The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, is only the third autobiographical book I have read for The Marginal Virtues, the others being Hitman (by Bret Hart) and The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen (by Jacques Pépin). The subtitle indicates that The Glass Castle is a memoir; and, if its overall style is any indication of the genre, The Apprentice, which possesses a similar style, is also more of a memoir than an autobiography. (This is assuming that there is any real distinction between the genres, which there may not be.) Whatever the question of genre, like both of those other books, The Glass Castle is written in the first person, from Jeannette Walls's perspective.
The edition from which I shall quote passages was published in 2005 by Scribner.
The dust jacket begins thus:
Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation.Reading The Glass Castle immediately following The Rebel Sell was certainly an interesting contrast. The Wallses - the parents of the author - certainly come across as textbook countercultural 'rebels'.
As an editorial note, I have given this post the label 'profanity' because the Walls's frequently curse, and it is both tedious to omit their profane language, and it is necessary to include it to give you a sense of what they are like. (Not that their use of 'cussing' is necessarily bad, just that it expresses something characteristic about them.)
My main focus will be on what The Glass Castle reveals to be characteristic of Walls's parent's, Rex (her father) and Rose Mary (her mother). As an aside, I find that, more than nearly any other author about whose work I have written on The Marginal Virtues, it is odd using Walls's family name on its own to refer to her. Given some of the 'non-conformist' (i.e., 'countercultural') acts and speeches that the Wallses (is this how to spell that? damn) do or say, it will be worthwhile pointing out the occasional element from The Glass Castle that ties into The Rebel Sell.
We can begin to get a sense of what the parents Walls are like, in terms of their characteristic patterns of action and belief, from the very beginning:
I was on fire.So already we have a sense of what Walls mère is like; Walls père comes next:
It's my earliest memory. I was three years old... . I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. ... [A]t that moment, I was wearing the dress to cook hot dogs, watching them swell and bob in the boiling water as the late-morning sunlight filtered in through the... kitchenette window.
I could hear Mom in the next room singing while she worked on one of her paintings. ... [W]hen I... started stirring the hot dogs again, I felt a blaze of heat on my right side. ...
Mom ran into the room. ...
[She then] ran out of the room and came back with one of the army-surplus blankets... [and] threw the blanket around me to smother the flames.
They [the nurses at the hospital] asked what I was doing cooking hot dogs by myself at the age of three. It was easy, I said. You just put the hot dogs in the water and boil them. It wasn't like there was some complicated recipe that you had to be old enough to follow. ...
A few days after Mom and Dad brought me home, I cooked myself some hot dogs. I was hungry, Mom was at work on a painting, and no one else was there to fix them for me.
"Good for you," Mom said when she saw me cooking. "You've got to get right back in the saddle. You can't live in fear of something as basic as fire." [pp. 9-11, 15] Mrs Walls is evidently being neglectful: allowing your three year-old to cook hot dogs by herself (some would say, at all) is irresponsible. However, as Jeannette (as I shall refer to the author when commenting on something she says or does as a child) tells the nurses, '[i]t [isn't] like there [is] some complicated recipe that you [have] to be old enough to follow'. A child three years of age should not be using the stove - especially not by herself (as in this case). But there is something to be said about the idea of involving children as early as possible in food preparation. I wouldn't recommend the 'Rose Mary Walls' method, however. There is nothing, in principle, wrong with taking time for yourself when raising children, so long as you have made arrangements for them to be looked after in your absence. And certainly older children ought to be able to make their own food if (between mealtimes) they are hungry; even three year-old Jeannette could have been taught how to get herself an apple if she was hungry between meals. I would even go so far as to say that there is no reason why a four or five year-old could not, under close supervision, do some simple cooking. What we see here, though, which is characteristic behaviour of Mrs Walls, is an unwillingness to set aside her own interests (if only for a time) in order to care for others (namely, her own children). As Walls writes: 'I was hungry, Mom was at work on a painting, and no one else was there to fix them for me.' Mrs Walls would have been just in the other room, but the implication of what Walls writes is that she would not have appreciated an interruption in order to ask for food. (It must be recognised that parents must avoid being absolutely at their children's beck and call, even on occasion for legitimate needs.) Still, there may not have been any food available which did not require preparation (something which would not have been wholly Mrs Walls's fault, as we shall see), and Mrs Walls did respond immediately when Jeannette experienced serious trouble. Encouraging Jeannette to face her fears is also not bad, and Jeannette's willingness to 'get right back in the saddle' is a sign of resiliency, but given the context in which all this occurs, it is still troublesome. Insofar as Jeannette is willing to continue cooking, it enables Mrs Walls to avoid seeing her neglectfulness for what it really is. (Tragically - in the strict sense - when at one point Mrs Walls later does come to see this truth, she is characteristically incapable of addressing it in such a way as to overcome it.)
When my family came to visit [her in the hospital], their arguing and laughing and singing and shouting echoed through the quiet halls. ... Everyone always turned and stared at Dad. I couldn't figure out whether it was because he was so handsome or because he called people "pardner" and "goomba" and threw his head back when he laughed.Life in the Walls family is of necessity nomadic; perhaps more accurately, the Walls are effectively outlaws:
One day Dad leaned over my bed and asked if the nurses and doctors were treating me okay. If they were not, he said, he would kick some asses. I told Dad how nice and friendly everyone was. "Well, of course they are," he said. "They know you're Rex Walls's daughter."
... "You shouldn't be in this antiseptic joint." [said Rex Walls]
He sat down on my bed and started telling me the story about the time Lori [Jeannette's older sister] got stung by a poisonous scorpion. I'd heard it a dozen times, but I still liked the way Dad told it. Mom and Dad were out exploring in the desert when Lori, who was four, turned over a rock and the scorpion hiding under it stung her leg. She had gone into convulsions, and her body had become stiff and wet with sweat. But Dad didn't trust hospitals, so he took her to a Navajo witch doctor who cut open the wound and put a dark brown paste on it and said some chants and pretty soon Lori was as good as new. "Your mother should have taken you to that witch doctor the day you got burned," Dad said, "not to these heads-up-their-asses med-school quacks."
