Friday, March 27, 2009
The Glass Castle
The Glass Castle blew me away. I haven't been so effected by a read in such a long time. This book stuck with me after I would sit down reading it. I would think about it when I wasn't reading it because of how serious and disturbing the content was. But, in the end, it was so worth reading.
Since I am a huge fan of the memoir, this book appealed to me. It also appealed to me because some of my friends at the college level recommended it to me. One of my friends is even teaching this book at the end of the year to a group of high school students at Troy High School. Knowing this, I had to read it.
The Glass Castle is a memoir by Jeannette Walls, a journalist, who grew up in extreme poverty. Her life was extremely difficult, often having to raise herself as her parents were neglectful. Even though her parents were intelligent and capable of having jobs, they preferred to skirt by with little money, brinking on starvation and living in filthy living conditions.
The Walls' family moved around quite frequently when Jeannette, her older sister Lori, and younger sister Brian were little. They quickly moved from Arizona to California to Nevada, all choosing small run-down towns where they would live in dank houses that were falling apart. Jeannette's sister Maureen was born soon before they would pack up everything and move to Welch, West Virginia, the worst of all the towns they settled down in. The Walls moved around a lot for various reasons. Rex, her father, always though the mob was after them. They would often get into trouble or fights that they needed to run from. Or, Rose Mary, her mother, felt itchy if she stayed in one place for too long. She thought life was an adventure, so she wanted to continue having adventures by moving.
Every time the Walls would move, the children could only bring one thing with them. The children would get attached to places or objects, but they would be forced to leave it all behind (not like they had much to begin with). One time when they moved a considerable distance away, the parents made the children ride in the back of a UHaul, dark, cold, and dangerous as furniture shifted around them. The door busted open and the rode with it open for quite some time before a car waved them down. The parents then yelled at them for causing a ruckus. They threw a cat out the window of a moving truck because it was misbehaving. They were doing it a favor, the mother said, because now it was living in the wild where it belonged and it could no longer learn to be dependent on others.
The book opens up with Jeannette riding in a cab to an elite party when she sees her mother picking through the trash. She feels absolute shame. Then the memoir flashes back to her childhood to see how it all happened. Jeannette then tells of her first memory, cooking a hot dog in boiling water by herself, and how she burned herself so badly. She went to the hospital for a short time before her parents pulled her out saying how doctors were bad and didn't know what they were talking about. Jeannette developed severe scars from the incident and maltreatment of the burns.
I think I was just so shocked by how parents could treat their children in the ways that these parents did. And the crazy part is, they didn't think they were being bad parents at all. It blows my mind. They stuck so hard to their ideals, and teaching their childen those ideals, that it often scarred the children. It was hard to read, but it is valuable to see how neglected and abused others can be, especially as children. I'm surprised the children came out as good as they did too considering the circumstances. Some people can never pick themselves up out of this horrible abuse. This is where we see so many damaged souls: drug addicts, abusers, etc. It can be a terrible cycle.
The parents let their children go hungry and go without meals for days. They brought nothing to school for lunches, often picking out of the garbage to eat while no one was looking. When the children saved up money for food, the dad would steal it and lie about it to buy booze and cigarettes. When the children were starving, the mother would buy chocolate and hoard it behind their backs. The father would bring Jeannette to bars and would let an older man grope her and attempt to rape her. When they moved to West Virginia where it was cold, they had to heat and the parents refused to earn any money for coal. The children had to gather wood or scraps of coal to heat anything they could. They slept in their coats (Jeannette's had no buttons to close it) huddled together with animals for warmth. They went to school just for warmth no matter if they were sick or not.
When they moved in with Rex's parents' house at first in West Virginia, they were mistreated by the grandparents and others in the town. Erma, the grandmother, sexually molested Brian, and their parents brushed it off like it was nothing. "They were exaggerating." When Jeannette's uncle touched her inappropriately on the couch while fondling himself, Rose Mary's response was "What a sad man." No reprimands on the uncle's behavior.
In their horrible little house on Little Hobart Street, the house had holes in it. There was no heat or insulation. There was no running water. Garbage piled up in a big hole next to the house that was supposed to be the foundation for The Glass Castle (to be explained later). There was a toilet in the basement, but the stairs to get there were slippery and moldy. The children each fell at least once, ten feet down the stairs, since they were in such bad condition.
They only had a couple pairs of clothes and could only wash once a week. Their clothes rotated and could hardly be washed, especially in winter time. If they were washed, they would lay stiff and flat as they dried outside. The children were tormented by their peers as smelly, dirty, and poor. They went through so much bullying and torment. They got in fist fights and arguments, making very little friends, because of their situation. So, the children had to stick together.
