Jeannette Walls grew up in a deeply dysfunctional setting, and she and her three siblings lived in squalor. Her nomadic parents, led by an alcoholic father, constantly uprooted the family to wander among Southwest desert towns. They were often homeless. When left to fend for themselves, the children would pick through garbage at school in search of any discarded scraps of food. Despite the instability of her childhood, Walls became a journalist and found her way to New York, where she became a gossip columnist. Walls’ experiences in that role led her to reflect on her own life. Her negative views on her past and her parents shifted radically. With that new perspective, she detailed her childhood in a powerful and poignant memoir, The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005). More than four and a half million copies have been sold to date. The book has been translated into 30 languages and inspired countless readers with a message of hope, resilience, and survival.
On January 20, Jeannette Walls will be the guest speaker at Youth Haven’s annual Home Hope and Healing Luncheon at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples, which raises awareness for the organization’s programs. Tickets cost $300 per person. For more information, visit youthhavenswfl.org/event/2016-luncheon-save-the-date.
NI: What made you decide to write a memoir?
Walls: For years I tried to pretend my parents didn’t exist. I told them not to tell anybody I was related to them because my profile was starting to rise, and I was terrified these two people from my past would ruin my career. One day, I was on my way to a party and saw this homeless woman rooting through the garbage, and I realized it was my mother. I was mortified and hid in the taxi, and when I got together with her a couple of days later, I said, “Mom, what on Earth am I supposed to tell people?” And she told me, “Just tell the truth,” and that’s the best advice I could have gotten.
Why did you call your memoir The Glass Castle?
My parents were both very creative and brilliant, and very irresponsible, so we grew up doing what my dad called “the skedaddle,” running away from bill collectors. We slept in cars and on the beach. Sometimes we had a house, but we never paid rent, so we were always chased away. In the midst of all that, we had a great dream. My dad said he was going to build a great big mansion for us, all made of glass. He called it the Glass Castle, and whenever times got tough, he would pull out his blueprints and go over them with us. And I believe that hope and dream is what got me through the tough times.
Did you ever think your memoir would be so well received?
I thought once people knew the truth about me and my book came out, I’d get fired and lose everything. One of the many lessons I’ve learned is what an idiot I was back then; I was so wrong about people and about how everybody has a story. It’s fascinating to me how a variety of people get different messages from it. Some think my story is tragic and horrific, and that my parents should have been locked up. And there are others who just love it. It’s really how you choose to see it, and I think the same goes with everybody—we choose how to see our own stories. We can either be upset and angry about what we went through or we can take advantage of it and learn something.
How were you able to forgive your parents and embrace them?
I realized early on that my anger and frustration with my parents didn’t do anything. More important, I think they were great parents in many ways. One psychologist who read my book defended my parents, saying, “At no point in her life did Jeannette’s parents ever degrade or humiliate her. They never tore her down; they always pushed her up, and that’s extraordinary parenting.” My mother’s optimism, my father’s dreams and visions for the future, and their mutual love of education and learning are why I was never that angry or bitter. I may not have been given what I wanted in life, but I was given the tools I needed to survive.
What will your speech focus on at Youth Haven’s luncheon this month?
I’ll describe the importance of a vision, of hope, and of a way out. One of the most beautiful gifts I’ve been given is the opportunity to speak to organizations like Youth Haven, since I think it’s often the people who struggle the most in childhood who have incredible resources of strength to share. These kind of organizations are so important; they not only give young people the physical tools they need, but also the psychological tools they need to fashion their futures.
Your latest novel, The Silver Star, came out a few years ago. Is there anything you’re currently working on?
Yes! I swore I’d never write another book after the last one because it’s an excruciating process, but about a year ago I found myself immersed in writing another one. It’s a novel about a woman in the 1920s. A friend of mine once told me writing a book is like having children—the end result is so gratifying you forget how painful the process is.
Any other advice for people who may be struggling right now?
Trust yourself, trust the truth, and know that you can make it. Don’t ever give up, and don’t give in to bitterness, anger, or despair. There’s always a way; it might not be what you wanted or what you thought it would be, but be flexible and nimble about it. And remember you can do whatever you want—you may not be able to do everything you what, but you can do whatever you want.