered her name in a raffle at a fair. When Jeannette asked when she was able to go on the ride her mother answered: 'Oh we already did that. It was fun.'
Jeannette and her family initially lived liked nomads, moving around desert towns and camping in the mountains in order to avoid debt collectors and law enforcement. Later they end up living in several houses in different cities, including those of her maternal and paternal grandmother. But wherever they go, they live in poverty. Her father cannot keep a job, partly because of his issues with alcohol, and her mother would rather work on her art than take on a job. The kids are scavenging for food wherever they can, including in the trash cans at school. The last place Jeannette lives with her parents is a rotting house with no running water and although it was wired for electricity, there was no money to turn it on. In the winter, the house got so cold that icicles hung from the ceiling and the water in the sink turned into a solid block of ice. They were forced to wear their coats around house, including to bed.
Jeannette's upbringing isn't just troubled by the lack of money, but also because her parents aren't able to properly care for their children due to mental problems. Before discussing her parents separately, I want to share one of the events that baffled me. In one of the houses where they lived, they kept the windows and doors open at night because there was no air conditioning in the house. When a man entered the house one night and touched Jeannette's private parts, they still refused to close them.
We needed the fresh air, they said, and it was essential that we refuse to surrender to fear.
Jeannette's father is struggling with alcoholism and partly because of that he is not able to keep a job for a long time. His addiction even causes him to steal the money his wife and children have made, leaving his family with no way to pay for food.
I also felt that her father couldn't think rationally. He taught his children how to shoot a gun at a young age (Jeannette was 4). He taught his kids to swim by throwing them in the water over and over. He tossed their cat out of the car when it wouldn't stop making noise on their travels to a new home. He went to visit a prostitute and left his young son with a few comic books in the adjoining room. He told his teenage daughter ‘Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do’ when one of his adult bar friends wanted to take her upstairs to a room.
Her father also felt the need to be admired by his family, to be the hero of the story. He promised his family he would come up with a way to find gold in order to provide for them. He promised them he would build them a house, the so-called Glass Castle. By giving his family hope for a better future, he emotionally manipulated them, while he wasn't able to provide for them in any way.
Jeannette's mother also has a problem thinking in a rational way. She ignored her kids when they cried as she believes it is good for children to suffer when they are young. She told Jeannette she was only there to replace her big sister who died at the age of nine months. She casually told Jeannette her beloved grandmother had passed away (‘Are we going to go stay with Grandma?’ ‘No, Grandma’s dead.’). She didn't realised the gravity of the situation when Jeannette told her how she was sexually abused by her uncle (‘Poor Stanley, he’s so lonely.’).
Her mother also comes across as a very selfish person. When she is forced to take on a teaching job her kids have to drag her out of the bed.
I'm a grown woman now. Why can't I do what I want to do?
The second time she reluctantly she goes to work as a teacher, she quits not long after to devote herself to her art.
It’s time I did something for myself. It’s time I started living my life for me.
All of this happens when there is no money for food and the kids have to find their school lunches by searching the trash cans for leftovers. When the kids find a valuable gem and want to sell it for money to buy food, Jeannette's mother decides to keep it for herself to replace the wedding ring her husband had pawned.
‘But Mom, that ring could get us a lot of food.’ ‘That’s true, but it could also improve my self-esteem.’
I was amazed by Jeannette's childhood story and I was happy to read that she and her siblings got away from their abusive living situation. They all moved to New York and took care of each other before finding their own way as adults. This part of the book, however, was a little bit disappointing to me. It was written like this was an easy thing to do. The trauma she endured must have had an effect on her, on her relationships, on her education or work, but she never talked about this. She also made it sound like she just accepted her parents the way they are, but that's not very realistic in my opinion. It felt like a missed opportunity to me.