Books that Built Us: ‘The Glass Castle’
In the spirit of honesty, writing this scares the shit out of me. Sometimes, a story hits so hard it knocks the wind out of you. There’s never going to be a right way to verbalize the feeling, but you blunder on anyway. So it goes.
“The Glass Castle” (2005) is a memoir by Jeannette Walls in which she details her experiences growing up. It’s frighteningly poignant, and it reads as a series of memories, giving a face to human fortitude and finding love in the trenches of broken promises.
Jeannette’s upbringing was unconventional, to say the least. Constantly moving her and her three siblings around the country, her parents couldn’t afford to stay in one place for too long, so they made every spot on the map an adventure. Rex, her father, was a visionary, an entrepreneur, a romantic. He was also an alcoholic, spending the little money they had on booze. He would disappear for days until finally arriving home, bruised and enraged. Rose Mary Walls, Jeannette’s mother, was an artist. Her art was passionate, and she loved it like a child. She was also self-indulgent and sometimes reckless with her energy, spending it on her paintings rather than feeding her children.
This book took me a whole summer to read because I kept having to put it down. At every shout, every manipulation, every door-slam, I had to put the story to bed — partly because it hit too close to home, and partly because I felt guilty for thinking that it did.
Walls — whose world never ceased to disappoint her and whose hero never ceased to fail her — forgives. She seeks out love, and she’s ready for it when it comes, in whatever form it may take. My world has been terribly charmed, and my hero was never supposed to be perfect — but I can’t open myself the way Walls opens herself. I don’t know how to.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that my heroes are human like the rest of us. Reading Jeannette’s memories, where this truth glimmers throughout, forced me to revisit every moment that led to this revelation. It took me to the raging letter — tucked away in my sock drawer — that I never had the guts, or the heart, to read aloud. It took me to the top of the steps, where I’d perch myself, waiting for the other shoe but never hearing it drop. It took me through the anger, through the pain, and shot me into the most confusing part: the love.
Unconditional love is complicated and exhausting and, more than anything, it hurts. The moment you realize that the person you treasure most in the world — the one on your highest pedestal, who’s never going to hurt you, never going to let you down — isn’t perfect is the moment that leaves the biggest hole in your heart. But you love them nonetheless.
Near the beginning of the memoir, Jeannette recounts a Christmas when her family had no money. Her dad takes her and her siblings out under the stars, telling them to pick their favorite. Jeannette writes, “We laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch of cheap plastic toys. ‘Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,’ Dad said, ‘you’ll still have your stars.’”
Rex shattered every piece of her, but when Jeannette finally put herself back together again, she found herself loving him, still. Years later, she still has her star, and it’s because of this feeling — this inexplicable, messy intangibility in clutching on to someone so tightly that you can’t imagine a life in which you ever let them go. Her story, regardless of how far she strayed from it or how abstract the connection became, always revolved around her relationship with her father: learning to loathe him, learning to leave him and learning to live without him.
Jeannette Walls doesn’t want your pity. She doesn’t want people to villainize her parents or place blame for how she grew up. Everyone has a story, and I think she wanted us to recognize flickers of ours in hers. I did, and it propelled me in a way that nothing else has. Romantic for a second and hard for years, the Walls’s life together was dazzling. They were unbreakable, even when they broke each other.
I’ve never encountered a story in which the resiliency of the human spirit shines as clearly, and as profoundly, as it does in this one. I’ll go back and re-read pieces of it, and, every time, the only feeling I’m left to dance with is love.