[At another visit] Dad got into an argument with the doctor. It started because Dad thought I shouldn't be wearing bandages. "Burns need to breathe," he told the doctor.
The doctor said bandages were necessary to prevent infection. Dad stared at the doctor. "To hell with infection," he said. He told the doctor that I was going to be scarred for life because of him, but, by God, I wasn't the only one who was going to walk out of there scarred.
Dad pulled back his fist as if to hit the doctor, who raised his hands and backed away. Before anything could happen, a guard in a uniform appeared and told [Jeannette's family] that they woud have to leave.
A few days later, when I had been at the hospital for about six weeks, Dad appeared alone in the doorway of my room. He told me we were going to check out, Rex-Walls style.
"Are you sure this is okay?" I asked.
"You just trust your old man," Dad said.
Dad hurried down the hall with me in his arms. A nurse yelled for us to stop, but Dad broke into a run. He pushed open an emergency-exit door and sprinted down the stairs and out to the street. Our car... was parked around the corner, the engine idling. ... Dad slid me across the seat next to Mom and took the wheel.
"You don't have to worry anymore, baby," Dad said. "You're safe now." [pp. 12-4] If this passage does anything, it reveals Walls's skillfully economic powers of description. In three pages she depicts her father at his most characteristic. Writing as she is from the perspective of her four year-old self, she doesn't include any explicit commentary on what he does, but there is still a lot to work with. For those interested in trivia, 'goomba' refers not to the mushroom-shaped bad guys from Super Mario Bros., but is a slang term referring to Italian-Americans, sometimes also spelled 'goombah'. (It is generally regarded as pejorative, although it is not so insulting as some such terms; there are, for example, Italian restaurants called 'Goomba's', and a book by actor Steven Schirripa published in 2002 called A Goomba's Guide to Life.) The term was probably meant as an insult in Rex Walls's day, but seems to be sufficiently innocuous to have been meliorated. Anyway, where to begin with Rex? On the bright side, he evidently cares for his daughter and wants what is best for her, and, by his lights, is doing right by her. The problem, as can evidently be seen, is that Rex Walls's perspective is distorted - when the family later moves to his hometown and stays at his parents's home for a while, we get a real good idea as to why Rex is the way he is. For one, there is Rex's view that disputes can only be solved by violence. If the hospital staff aren't treating his daughter well, why, he is going to 'kick some asses.' He self-assuredly pronounces that the reason 'everyone is nice and friendly' to Jeannette is because 'they know you're Rex Walls's daughter.' In other words, the nurses, orderlies, and so on, aren't nice to Jeannette by virtue of their own system of values or out of professional courtesy, but because (of course) they must be frightened by the idea of Rex Walls showing up to mete just punishment for the mistreatment of his daughter - mistreatment which would, in fact, be certain to happen if Jeannette weren't his daughter, or so his comment implies. This view of other people is exemplified when Rex raises his fist 'as if to hit the doctor', over the question of whether Jeannette should wear bandages over her burn. Now, allowing for the fact that patients, or their parents, should be allowed to question how they are being cared for (whether or not their skepticism is in many cases unwarranted), having recourse to the threat of violence is not going to solve matters. Rex operates from the standpoint that 'if I don't get my way I'm going to hit you until I do.'. For another, Rex's distrust of 'antiseptic joints' is out of touch with reality. Granted that it is possible that a Navajo medicine man, who might have learned such things from his predecessor (and whose knowledge stems, ultimately, from unsystemic yet effectively experimental observation), would know what kind of medicinal product derived from some plant or another would be effective in treating the venom of a scorpion native to the region in which that particular Navajo tribe lived, it doesn't follow that he would know how to treat burns - or, more to the point, that his treatment of burns would differ in any meaningful way from how they would be treated at the hospital. Rex's real view, that doctors are 'heads-up-their-asses med-school quacks', reveals that he doesn't particularly care whether what doctors say is true or not. In other words, reality is ignored in favour of what almost amounts to paranoid fantasy (if I may put it thus). It is an example of what C. S. Lewis decried as 'Bulverism'. Finally, Rex's distorted world-view is put into practice in his 'rescue' of his daughter from the hospital. Admittedly, the 'break-out' is probably engineered because the Walls's cannot possibly afford to pay for Jeannette's medical bills, but the family's impoverished living conditions are glamourised - by the Walls's themselves, not by outsiders - with an appeal to the dramatic and more paranoia. It is not enough that Rex fetch his daughter; he has to 'break out' with her - through an emergency exit, undoubtedly forcing hospital staff to go to great trouble and risk to evacuate patients, many of whom would be in much worse condition than Jeannette was, when the emergency alarm goes off - and by saying, once they are in the family car that she's 'safe now', he is insinuating that while she was in the clutches of The Man, she was unsafe. In reality, of course, Jeannette is, I'm sorry to say, less safe under her parents's roof (when they have one) than in the hospital. (You have to admit, however, that 'you're checking out, Rex-Walls style' is funny, and Walls auteur recounts using it to humorous effect later in the book on a couple of occasions.) However, I should say that I don't view Lori's being stung by a scorpion as the result of Rex and Rose Mary being neglectful parents (although The Glass Castle recounts plenty of examples of that), but as the result of the necessity of accepting the consequences of risk. Even if the Walls parents had warned Lori not to flip the rock over, she might have done so anyway. While the example is a bit extreme, it is the sort of thing about which people tend to get in an uproar, but which happens, as a matter of course, to thousands of children everywhere - notably without killing or permanently injuring them. Nevertheless, it is impossible to admire in any but the most circumscribed fashion the Walls's take on allowing children to take risks, precisely because they themselves make live a daily risk for their children. If in contemporary society (as in Jeannette Walls's childhood) many people take a smothering approach to risk, the Walls's nevertheless do not represent the sane alternative, but the reverse of the coin.
