Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Educate Emma: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
"The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette's brilliant and charismatic father captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn't want the responsibility of raising a family.
The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered."
The Glass Castle has gotten a lot of attention over the years, and for good reason. It's incredibly well written, has a nuanced cast of personalities, and shows the struggle from hardship to success in an easy to relate to fashion. But what really made the book stand out to me was its absence of judgement and criticism.
Walls' childhood is horrifying. Her parents are selfish, with little to no capacity to prioritize their children over themselves. They make impulsive decisions at the expense of the contentment and stability of their kids. They steal money, refuse to change their ways, and fight to keep their children codependent and trapped. I had a lot of strong feelings while reading this memoir. In fact, I read most of it in a blind rage. The true brilliance of Walls' story, though, is her own emotional absence. She recalls feelings that she had during the events of the book, but she never stops to reflect on her parents' personalities or censors to turn them into one-dimensional characters. She gives a simple recollection of her life, and that's where Castle's power lies. Since Walls gives no indicator of what truly enraged or saddened her, I was left to my own devices to decide what upset me and what I empathized with. A lot of agency is given to readers about how to interpret events, and Walls' own emotional processing is left as a mystery.
Even after all the trauma in her life, Walls manages to depict her parents with kindness and complexity. She doesn't diminish their failures, but she's also able to show the delights of their rebellious and off-kilter lifestyle. The setting always feels sharp and tangible, and it's easy to visualize the world that Walls lived in for so many years. Her parents are shown as intelligent and prideful, as well as narcissistic and absent. Her writing is surprisingly respectful of their past, and that's quite an amazing feat after all they did to her.
One can still argue that writing a childhood memoir in and of itself is an bitter act, but Walls' writing doesn't seem show it. It's a stunning visit into the lives of adults who act like children, and it remains fair in its perspective. I'd recommend this book to anyone. It may be especially helpful to those who are trying to make peace with harmful relationships from their past. Walls' narrative is fascinating, and it's wonderful to learn of how she survived. It may aid in the healing process of many people, and overall, it's a must-read memoir. 5 flowers.