It all stemmed from the parents. Rex was an alcoholic and spent all of his money on that, cigarettes, and gambling. Gambling did make him some money sometimes, but most times it lost them money. He was often away from the house, slumming at bars. He worked as an engineer in some places they lived in, but he would either get fired or quit because he was bored of it. He would work odd jobs, which didn't really amount to much. He liked to be in the wilderness. He always thought the mob and the union were after him, so he could never get a job that was affiliated with that.
Rex always said that Jeannette was his favorite child. She always had faith in him. He called her Mountain Goat, which is a strange little nickname for a child. For Christmas one year, instead of presents which they never received, he would give them stars in the sky. He really thought it was a big deal. Jeannette picked Venus and the star reminded her of him ever since. He did stress that education was important, which is great, so eventually the kids could elevate themselves with their intelligence and drive. He was the better of the two parents, even though he wasn't the best. He did love Jeannette even though he took from her a lot. He had a loving way about him that you liked and other part of him that you despised. He's a hard character to dissect.
Rex also had a dream of someday building the Glass Castle, a house he was designing for them to live in that was made of all glass. It was like this dream world he created for them and set them up for, but he never succeeded. The children dreamed of someday living in the Glass Castle, a better life, but it was all promises that led to nowhere, very similar to their parenting and their lives.
Rose Mary, on the other hand, said that she was addicted to excitement and chocolates. She had a degree to be an elementary school teacher, but she hated doing it. She would take up the job when she was forced to, but she could never stay with it. She was unorganized and too lenient as a teacher. Her children would have to get her up and out of bed for work; they would grade her papers; they would make her lesson plans; they would coerce her to go when she threw tantrums in the morning. Who is the child in this situation? When she did get the money, she would blow it on horrendous things; otherwise, Rex would take the money right from her and spend it on useless things so the children continued to starve. It seemed endless and tireless, a situation that is sad to watch children go through.
What Rose Mary wanted to be was an artist. She often spent all of her money on art supplies. She was always painting and drawing. She said that she hated living for others, her children, and wanted to live for herself. She had a very hippie mentality. Her happiness came above all others, and she was rarely happy. Rose Mary was sad when her children eventually moved to New York City, not because they were moving away from her, but because they would have happy lives where they would acheive goals she wanted to. She was jealous. She made me the most upset because she was so selfish as a mother. She made me blood boil at some points, as she was surely the antagonist. And she never changes. Some people do never change...
Jeannette and her siblings do eventually escape Welch and go to New York City. They make it on their own to survive and build lives for themselves. Unfortunately, Rex and Rose Mary follow them to New York City. First they crash with Jeannette's siblings until they are forced out onto the streets. They loved being homeless too. Eventually, they shack up in an abandoned complex where they build a little life for themselves. It's interesting though because they choose this life for themselves. They really could be somebody and have a life, but they choose to have this kind of poverty-stricken life. It's outrageous for me to hear.
After all, Jeannette puts herself through college and becomes a journalist. Journalism helped her escape in high school when she worked for the paper, it brought her to New York City, and it built her life and career. Lori became an artist, drawing for comics and other media sources. Brian became a police officer and rebuilt crappy houses into nice, perfect homes (ironic, eh?). Maureen got into drugs and depression before recovering and moving to California to escape her family. Rex had a heart attack brought upon him from his drinking. Jeannette eventually moved with her husband and husband's child to a country cottage where Rose Mary lives in a small cottage on the property. She always did take care of them in some way.
I just couldn't get over the neglect and decision to live this way. How could you put your children through life like this? Wouldn't it eat at your conscience? And what hurts me is that so many people must go through situations like this, but not many can tell their story. Jeannette is a good case where someone came out on top and conquered their past, but so many often don't. It's so depressing. And I can't even imagine how it is now and will be in the future now that we're in this recession where jobs are being lost and are hard to find. Eerie.
The overall themes were interesting to think about: Neglect (from parents and other basic needs for survival). Abuse (sexual, child abuse). Addiction (alcohol, excitement). Shame (family, where you come from, your past). Standing up against what is wrong, even if it is your family. Following a dream. Making something of your life. Making a change when your life is so bad, even if it's hard. Loving others despite hurt. Overcoming the past. Accepting who you are and your roots.
The Glass Castle is currently being made into a movie. I think it will be absolutely powerful. I can't wait to see how it will be made and received by the public.
It was an absolutely phenomenal book. If anyone asks me if I have read anything good lately, I will bring this up first for a long time. No other book that I have read recently has touched me so much, has had such a powerful message, and seems truly valuable to read about. There was a genuine purpose and soul searching to understand the past in this book. It was absolutely riveting.
So, what do you think of The Glass Castle?