Dad came home in the middle of the night [one night] and roused all of us from bed.The Walls family lives for a brief time in San Francisco. They live in an old hotel for a while, but it burns down:
"Time to pull up stakes and leave this shit-hole behind," he hollered.
We had fifteen minutes to gather whatever we needed and pile into the car.
"Is everything okay, Dad?" I asked. "Is someone after us?"
"Don't you worry," Dad said. "You leave that to me. Don't I always take care of you?"
"Course you do," I said.
"That's my girl!" Dad said with a hug, then barked orders at us all to speed things up. He took the essentials... and packed them in the trunk of the [car]. He said we shouldn't take much else, just what we needed to survive. ...
... Dad steered the [car] through the dark, driving slowly so as not to alert anyone in the trailer park that we were, as Dad liked to put it, doing the skedaddle. He was grumbling that he couldn't understand why the hell it took so long to grab what we needed and haul our asses into the car.
"Dad!" I said. "I forgot Tinkerbell!"
"Tinkerbell can make it on her own," Dad said. "She's like my brave little girl. You are brave and ready for adventure, right?" [italics original]
"I guess," I said. ... For comfort, I tried to cradle Quixote, our gray and white cat... but he growled and scratched at my face. "Quiet, Quixote!" I said.
"Cats don't like to travel," Mom explained.
Anyone who didn't like to travel wasn't invited on our adventure, Dad said. He stopped the car, grabbed Quixote by the scruff of the neck, and tossed him out the window. Quixote landed with a screeching meow and a thud, Dad accelerated up the road, and I burst into tears.
To distract us kids, Mom got us singing songs like "Don't Fence Me In" and "This Land is Your Land," and Dad led us in rousing renditions of "Old Man River" and his favorite, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." After a while... Dad started telling us about the exciting things we were going to do and how we were going to get rich once we'd reached the new place where we were going to live.
"Where are we going, Dad?" I asked.
"Wherever we end up," he said.
Later that night, Dad stopped the car out in the middle of the desert, and we slept under the stars. We had no pillows, but Dad said that was part of his plan. He was teaching us to have good posture. The Indians didn't use pillows, either, he explained, and look how straight they stood. We did have our scratchy army-surplus blankets, so we spread them out and lay there, looking up at the field of stars. I told Lori how lucky we were to be sleeping out under the sky like Indians.
"We could live like this forever," I said.
"I think we're going to," she said.
We were always doing the skedaddle, usually in the middle of the night. I sometimes heard Mom and Dad discussing the people who were after us. Dad called them henchmen, bloodsuckers, and the gestapo. Sometimes he would make mysterious references to executives from Standard Oil who were trying to steal the Texas land that Mom's family owned, and FBI agents who were after Dad for some dark episode that he never told us about because he didn't want to put us in danger, too.
... Mom, however, told us that the FBI wasn't really after Dad; he just liked to say they were because it was more fun having the FBI on your tail than bill collectors. ...
Dad... could get about any job he wanted, he just didn't like keeping it for long. ... When he got bored or was fired or the unpaid bills piled too high or the lineman from the electrical company found out he had hot-wired our trailer to the utility poles—or the FBI was closing in—we packed up in the middle of the night and took off[.] [pp. 17-9] When Jeannette refers to 'Tinkerbell', she is talking about her favourite toy of the time, a plastic figurine of the fairy as represented by Disney (or so the description of the toy earlier in the book suggests). The 'paranoia' to which I referred in my marginal comments on the passage before this one is evident here, as well. By 'paranoia', I do not mean the clinical pathology (as an aside, I would say that its use as a clinical term has ruined its use as a term for patterns of behaviour exhibited by all kinds of people, if not everyone), but a kind of front, or smokescreen, if you will. It is the act of magnifying those whose job it is to hold you accountable for something into Bad Guys. Rex Walls throughout The Glass Castle blames 'The Man' all the time for problems the family faces that his own behaviour has caused, if he does not blame someone else. (Arguably countercultural practice at its most extreme falls into the same kind of trap.) So, the Walls family has to move around a lot, including stays in the desert, not because Rex Walls is unable to accept that if he is going to be a caretaker he has to settle down and accept the authority of others over him (due to his own family trauma, but this is not looked at until much later in Walls's memoir), but, he claims, due to the wrongful persecution of the family by the authorities. Anyone who attempts to hold him responsible is a 'henchman', or 'bloodsucker'. To look at it abstractly, even if we agree that the Walls's are often victims of social systems too weak to help those who need it most, the criticisms levelled at those whose task it is to uphold those social systems are of the same kind of fallacious moral equivalency as that which I examined in my marginal commentary on The Rebel Sell (to which a link has been provided above). Other illusions clung to for comfort include depicting their life as (in effect) outlaws as an 'adventure', and the idea that 'where we move next' will be where the family makes it big. In this passage, Walls père asks for the first time the question of Jeannette (and, by extension, the other members of the family), whether he always takes care of them. As a little girl, Jeannette says, 'of course'; even if she recognised that something wasn't right, she most certainly could not afford to say so! Later in the book, Walls's response to this question becomes more ambivalent. The question 'Don't I always take care of you?' is, on Rex's part, not so much an appeal to something self-evident as a way of cajoling a response in the affirmative from those for whose care he is responsible, as a way of gratifying his badly damaged sense of self.
