Originally published June 10, 2006.
I just finished reading The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls for my “real-life” book club. Every month a different person picks the book, and this was not my month to choose. I probably would have chosen Julia Child’s new book, or perhaps a novel. These days, everyone has a memoir. In fact, just this past week, a woman I work with was telling me about how one of her ex-boyfriends had left her to go back to his ex-wife (I don’t think I would advertise that fact, but maybe that’s just me). This woman’s always sharing tidbits about her life with people at work, so I jokingly told her that she should write a memoir. She turned to me with all seriousness and said, “I have. Self-published.”
Hrm. We used to call those diaries.
You can read a synopsis of The Glass Castle at Powells.
The memoir genre is tricky, as we all saw a few months ago when James Frey was outed for fictionalizing much of his life story as related in A Million Little Pieces. I didn’t read that book, but I’ve read plenty of others, both novels and memoirs, that walk the fine line between reality and fiction. Part of the problem is memory, and part of the problem is the act of writing itself. Memoirs about someone’s childhood or someone’s drinking or drug problems are bound to walk that line, mainly because we don’t accurately remember our childhoods, and people under the influence most likely have memories that live on the boundary between their own fuzzy experience and secondhand accounts of their behavior. And as we cannot write in real time, and because we have an audience’s attention to hold, we must edit as we go.
The Glass Castle walks this fine line for several chapters at the beginning of the book. I don’t think Walls makes up any events from her very early childhood, but they are rather detailed and the dialog is a little overblown. For example, after a serous accident when she is three, she’s in the hospital for several weeks, until her father decides to remove her without the doctor’s permission. When he comes to get her, she asks “Are you sure this is okay?” She’s three. What does she know of the law, or of the rule of the hospital, or any of these things? To a three-year-old, Mom and Dad rule the world, don’t they? This seems like a question and older child or adult would ask…or an adult who’s finally getting the chance.
In these first chapters, sometimes Walls’s dialog and descriptions are more sophisticated, and other times her sentence structure is simpler, more childlike, and the words she uses to describe things are more like those a small child might use. I bring this up only because I think this beautifully illustrates the fact of how difficult it is to try and remember and recount childhood without having adult experience and understanding and knowledge laying over the top of it. I suppose the reason I noticed this is because for those several initial chapters, the voice that was sometimes adult and sometimes child distracted me from the story itself.
As she gets older in the book, the dialog and descriptions seem more realistic, and things start to move. The story of this woman’s life is both vivid and stunning. Her writing is quite solid but not overly poetic, which is important because the book is all about the stark reality of life in a family that gives new meaning to the word dysfunctional. Other writers, like Mary Karr in her book The Liar‘s Club, can describe scenes so beautifully that their stories have the patina of romantic tragedy. Walls doesn’t do this, although she does have some fine moments, and it works in her favor because (other than at the beginning) the language never distracts from the story—and it is quite a story.
What’s most interesting about The Glass Castle to me is that Walls never gives in to self-pity of any kind, nor does she use her story as some kind of mark that makes her special. I find it funny (peculiar) that there are so many memoirs out there about dysfunctional families, and each one seems to be competing with the other for who had it worse. (Forget about the talk shows full of these people, too. Feh.) I don‘t think many people had it worse than this woman‘s family. What makes The Glass Castle so compelling–and slightly disturbing–is her lack of whining, along with the fact that she still seems ever-so-slightly entrenched. Her parents could easily be labeled “toxic,” not necessarily because they are unloving and abusive (although her father is sometimes violent when he drinks, and her mother is rather negligent), but because their personalities are so malformed that it probably would have been better if they’d never had children at all.
Yet Walls manages to show them as people instead of just parents, which gives this book its strength. She’s not trying to comfort her inner child, and she never raises the question “Why me?” After reading about how they struggled and the true squalor in which they lived, I wouldn’t have blamed her one bit if she showed a little righteous indignation, but she never does. While she understands from an early age that something is seriously wrong, she also seems to grasp the pure complexity of the problem, not just for herself but for all of them–not a typical vantage point for a book like this. From an outsider’s perspective, I think her parents both suffered from some form of mental illness, but Walls seems to find a way to draw a line between who they are and who she is, and say “Okay.”