Monday, July 10, 2006

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Anyone who has thought of writing memoir has to ask themselves what they will include and what they will not, where they will start, and what will be the pivot or organizing principle of their story. The very title of Jeannette Walls memoir, The Glass Castle, serves as just such a pivot. One of four children, three girls and a boy, Jeannette grows up in a series of hard scrabble towns and an assortment of barely habitable houses, but always with the promise that very soon she will be living in the glass castle that her father has designed and will build as soon as he has solved a set of tricky engineering and energy problems. Almost always hungry and dressed in thrift-store clothes, she and her siblings defend each other fiercely—the more rejection they feel from the Others, the more tightly they bind themselves to one another and to the increasingly improbable dreams of their clever but shiftless father. Suspicious of all outsiders, but especially of anyone who has the stamp of government on them, they often skedaddle in the middle of the night, allowed to take only one favorite possession with them. From Nevada to California and back again to Nevada, always ready to move on at the drop of a hat or the appearance of a child welfare worker, still the children continue to believe in their father who can fix anything and their artist mother who, it seems, would rather paint than eat.

On the book cover the author and critic, Francine Prose, says that memoirs are modern fairy tales, and judging from the huge sales of this book, this is a fairy tale that has captured the imagination of lots of folks. There is no doubt that Walls is a very good writer, and she describes the incredibly hard life she and her siblings lived with a kind of detachment and lack of pathos that reminds me of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, but unlike Wright’s autobiography, this book lacks any profound social commentary. Even when the Walls wind up in an almost unbelievably impoverished West Virginia mining town, Walls fails to reflect on the underlying causes of poverty surrounding her, or of the scandalous failure to provide health care, food and clothing to the victims of this economic system. It is almost as if she believes that poverty is a personal sin, and to the very end of her account, it seems that she is more ashamed of her origins than outraged by the conditions of her own family and of countless other families she encounters in her childhood. Indeed, from the very outset of this memoir, the reader discovers an author still on the run.

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up.
It had been months since I laid eyes on Mom, and when she looked up, I was overcome with panic that she’d see me and call out my name, and that someone on the way to the same party would spot us together and Mom would introduce herself and my secret would be out.
I grant, of course, that anyone who has lived as Jeannette lived in her childhood would be eager to escape that condition, even to try to forget it, bury it. But Walls seems to be still in the grips of a kind of class shame, and I found myself in the final pages of the memoir more on the side of her reckless but rebellious parents than on hers. As it turns out, both of her parents were very bright but self-absorbed; they probably could have done much better as providers than they did (unlike some of the other families they encounter on their cross-country travels). Walls probably has the right to be angry with them; neither should have been a parent. Her father, besides being an alcoholic who seems more unwilling than unable to hold down a job, is more dedicated to his schemes and his own inflated view of himself than he is to his wife or family. And her mother is so addicted to pursuing her art that her children are bound to finish a distant second to her artistic endeavors. Thus, while poverty and hardship are prominent in this memoir, in the end it is more about four children escaping their parents than of their remarkable escape from poverty. Lynne Sharon Schwartz wrote an excellent autobiographical novel about her escape from a traditionally Jewish family entitled Leaving Brooklyn. She describes how, in order to become the person she wants and needs to be, she must leave home and family and begin anew, and this is much more a reflection of her own needs than a condemnation of her family or past. I have worked on and off for years on an account of my Mormon childhood in Salt Lake City that I call Escape From Zion, realizing that I had to run away in order not to spend the rest of my life fighting Mormonism. I suppose in the end I simply find it hard to pinpoint what Walls is running from or even where she is running to. I very much admire the way she and her older sister escaped West Virginia, and then rather than simply turning their backs on their younger siblings bring of their miraculous escape as well, even rescuing the youngest girl when she is still in her early teens. The bond between the children is admirable, as are their sacrifices for one another.

I found myself more and more caught up in the story as the children, one by one, manage their move to New York, and horrified when even after their escape, both parents show up in New York City to “re-unite” the family. But as captivating as the story is, it leaves me wanting more—more reflection, more understanding, more analysis. If this is a modern day fairy tale, what is its point, its moral? Towards the very end, after the death of her father and the continued homelessness of her mother, Walls says, “It took me a while to realize that just being on the move wasn’t enough; that I needed to reconsider everything.” Yes, and perhaps writing this memoir is the beginning of that reconsideration, and the epiphany of understanding will follow in some future work.