After the hotel burned down, we lived for a few days on the beach. When we put down the backseat... there was room for everyone to sleep, though sometimes someone's feet would be sticking in my face. One night a policeman tapped on our window and said we had to leave; it was illegal to sleep on the beach. He was nice and kept calling us "folks" and even drew us a map to a place where we could sleep without getting arrested.One of the more creative (if I am connoting anything by this word, let the reader understand that I am praising the Walls's) responses on the part of Rex and Rose Mary Walls to their poverty is how they handle Christmas:
But after he left, Dad called him the goddamn gestapo and said that people like that got their jollies pushing people like us around. Dad was fed up with civilization. ... "These cities will kill you," he said. [p. 34] Rex Walls has a point, sort of. It is true that behaviour that appears to be innocuous or even beneficent can in fact be representative of baleful social structures. However, once you start interpreting every single action by people you don't like (without putting your own actions under the same scrutiny, naturally) in this light, for ever will it dominate your interpretive horizon. When it is done by Rex Walls, as in this passage, in which a cop gently telling them that they oughtn't to be sleeping on the beach is called 'the goddamn gestapo' and it is implied that he is a kind of sadist, then it is an evasion of one's own responsibility for the situation. (While the fire that burned the hotel down is, so far as I could tell, an accident, the circumstances that led to the Walls's precarious situation were not, and responsibility for many of them may be laid at the feet of Walls père & mère.) When this kind of view is subscribed to by outside observers of a situation, it introduces a certain vicious circularity to their interpretation of events.
I never believed in Santa Claus.Walls père is the primary parental figure in The Glass Castle, I thought; Walls mère, although she never seems to reach the depths of Rex's neglectful and violent behaviours, never seems to reach the heights to which he on occasion attains. Often her role in The Glass Castle is encapsulated in brief passages such as this:
None of us kids did. Mom and Dad refused to let us. They couldn't afford expensive presents, and they didn't want us to think we weren't as good as other kids who, on Christmas morning, found all sorts of fancy toys under the tree that were supposedly left by Santa Claus. ...
Dad lost his job at the gypsum mine... and when Christmas came that year, we had no money at all. On Christmas Eve, Dad took each of us kids out into the desert night one by one. I had a blanket wrapped around me, and when it was my turn, I offered to share it with Dad, but he said no thanks. The cold never bothered him. I was five that year and I sat next to Dad and we looked up at the sky. Dad loved to talk about the stars. He explained to us how they rotated through the night sky as the earth turned. He taught us to identify the constellations and how to navigate by the North Star. Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he'd say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn't even see the stars. ...
"Pick out your favorite star," Dad said that night. He told me I could have it for keeps. He said it was my Christmas present.
"You can't give me a star!" I said. "No one owns the stars."
"That's right," Dad said. "No one else owns them. You just have to claim it before anyone else does, like that dago fellow Columbus claimed America for Queen Isabella. Claiming a star as your own has every bit as much logic to it."
I thought about it and realized Dad was right. He was always figuring out things like that.
I could have any star I wanted, Dad said, except Betelgeuse and Rigel, because Lori and Brian had already laid claim to them.
I looked up to the stars and tried to figure out which was the best one. You could see hundreds, maybe thousands or even millions, twinkling in the clear desert sky. The longer you looked and the more your eyes adjusted to the dark, the more stars you'd see, layer after layer of them gradually becoming visible. There was one in particular, in the west above the mountains but low in the sky, that shone more brightly than all the rest.
"I want that one," I said.
Dad grinned. "That's Venus," he said. Venus was only a planet, he went on, and pretty dinky compared to real stars. She looked bigger and brighter because she was much closer than the stars. Poor old Venus didn't even make her own light, Dad said. She shone only from reflected light. He explained to me that planets glowed because reflected light was constant, and stars twinkled because their light pulsed.
"I like it anyway," I said. I had admired Venus even before that Christmas. You could see it in the early evening, glowing on the western horizon, and if you got up early, you could still see it in the morning, after all the stars had disappeared.
"What the hell," Dad said. "It's Christmas. You can have a planet if you want."
And he gave me Venus.
That evening over Christmas dinner, we all discussed outer space. Dad explained light-years and black holes and quasars, and told us about the special qualities of Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Venus.
Betelgeuse was a red star in the shoulder of the constellation Orion. It was one of the largest stars you could see in the sky, hundreds of times bigger than the sun. It had burned brightly for millions of years and would soon become a supernova and burn out. I got upset that Lori had chosen a clunker of a star, but Dad explained that "soon" meant hundreds of thousands of years when you were talking about stars.
Rigel was a blue star, smaller than Betelgeuse, Dad said, but even brighter. It was also in Orion—it was his left foot, which seemed appropriate, since Brian was an extra-fast runner.
Venus didn't have any moons or satellites or even a magnetic field, but it did have an atmosphere sort of similar to Earth's, except it was super-hot—about five hundred degrees or more. "So," Dad said, "when the sun starts to burn out and Earth turns cold, everyone here might want to move to Venus to get warm. And they'll have to get permission from your descendants first."
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." [pp. 39-41] While the Walls's do indulge in a certain amount of sneering (mostly omitted), you have to admit that their approach to this one Christmas is creative and memorable. Rex Walls's prediction is realised, in a way, when, many years later, when his children are all grown up and enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner (partly in his memory after his death), and they remember when he gave them each a star for Christmas. The 'logic' he uses to rebut Jeannette's objection is kind of silly (and includes a characteristic use of a racial slur), but is only meant, after all, to satisfy a five year-old girl. Although the style of this passage is plain to the point of drab, it nevertheless cannot help but capture the beauty of the desert sky at night - to which I myself can attest. The line 'The longer you looked... the more stars you'd see, layer upon layer of them gradually becoming visible' employs the economy of precision I noted of Walls's style before, and you can see the blackness of the night peeling away to reveal a crowded spectacle of light. It is redolent, I think, of the kind of significance given the heavens by the old Ptolemaic model, so well expressed by C. S. Lewis. To return to more earthly matters, this passage also reveals the best of Rex Walls. One small part of his vast range of knowledge is made evident - he is clearly an astronomer, however amateur, of no little ability. The idea of giving a star as a gift is, also, sheer brilliance. You cannot help but think that under other circumstances Rex Walls would be the 'best Dad ever', as it were. Indeed, in this passage you can see that, for all his flaws, Rex Walls is capable of loving and providing for his children. It is just this that is the tragedy of The Glass Castle, that he simply wasn't able to do so consistently or well. Based on this and on other passages, you can get the sense that Rex Walls was probably a genius - and, as I pointed out in one of my marginal commentaries (I had thought it was in that on Ender's Game, but upon review it was not), our society appears to be, for the most part, incapable of commensurately nurturing and rewarding genius. Incidentally, here is an image of the constellation of Orion, in which both Betelgeuse (the large orange spot on the top left-hand side) and Rigel (the blue spot on a diagonal axis with Betelgeuse, on the bottom right-hand side) are visible. And here is a picture of Venus in the twilit sky.
