The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
This book has been recommended to me for years and because I knew it would be disturbing, I sort of avoided it. But I finally resolved to read it and I’m glad I did. This is a true, autobiographical story about a girl raised by 2 parents who were, to say the least, unconventional in their philosophy on child-rearing. It begins with Jeanette, at the age of 3 years, trying to make herself a hot dog (because her mother was busy with her art) and burning herself on the stove to the point of needing to be hospitalized for weeks for burns and skin grafts. When she returns home, she is back at the stove, making another hot dog and cheered on by her mom who claims she should not be afraid of anything!
So begins a life of chaos. Jeanette’s mother is an artist and writer who does not believe in rules, structure or discipline and who clearly wrestles with depression. Her father is a brilliant man but cursed with alcoholism and is unable to maintain a job for any length of time. Whenever the family begins to get behind on paying the few bills that they actually pay, or gets in trouble with the law, the family picks up in the middle of the night, without packing anything, and moves to a new town to begin anew. The children frequently are hungry and forced to scavenge for food, in dumpsters, in the cafeteria garbage cans at school. They are frequently the target of derision and even violence by their peers, because of their abject poverty. What enables her to survive is the powerful bond between Jeanette and her siblings who protect each other fiercely.
And yet, what makes this story so moving and so engaging is the complex nature of the relationships between Jeanette, her siblings, and her parents. Like all people who do bad things (or make poor decisions), her parents are complicated. Her father, for example, who often drinks away the family’s money meant for food, also imparts wisdom to his children. On a particularly touching and moneyless Christmas Eve, he takes each of his children out to look at the stars and “gives” each of them their favorite star as a special present. There are these very touching moments that he does share with his children that make him a somewhat sympathetic figure.
So while I found myself yelling out loud at her parents and feeling aghast at some of her experiences, I understand why Jeanette had sympathy and love for her parents. They were still her parents, no matter how neglectful or irresponsible they were. She tells her story honestly and simply and vert clearly presents her struggle to love them in spite of her knowing even very early on that her parents were often wrong. Her story is probably more common than we would like to think as is this struggle.
I am glad that I finally made myself read this. It’s not easy, but I think it’s an important book to read.