Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.
Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.
What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.
For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor.
An Interview with the author: http://www.denverpost.com/ci_19683913
Author Jeannette Walls discusses the liberating power of secrets unveiled
With family, “We’re stronger than we think”
By Suzanne S. Brown, The Denver Post
POSTED: 01/08/2012 01:00:00 AM MSTADD A COMMENT| UPDATED: 4 YEARS AGO
Jeannette Walls is the author of “The Glass Castle” and “Half Broke Horses.” She will be in Denver on Monday for The Denver Post’s Pen & Podium series.
When writer Jeannette Walls’ memoir “The Glass Castle” was published six years ago, she was prepared to be ostracized from her high- profile colleagues in the New York media world.
The story revealed secrets she had been carrying around for decades: that this educated and wordly writer grew up in poverty, one of four children of parents who were neglectful to the point of abuse, moving them from place to place. Her father was an alcoholic who was intelligent and caring when sober and a liar and thief when under the influence. Her mother was more interested in being an artist than making sure her kids went to school or had a decent meal. Walls’ older sister bolted when she was old enough, and Walls followed her to New York when she was just 17. She went to Barnard College, got writing jobs and became a columnist at New York magazine and later wrote gossip for msnbc.com. Walls married and lived in an apartment on Park Avenue in New York at the same time her mother lived on the streets of Manhattan.
Instead of being ridiculed when her memoir came out, she was applauded. Reading Walls’ story made people face their own demons about their childhoods and families. The book, which was on The New York Times best-seller list for more than three years, also sparked debate about how Walls and her siblings were treated. Were her parents monsters or just nonconformists who refused to go along with societal norms?
The author has since written another book, “Half Broke Horses.” Published in 2009, it is a “true life novel” based on Walls’ plucky grandmother Lily Casey Smith, who grew up in Texas and survived droughts, floods and personal tragedy.
Walls, who will be in town Monday for a sold-out evening at The Denver Post’s Pen & Podium series, recently talked about her life in a phone interview from her home in Virginia. She lives with her second husband, writer John Taylor, and her mother now lives in a home on the property with her. Her father died in 1994.
Q: Does it surprise you that “The Glass Castle” continues to stir such such passionate debate?
A: It’s an unending miracle to me, and I feel very fortunate that so many people have read it. They have incredibly different reactions: “It’s a tragedy, your parents should be locked up.” Or, “Yes, they had flaws, but they had good points, as well.”
That’s what reading should be about. If my story gives people the springboard to debate and go into a number of issues, that’s amazing.
It’s also allowed them to discuss their own stories without shame.
Q: What was it was like to hide your past for so long?
A: Not that hard because no one really wanted to know. But I’m a poor liar. My friend (and now husband) John Taylor said that something just didn’t add up because I wouldn’t talk about my family, so I told him.
When news leaked about the book I was writing, I warned my editor at msnbc.com that things were coming out about me.
And I was encouraged not to be ashamed, but to look at it as a story of triumph. Secrets are like vampires — once they’re out of the darkness they can’t hurt you anymore.
Q: Why did you decide to write the book from the perspective of a child, not judging, just describing what it was like to be hungry, to live in a car, to be ostracized from other kids at school?
A: I wrote the first version in six weeks, as an adult looking back. My agent said it read as if it happened to someone else. So I spent five years writing it as it was. They were just my mom and dad. I left it up to the readers to decide what to think.
Q: Was your father’s talk of the glass castle he was going to build for you a drunken promise or hope for the future?
A: I’m more of an optimist than my siblings, so I think of it as hope. I loved my father, and I believe I made it out of poverty because I felt loved. That glass castle was about feeling I was destined for something better. The book as much as anything was an homage to him.
Q: How did your mother react to the way she was described in your book?
A: She said she saw certain things differently from the way they were portrayed but she didn’t judge me. You’ve got to love a woman who can say that. She told me to never apologize for who you are.
My mother would say things like “suffering when you’re young is good for you.” She had her pride and didn’t believe in accepting charity.
Q: How’s your mother doing now?
A: She’s quirky. She’s extremely right-brain, which makes her very smart and fascinating. She has her own worldview, which can be maddening. She sees nothing wrong with sharing her house with animals, so she’ll leave the door open, and squirrels will come in.
I can appreciate her now; she is smart.
Q: Was it hard to figure out what to do next, after “The Glass Castle”?
A: I was told that my next book needed to be about my mom, but then it became that it should be about Lily. So many of us have great grandmothers, who are doers and work hard and are resilient. People wonder how you can survive without indoor plumbing, but it’s really a luxury. We’re stronger than we think.
My mother says Lily and I are cut from the same cloth; it has made me do some soul-searching. She tamed horses and had children. I guess I have a little of that in me.
Q: How do you feel about living in the country?
A: I thought I would die in New York, and I still love it. When I go there I feel like I’m hooking up with an old boyfriend. But I had constructed this flinty-media-gal facade, and now I have horses and dogs and chickens. I’m so much happier now.