Mom didn't like cooking much—"Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour," she'd ask us, "when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that will last forever?"—so once a week or so, she'd fix a big cast-iron vat of something like fish and rice or, usually, beans. We'd all sort through the beans together, picking out the rocks, then Mom would soak them overnight, boil them the next day with an old ham bone to give them flavor, and for that entire week, we'd have beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If the beans started going bad, we'd just put extra spice in them[.] [p. 56] It's not so much the method by which mère Walls feeds the family that is problematic. After all, when you are poor, you don't always have the option of choosing from a variety of foods, even if you do not labour under the handicaps the Walls's did (no discipline around spending, Rex's alcoholism, and so on). Rather, it is that mère Walls makes indulging in her own desires more important than nurturing and building up her family. There is nothing wrong with fantasising or dreaming about escaping your responsibilities as a parent - which parent does not? - nor, even, with making arrangements so that you aren't immediately responsible for your children (hiring a babysitter so Mom & Dad can go on a date, &c.). Moreover, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of mothers who are capable of providing for their families while still engaging in artistic and creative endeavours. (One example would be Debbie Macomber, author of One Simple Act; she writes about getting up early in the morning so she would have time to write before her children woke up, and although by the publication of One Simple Act, she is well-to-do, if memory serves the family was 'just getting by' in the early days of her writing career.) Nor do we get the sense that the Walls children are overly demanding of their mother's time: despite a certain degree of neglectfulness, Rose Mary has done pretty well to teach her children to be independent, so she probably would have had uninterrupted time to work on her art even with the kids around (there are, indeed, several passages which would seem to verify this claim). Yet Rose Mary just seems to be trying too hard to realise that fantasy of escape from parental responsibility. It is one of the burdens of parenthood, that you have to put down your 'work of a lifetime' in order to spend 'an afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour'. Although it is possible and desirable to find a modus vivendi between one's need for self-fulfillment and responsibility as a parent, there come times when you have to put down brush or pen and deal with feeding, comforting, or disciplining your children.Another aspect of life with mère & père Walls, undoubtedly all too familiar to those who have grown up with parents with a history of alcoholism and childhood abuse, is the fighting:
When Mom got home that evening, she looked in the refrigerator. "What happened to the stick of margarine?" she asked.As I pointed out in my marginal commentary on the passage just above, Walls mère, as a co-dependent, doesn't have the internal psychic resources to set limits on her husband; after getting a job as a teacher she is 'worn down' by Rex into giving him the money from her paycheque, so that:
"We ate it," I said.
Mom got angry. She was saving it, she said, to butter the bread. We already ate all the bread, I said. Mom said she was thinking of baking some bread if a neighbour would loan us some flour. I pointed out that the gas company had turned off our gas.
"Well," Mom said. "We should have saved the margarine just in case the gas gets turned back on. Miracles happen, you know." It was because of my and Lori's selfishness, she said, that if we had any bread, we'd have to eat it without butter.
Mom wasn't making any sense to me. I wondered if she had been looking forward to eating the margarine herself. And that made me wonder if she was the one who'd stolen the can or corn the night before, which got me a little mad. "It was the only thing to eat in the house," I said. Raising my voice, I added, "I was hungry." [italics original]
Mom gave me a startled look. I'd broken one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure. She raised her hand, and I thought she was going to hit me, but then she sat down at the spool table and rested her head on her arms. Her shoulders started shaking. I went over and touched her arm. "Mom?" I said.
She shook off my hand, and when she raised her head, her face was swollen and red. "It's not my fault if you're hungry!" she shouted. "Don't blame me. Do you think I like living like this? Do you?"
That night when Dad got home, he and Mom got into a big fight. Mom was screaming that she was tired of getting all the blame for everything that went wrong. "How did this become my problem?" she shouted. "Why aren't you helping? You spend your whole day at the Owl Club. You act like it's not your responsibility." [The Owl Club is a casino in the town in which the Walls family was living at the time.]
Dad explained that he was out trying to earn money. He had all sorts of prospects that he was on the brink of realizing. Problem was, he needed cash to make that happen. There was a lot of gold in Battle Mountain, but it was trapped in the ore. ... He was perfecting a technique by which the gold could be leached out of the rock by processing it with a cyanide solution. But that took money. Dad told Mom she needed to ask her mother for the money to develop the cyanide-leaching process he was developing.
"You want me to beg from my mother again?" Mom asked.
"Goddammit, Rose Mary! It's not like we're asking for a handout," he yelled. "She'd be making an investment." [italics original]
Grandma was always lending us money, Mom said, and she was sick of it. Mom told Dad that Grandma had said that if we couldn't take care of ourselves, we could go live in Phoenix, in her house.
"Maybe we should," Mom said.
That got Dad really angry. "Are you saying I can't take care of my own family?"
"Ask them," Mom snapped.
We kids were sitting on the old passenger benches. Dad turned to me. I studied the scuff marks on the floor.
Their argument continued the next morning. We kids were downstairs lying in our boxes, listening to them fighting upstairs. Mom was carrying on about how things had gotten so desperate around the house that we didn't have anything to eat except margarine, and now that was gone, too. She was sick, she said, of Dad's ridiculous dreams and his stupid plans and his empty promises.
I turned to Lori, who was reading a book. "Tell them that we like eating margarine," I said. "Then maybe they'll stop fighting."
Lori shook her head. "That'll make Mom think we're taking Dad's side," she said. "It would only make it worse. Let them work it out."
