I’d heard of The Glass Castle long before I read it, and I was vaguely interested in it, but the real impetus to read it came from two things: my putting together reading lists of the books I most wanted to read; and the news that it has been adapted into a film starring some great people – Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, and Woody Harrelson. I have to say casting Harrelson as Jeannette’s father is pretty perfect.
Anyway, so I bought the book. It is one of those memoirs that seems, oh yeah, simple, story of redemption, escape from poverty, crazy family… and it is about those things, but it’s also about accepting the fact that your parents are flawed, weird, not-perfect people; and accepting the life they have given you. Jeannette Walls talks a lot about chances, choices, and what really makes us happy. Towards the end it gets quite philosophical.
For me this was a book about building on what you have and bettering yourself, but also about mental illness and fear. Jeannette’s parents Rex and Rose Mary are both lovably quirky and hippy-ish to start with, but over the course of the book, and Jeannette’s childhood, you see that they are both a little unstable, and they are both afraid of a lot of things. Rex is delusional and believes that a host of government agencies are out to get him, so he needs to keep moving around the country (but this is also because the family are often skipping out on rent). He also has a terrible attitude towards authority and cannot keep a job; and he is an alcoholic. In time he proves to be the family’s main obstacle when it comes to earning enough money and making things work. But Rose Mary is also to blame. She seems to be terrified of responsibility and work, is very self-centred, and she acts as an enabler to Rex. Even when he screws everything up, even when he is angry at his family for no reason – there comes a point when her teenage children (Jeannette and her three siblings) are practically asking her why she doesn’t just leave him. But she always has an answer, always accepts him just as he is and doesn’t push for change. I felt that Rose Mary was afraid of change, and afraid of things she didn’t know. She also says more than once that she might as well do as Rex says because he’s her husband. This was before third or fourth wave feminism.
There is in fact a point when the children persuade their mother to leave their father behind when they move, but he follows soon after. Rose Mary and Rex are like doomed lovers – they cannot be apart, but being together just seems to create problems. It gets really interesting when the children get older and are able to live on their own – we accept that their parents will never change just as they do, and we see their efforts to create good and happy lives for themselves. Jeannette is the most sympathetic to her parents, and in her and her siblings’ differing attitudes to them we see the complexity of parent/child relationships and the different ways in which people cope with the same situation. One thing that ties all four children together is that they are all incredibly independent and resilient, not to mention brave. They know how to look after themselves and are not afraid to take risks – they have always survived worse. I really admired them all for this bravery and willingness to try things, this refusal to give up or become hopeless.
As for the reading experience, The Glass Castle is both wonderful and terrible. Rex and Rose Mary are infuriating and frustrating, and they just completely lack practical parenting skills. But they are both fascinating as case studies of people who are a product of their environment and their families, people who are just so determined to do what they think is right no matter what anyone else says or thinks – even their own children. The story of the Walls family is entertaining, fascinating, sad and desperate, but ultimately hopeful. They seem to be able to survive anything. For me the lasting message of this book, if there is one, is that people are more resilient that you know, and very different things make different people happy. There is a no one right way to live – although there is one right way to look after your children and that is to keep them safe, something which Rex and Rose Mary did not always do. Despite everything the family still love each other, and they are always a family no matter what. That is what holds them together, for better or worse.
As for their life now, this New York Times article from 2013 is a brilliant update on the Walls family, and Jeannette’s attitude to her life and parents now that she’s an adult and has a totally different lifestyle. It is still kind of heartbreaking, but utterly fascinating in the way that families almost always are.
First published in 2005 by Scribner (USA) and Virago (UK). I read the Virago edition.