What is one reviewing when the subject of the book is a memoir? Here is one answer, offered by Beth Kephart: “Reviewing becomes a warscape of its own when the reviewer of memoir chooses to forget that it is not the life itself we are asked to judge, but how that life has been swept up into words.” (1)
From the perspective of language and narrative technique, then, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005) first-person narrative reads well, it is fast-paced, the style is unadorned, the structure well-thought out, there is not one word out of place. It is a matter-of fact, emotionless rundown of one daughter’s life with her family from when she was 3 to when she reached her early twenties. Hence, the book’s continuing popularity on this basis is deserved and understandable. If one had to quibble with the chronology, Part I, “A Woman on the Street” already gives many of the forthcoming events away, so its place in the life account is questionable, as it discloses crucial character traits of the daughter-author and her mother, preventing the reader from discovering these facts on her/his own.
However, a memoir is not simply a “life that has been swept up into words”. Words carry meanings, but these are both denotative and connotative, they create sentences, similes, metaphors, they build allegories, parallels, links, comparisons to other lives. Why write a memoir if you do not react emotionally and intellectually to what happened to you, either at that particular moment, or many years afterwards? Therefore, this review asks for what reasons the author keeps her emotional gut reactions and intellectual musings in a straitjacket throughout the account by using a sort of documentary narration (clearly, in any documentary, certain images are foregrounded, just like in this memoir). Given the tremendous impact on the author’s life stemming from her parents’ choices, one would expect some emotional and intellectual response/feedback/closure by means of a charged, metaphor-laden description. In other words, writing as re-living in order to make sense of what happened. If this emotionless narration happens by design, then the result is significant, because it forces the reader to come up with the emotional and intellectual reckoning for herself/himself. If this cold narration just happened, then it leaves unanswered the questions about the author’s stance on child raising, values of self-reliance and originality, and, above all, on love between parents and children.
The Walls family’s life can be summarized in one sentence, although there are countless other themes which are not dealt with here (religion and superstition, sexual abuse, alcoholism, theft, family falling apart). The memoir describes the upbringing of children in a conscious homeless and nomadic existence by an alcoholic father/dreamer and incompetent mother/visual artist. The parents are complex figures: the mother is depicted as willfully inept care-giver. Rose Mary Walls sees “adventure” in every obstacle that life places before the family; she is an “excitement addict”. She paints, sculpts, and is not interested in cooking or cleaning. Her motto is “What does not kill you makes you stronger”. Granted, the children brace for and face any eventuality with resolve, because complaining would not stop the roof from leaking or bring food to the table;but this resolve is often inadequate for the task. The shocking fact revealed later on in the book is that the mother seems to own a pretty valuable plot of land in Texas, which she is unwilling to sell, since according to her, it’s not hard times yet. She expresses constant frustration at not being able to devote all her time to her art. Also, she wants to act unconventionally apparently because her mother forced her to follow all kinds of rules and guidelines. She believes that everyone has redeeming qualities. The father is described as a dreamer and his constant promises of a better life are thwarted by his alcoholism. He makes up for his lack of funds by giving children poetic “gifts”, such as letting them choose a star/planet to be their own. Rex Walls has one compulsion: to build a glass house for the family, and when he is sober, he works on the plans with his children. Needless to say, this construction never materializes. Rex instills his children with love of nature and animals. Both parents are avid readers and insist that their children have access to books wherever they live, and that they attend school. The mother and the father abhor conformity, conventionality, uniformity, dependence, rules. They value individuality, self-reliance, self-confidence, non-compliance, originality, independence.
Clearly, it would be too easy to criticize Rose Mary’s and Rex’s parenting. The children lived through some pretty traumatic events which could have been avoided, and at least three of the four of them have seemingly stable lives now. Nevertheless, the reader does not know whether they are happy and what, in their opinion, constitutes love and family.
The Glass Castle raises at least two thought-provoking problems: one deals with the question of teaching “value” to children, and the other with having self-reliance. If there is “value” in a clear starry night in Arizona, how does one reconcile it with the fact that in New York one cannot see such sky? What is the consequence of this for the child who chooses a star as a gift from her father? Or, what is the “value” of a plot of land full of underground oil deposits, if this plot is not sold, keeping children hungry and cold? In other words, “values” have significance beyond the strictly pragmatic implication: they carry psychological and emotional baggage, perhaps for the rest of one’s life.
The other concern, that of self-reliance, is a much more complicated matter, deeply ingrained in the American culture and politics. The belief in the individual’s strength to live a life of self-reliance and personal independence runs deep in the American psyche. In the memoir, though, self-reliance borders at times on selfishness. The mother believes that letting her 3-year old cook on her own strengthens her character and self-reliance. On this particular occasion, cooking leads to a fire and then terrible burns. Not only there are scars but also there is a possible pyromania developing in the child (stealing matches, starting fires, etc.). Undoubtedly, no parent is omniscient, and the consequences of events are truly unpredictable. So the question remains: what does “taking care of” mean and does not taking care of someone teach them independence? At what cost? Does suffering really lead to self-reliance and does it really teach abnegation and strength? What effects does telling children that they are special have on their individuality? Is not following sewing rules and then abandon the disastrous product a truly learning experience?
From another perspective, how do you help a person who does not want help, who thinks self-reliance is what keeps them going? Being homeless and unemployed: is this a lifestyle of dreamers or social and psychological misfits (sometimes bordering on mentally unstable)? The Wells use public libraries, hospitals, schools (but they are never on food stamps nor receive unemployment benefits, they don’t “accept handouts from anyone”): theirs is a half-hearted independence from services which society offers. Yes, Jeannette is ashamed of her parents in front of other people, but not when directly facing them. All in all, the memoir underscores the fact that there are no definitive wrong and right answers to raising children, but it also illustrates that love between parents and children is a very tender flower, easily bruised and repaired with difficulty, if ever.
In conclusion, these are some of the ideas raised by the book. If memoir writing is a cathartic undertaking, the author did not let us know how successfully she cleansed herself from her previous life, of the traumas and inadequacies which populated her development. Above all, how will she raise her children, if she has any?
(1) Beth Kephart, “What does it mean to review a memoir?” http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-memoir-reviews-20151112-story.html