I knew Lori was right. The only thing to do when Mom and Dad fought was to pretend it wasn't happening or act like it didn't matter. Pretty soon they'd be friend again, kissing and dancing in each other's arms. But this particular argument just would not stop. After going on about the margarine, they started fighting about whether or not some painting Mom had done was ugly. Then they argued about whose fault it was that we lived like we did. Mom told Dad that he should get another job. Dad said that if Mom wanted someone in the family to be punching a time clock, then she could get a job. She had a teaching degree, he pointed out. She could work instead of sitting around on her butt all day, painting pictures no one ever wanted to buy.
"Van Gogh didn't sell any paintings, either," Mom said. "I'm an artist!"
"Fine," Dad said. "Then quit your damned bellyaching. Or go peddle your ass at the Green Lantern." [pp. 69-71] First, a few trivial details for clarification. The Walls's are living, at this point, in a town called Battle Mountain, in Nevada. The website to which I have provided the link confirms the existence of the Owl Club; one wonders whether any of the oldtimers remember Rex Walls. The Green Lantern, by the way, the place at which Rex, ah, 'encourages' Rose Mary to 'go peddle [her] ass', is, or more likely was, a brothel. (The child Jeannette for many years did not know what went on there, although Walls's descriptions of what happened, even from her childhood perspective, leave no doubt to the adult reader as to what was going on there.) Unsurprisingly the website makes no mention of it. The Walls's were living in what was once an old railroad depot, and their furniture consisted of scavenged bits and bobs. The 'spool table' is just that, a spool, once used to coil industrial cable, put on its side and used as a table; the 'boxes' to which Walls refers as being possessed by the Walls children are, in fact, large cardboard boxes used as beds. The glamour of the Walls's nomadic life sometimes gets the kids, as when they protest, after moving to Battle Mountain, that they would rather have their boxes than real beds because, they say, 'they made going to bed seem like an adventure.' [p. 52] Looking at this passage in depth, anyone familiar with studies of addiction would recognise the dynamics at work in Rex's and Rose Mary's argument as a textbook case of addict and co-dependent. Neither is able to accept his or her own responsibility, or to set appropriate limits. I should emphasise the point that 'accepting one's own responsibility' does not mean accepting the blame one's addict or co-dependent partner displaces on one in order to evade their own responsibility. It is this latter scenario which is what, in fact, takes place in this argument. One of the tragic (or semi-tragic, if we adhere to a stricter definition of 'tragic' instead of simply using it as a woolly synonym for 'sad') aspects of this passage, and of the way events play out in The Glass Castle generally, is that for all their moving about, neither Rex nor Rose Mary seem to have the good fortune to find, or (had they ever been presented with the opportunity) the gumption to join, a twelve-step support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous. I should also point out that I omitted the escalation of Rex's and Rose Mary's fight (on pp. 71-2) to violence: although he denies murderous intent and imputes suicidal intent to Rose Mary, Rex actually pushes her out a window, while holding her by her arms. Unhappily, this is not the only example of a fight which turns violent: earlier in the book (pp. 42-3), when Rose Mary is pregnant with their fourth child, they get into a tiff while driving about how long she carried Lori in her womb, which results in her getting out of the car in a snit and him nearly running her down with it. This kind of violent response to opposition by those whom it is 'safe' for Rex to dominate, coupled with a denial of any culpability for the violence (' "I swear to God I didn't [push her]. She jumped." [p. 72] ') is characteristic of him, as could be foreseen all the way back when Rex promised that he would 'kick some asses' if the hospital staff weren't treating his daughter right (and, indeed, couldn't be counted upon to do so without the threat of violence). It is this passage to which I referred earlier when I wrote, about Rose Mary Walls, that 'when at one point Mrs Walls later does come to see this truth, she is characteristically incapable of addressing it in such a way as to overcome it.' The moment when the spell is, at least temporarily, broken, is, of course, when Jeannette adds, ' "I was hungry" ', and Mrs Walls drops into a chair and starts crying. It is why I highlighted the passage in the quotation when Walls writes 'I'd broken one of our unspoken rules...'. They are supposed to 'pretend' that all of the neglect and transience is 'an incredibly fun adventure.' This line (especially with the use of the word 'unspoken') reminded me at once of an excellent little book called The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life, by sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel (who has, by the way, one of the coolest names ever). Even the best of families resort to silence or denial to evade acknowledging dysfunction or weakness; how much more do families the resilience of which is weakened by addiction, abuse-filled pasts, poverty, and co-dependency. While, as we have seen, there are admirable elements to the way in which the Walls parents encourage their children to learn a lot, to think critically about what is often uncritically accepted, to be independent, and to take risks, it cannot be denied that, on the whole, their lives really do not consist of 'an incredibly fun adventure'. For them to insist that this is so is a form of denial; and the fact that it is, as Walls puts it, an 'unspoken rule' is for them to engage in a conspiracy of silence. (Rex Walls's alcoholism is also 'silenced' in this way; Mrs Walls at one point calls it 'a little bit of a drinking situation' [p. 23], a euphemism so obvious Walls auteur hardly needs to spell out in detail in the following sentences just what comprises one of her father's 'drinking situations'.) This kind of denial is also made pointedly clear in the child Jeannette's reflection (also highlighted) that 'the only thing to do when Mom and Dad fought was to pretend it wasn't happening or act like it didn't matter', as well as in Mr Walls's protestations that