Jeannette Walls lived a nomadic childhood, setting up precariously with her family in small towns throughout the country, until each time her father decided it was time to ‘skedaddle.’ As an adult, she examined her childhood in the memoir, The Glass Castle. Walls will visit St. Louis on Tuesday, Oct. 23, as part of Maryville University’s St. Louis Speakers Series. LN sat down with her in advance of her speaking engagement.
LN: Even though you had such an unconventional childhood, it seems like your parents were very concerned with raising you and your siblings to be educated and resourceful. Do you think you were taught some valuable lessons?
JW: I learned a lot of lessons in the process of telling my story, and they were lessons I should have learned a long time ago. My story was a source of shame for me for so long. I was convinced if people knew the truth about me, it would be the end of my career and my life as I knew it. I thought they would hold me in contempt and ridicule me for my story, but it’s the opposite. People are so compassionate and smart, and cut me a lot more slack than I cut myself.
But to get back to the question, for all my parents didn’t give me, they gave me some incredible gifts, and primary among them were a love of education and learning, and a sense of self-esteem. If an adult can give a child that, the rest is gravy. The world is full of opportunities if you have the tools and confidence to go out and make life what you want to make it.
LN: Your childhood included a lot of scary and unsafe situations. What do you think helped make you so resilient?
JW: I credit my father, he may have been a con man or whatever you like to call him, but he was absolutely brilliant about spinning things in a way that you couldn’t argue with it. He’d say, Ordinary kids couldn’t put up with this, but you’re extraordinary, that’s why it doesn’t bother you! I totally bought into it; it’s a matter of perspective. He never built his glass castle, but it served its purpose. It was an illusion that I clung to for as long as I could.
I do a lot of talks and in one case, all the people were really going on about how difficult my life was, and a woman in the front raised her hand and said she was from Liberia, and my life really wasn’t so bad. All the people gasped like I was going to be affronted, but of course I wasn’t! People in many parts of the world and even in America don’t have an indoor toilet, but it’s so much what you choose to make of it. If you go around with a chip on your shoulder, that’s the tragedy. It’s not about the hand that was dealt to you, it’s about sitting down and saying, If this is the hand I was dealt, let me play the bejezus out of it. We tend to obsess about things that don’t matter. If you have a childhood like mine, you can separate real crises from the little things.
LN: When bad things happened, your family seemed to get over it pretty quickly. Why do you think that is?
JW: I sat down and wrote the book, and the first time I read it back I was a little stunned. I thought, some pretty wicked things happened to me, didn’t they? That’s why I encourage people contemplating writing their story to do it, because we all know things we didn’t realize we know. That’s how I’ve been able to function, and when you’re ready to confront things, then you can. I don’t know if I should say it was a defect or a skill my parents gave me. As with so many defense mechanisms, it’s a little of both.
LN: As an adult, did you make a conscious decision to put down roots, unlike your parents?
JW: I’m the most rooted person! I love my home; I love my stability. Yes, it’s a very conscious thing. I have four flush toilets in my house and when I flush one, I say thank you God! I love the fact that I have a home, and I never get over it that I can go to the grocery store and buy whatever I want. But if I lost it all, I’d be OK. That’s one of the great things about a childhood like this. You come to separate wanting things from needing things.
LN: Your father has passed away now, but how have you resolved your feelings toward him? And how is your relationship with your mother?
JW: My mother lives with me, and she’s a hoot and a half, but she’ll never be the sort of mom who worries about me. She has no idea when my birthday is. She has an astonishing wealth of knowledge, but mundane, day-to-day stuff doesn’t interest her—and her children’s birthdays are included in that. People ask why I’m not angry at her for not taking better care of us, but she couldn’t really take care of herself.
I love my dad and I always will miss him terribly; though if he was still alive, I would keep thinking I could cure his alcoholism and get him on the wagon, and I couldn’t. Anyone who’s loved an alcoholic knows they can be incredibly charismatic, but they’ll break your heart. I idolized my dad because he always made me feel like a million bucks. I don’t know if I could have written the book when he was alive. I discussed it with my brother, Brian: Did I betray Dad? And my brother said, Curse him or bless him, he didn’t care as long as you were saying his name, he loved it.
LN: Any final thoughts?
JW: I think so many of us have these gifts that we don’t realize, and I would always encourage people to tell their stories, because in the process of writing you have to be honest with yourself. In telling my story, if I’ve made anybody understand their story better, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I love speaking to people. If I can see one person in the audience light up or come to terms with their story, then my time is more than worth that.