a 'breakthrough' in his 'research' into a 'cyanide-leaching process' is 'just around the corner', and all he needs is a little more money to perfect it. (I paraphrase, but that is more or less what he says). Later, Walls père explains away his alcoholism and joblessness as 'corruption' of the unions due to 'the mob', which he has to 'investigate' (even to point of saying he 'has' to go into their bars to do it). Since I think I wandered away from my point about the tragic character of Mrs Walls's realisation, I'll return to it now. One thing that is tragic about it is that it is, due to the dynamic of addiction and co-dependency, temporary. Rose Mary Walls does not, of her own strength, have the ability to break the cycle of co-dependency; while she gets a job as a teacher shortly after this fight, Rex Walls soon uses the money on drink, so that they remain impoverished, and circumstances arise that necessitate the family's flight from Battle Mountain. In short, the tragic character of Mrs Walls's realisation is that she characteristically blames her husband, evades her own responsibility, and cannot permanently shift the dynamics of the family system by getting a job. This also appears to me to be the passage in which Jeannette begins to see clearly that her mother and father are not as wonderful as she would like (indeed, has had) to believe. It is when she gets angry and can't understand why her mother would say such things like 'we could have kept the margarine to eat with bread' when they all know that there will be no bread for a long time under the present dispensation. The final aspect of this passage that I would like to touch on has to do with the third passage I highlighted, when Rex accuses his wife of saying that he can't take care of his family. We have seen that this is clearly a sore point for Walls père: he seems incapable of being able to care for his children unless it is 'over against' someone else, a struggle against 'the goddamned gestapo', or 'med-school quacks'. Likewise, he seems incapable of dealing with his children or wife appropriately when they point out his failures as a parent without lashing out or taking it as a devastating, soul-crushing blow to his sense of self. No doubt he had set himself up as a 'good' father quite unlike the spineless, drunken non-entity his own father was; when faced with evidence that he was not as caring as he pretended to be, Rex invariably reacts as if he has just taken a blow to the face, becomes emotionally crushed, and leaves to go drinking. (As when, for example, much later in the book, Walls auteur buys her father warm clothes for Christmas and he interprets it as a sign that she ' "must be mighty ashamed of your old man" ', and that she thinks he is '" some sort of goddamned charity case." ' [p. 263] Walls's mother explains that ' "He's the one who's supposed to be taking care of you." ' Walls père is incapable of coming to terms with his failures as a father, with his daughter's acceptance of his failures (the judgment he thinks she is making is all projection on his part; of course, we have only Walls's take on this, so who knows how clear-sighted she is), or with the fact that, now that she is grown up, and her siblings too, it is no longer his responsibility to be 'taking care' of them.) Rex Walls is fundamentally insecure about his ability to provide for his family, an insecurity aggravated by his alcoholism and characteristic need to lash out at authority, stemming from his own family circumstances. (If I seem tough on Rex's folks, just wait till you read about them when the Walls family moves to Welch, West Virginia. I don't think I'll be quoting many passages from their time there, so you'll have to read the book to realise just how dispiritingly vicious the family dynamic was in which Rex grew up, and how amazing it was that he turned out to be so talented and bright.) To end this passage with some more trivial details, this time about a couple of the places in which the Walls family lived, it was in Welch that the first food stamps were issued under the Kennedy administration (an historical event referred to in The Class Castle), and Battle Mountain was named by the Washington Post in 2001 the 'armpit' of America (something else not mentioned in the tourism site to which I provided a link, unsurprisingly).
Soon we were out of money again. When Dad dropped Brian and me off at school, he noticed that we weren't carrying lunch bags.Toward the end of the book, when Walls is in college in New York City, her father engages in the same kind of parental heroics:
"Where are your lunches?" Dad asked us.
We looked at each other and shrugged.
"There's no food in the house," Brian said.
When Dad heard that, he acted outraged, as though he'd learned for the first time that his children were going hungry.
"Dammit, that Rose Mary keeps spending money on art supplies!" he muttered, pretending to be talking to himself. Then he declared more loudly, "No child of mine has to go hungry!" After he dropped us off, he called after us, "Don't you kids worry about a thing."
At lunch Brian and I sat together in the cafeteria. I was pretending to help him with his homework so that no one would ask us why we weren't eating when Dad appeared in the doorway, carrying a big grocery bag. I saw him scanning the room, looking for us. "My young 'uns forgot to take their lunch to school today,"" he announced to the teacher on cafeteria duty as he walked toward us. He set the bag on the table in front of Brian and me and took out a loaf of bread, a whole package of bologna, a jar of mayonnaise, a half-gallon jug of orange juice, two apples, a jar of pickles, and two candy bars.
"Have I ever let you down?" he asked Brian and me and then turned and walked away.
In a voice so low that Dad didn't hear him, Brian said, "Yes."
"Dad has to start carrying his weight," Lori said as she stared into the empty refrigerator.
"He does!" I said. "He brings in money from odd jobs."
"He spends more than he earns on booze," Brian said. ...
"It's not all for booze," I said. "Most of it's for research on cyanide leaching."
"Dad doesn't need to do research on leaching," Brian said. "He's an expert." He and Lori cracked up. I glared at them. I knew more about Dad's situation than they did because he talked to me more than anyone else in the family. ... Dad told me all about his plans and showed me his pages of graphs and calculations and geological charts, depicting the layers of sediment where the gold was buried.
He told me I was his favorite child, but he made me promise not to tell Lori or Brian or Maureen [the youngest Walls child]. It was our secret. "I swear, honey, there are times when I think you're the only one around who still has faith in me," he said. "I don't know what I'd do if you ever lost it." I told him that I would never lose faith in him. And I promised myself that I never would. [pp. 77-9] Like anyone trying to avoid taking responsibility for his addiction, Walls père uses emotional manipulation to gain support so that he can continue to justify his self-perception as a victim. As a young girl, Jeannette is obviously not able to maintain sufficient critical distance to see what her Dad is doing for what it really is. However, as the preceding segment in this passage shows, Walls's recollection of her childhood demonstrates that she was not completely hoodwinked. At this remove it is hard to tell whether comments like 'as though he'd learned for the first time that his children were going hungry,' or 'pretending to be talking to himself', or the way in which Walls structures the anecdote to make it pretty obvious that Walls père is fooling no one with his dramatic pronunciations and demonstrations of just how much he cares for his family, represent what Walls herself thought of what was going on. What is most likely the case is that because her own emotional needs (the need to be needed, being told that she had a special relationship with her father) were being met, she tended to side with or excuse her father, but knew in her heart of hearts that things were not right. Brian's comment about their Dad being 'an expert' on 'leaching' is, of course, a pun (Rex Walls is, in fact, an expert on 'leeching'), and it is the kind of dark humour to which those who are in grim circumstances (or whose job frequently exposes them to the same) often have recourse. In my view such a sense of humour is a sign of resiliency, and as Walls's memoir shows, the Walls children are, on the whole, able to display considerable resiliency in the face of adversity. Jeannette herself is able to shake off her father's 'spell' and emotional entanglement. That does not mean that she does not continue to love her father; just that she does not fall prey to the same inner demons that destroyed his life. In any case, Walls père could, perversely, draw 'strength' from his daughter's support to keep sticking to his old ways. This passage also reminds us how Walls père is dependent, in self-destructive fashion, on creating situations where his children have to respond affirming his all-consuming need to feel that he has not 'let them down' and in which he can feel that he has removed their worries, or proven what a great father he is. Walls père isn't providing for his children out of habit, but in order to feed his own emotional needs. Both Jeannette and Brian see through his act; Walls's recollection that her father (characteristically) blames his wife for 'buying too many art supplies' is a devastating touch. Also of interest in this passage is Walls's comment that she and her brother sat together and made it look like they were in the middle of working on his homework so that no one would inquire as to why they had no lunch. Since society commonly views it as shameful to be poor, it is little wonder that the Walls children wanted to avoid the scrutiny and judgment of others. The shamefulness which is often ascribed to poverty is why people often have trouble asking or receiving help. Granted that one can fall into the trap of perverse incentives (e.g., finding it more worth your while to stay on welfare than to try and improve your lot), the kind of institutionalised judgment one faces often makes it humiliating to try and find help.
In August, Dad called to go over my course selection for the fall semester. He also wanted to discuss some of the books on the reading lists. Since he'd come to New York, he'd been borrowing my assigned books from the public library. He read every single one, he said, so he could answer any questions I might have. Mom said it was his way of getting a college education along with me.Returning to Walls's recollection of her childhood, it happens that at length the family has to leave Battle Mountain, 'doing the skedaddle' yet again:
When he asked me what courses I had signed up for, I said, "I'm thinking of dropping out."
"The hell you are," Dad said.
I told him that while most of my tuition was covered by grants and loans and scholarships, the school expected me to contribute two thousand dollars a year. But over the summer, I had been able to save only a thousand dollars. I needed another thousand and had no way to come up with it.
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" Dad asked.
Dad called a week later and told me to meet him at Lori's. When he arrived with Mom he was carrying a large plastic garbage bag and a small brown paper bag tucked under his arm. I assumed it was a bottle of booze, but then he opened the paper bag and turned it upside down. Hundreds of dollar bills—ones, fives, tens, twenties, all wrinkled and worn—spilled into my lap.
"There's nine hundred and fifty bucks," Dad said. "He opened the plastic bag, and a fur coat tumbled out. "That there's mink. You should be able to pawn it for fifty, at least."
I stared at the loot. "Where did you get all this?" I finally asked.
"New York City is full of poker players who wouldn't know their ass from a hole in the ground."
"Dad," I said, "you guys need the money more than I do."
"It's yours," Dad said. "Since when is it wrong for a father to take care of his little girl?"
"But I can't." I looked at Mom.
She sat down next to me and patted my leg. "I've always believed in the value of a good education," she said.
So, when I enrolled for my final year at Barnard, I paid what I owed on my tuition with Dad's wadded, crumpled bills. [pp. 264-5] 'Barnard' is Barnard College, a liberal arts college for women; at one point, all women who applied to Columbia University would have been sent to Barnard, more or less. (Walls mentions this somewhere in The Glass Castle, but I cannot now remember whether when she was studying there that was the case for her.) Walls père's idea of reading the books for his daughter's school term so that he can 'answer any questions [she] might have' is a bit much, but his coming through with nine hundred and fifty dollars and a coat for to pawn strikes the right note. And it does so despite the fact that it is motivated, pretty much, by the same desires that motivated Rex's 'heroics' in the previous passage commented upon. The differences in the 'feel' of old man Walls's action this time are: 1) he was not responsible (in whole or part) for Jeannette's difficulties paying for college; 2) although Jeannette undoubtedly felt obliged to accept his help, her father wasn't making a public spectacle of giving her the money, the way he did when he brought food to Brian and her way back when; 3) the balance of the action is weighted in favour of 'actually helping one's child' instead of 'gratifying one's own needs', for while Jeannette and Brian could look forward only to going hungry again when they got home after Rex dropped the food off for them, in this case Walls père's action helped Jeannette pay for her final year of education, i.e., it made a permanent and beneficial impact on her life. Walls also does not recount that her father said anything smacking of emotional blackmail, unlike his loaded question the time he brought food: ' "Have I ever let you down?" ' he asked, as if his dependents could say to his face anything other than 'yes'. In this situation he does not use his 'heroics' as a lever to pry emotional gratification for his needs from his daughter. This passage also demonstrates Rex's smarts (emphasised all the more, believe you me, when you contrast his brilliance with the vacuousness of his family) and resourcefulness: in addition to following Jeannette's curriculum, Walls père is able to shake up $950 in a week from playing poker, which is not something you'd think most homeless guys would be able to do. Still more impressive is the fact that he didn't spend most of the money on booze. From the perspective of his addiction, of course, he was 'acting in' - his 'abstinence' or 'temperance' in this case was nothing more than a temporary measure - but by this point Jeannette is on her own, unentangled from her father's emotional dysfunctions (although still willing to maintain contact and involvement with him and her mother), and leading her own life, so his 'acting in' will not have any harmful effects on her. Finally, I should point out that from the position of absolute moral equivalency, the distinctions I noted, between this act of 'parental heroism' and the one quoted immediately before it, are effaced; both would be taken to signify how Rex Walls is a failure as a parent. The perspective I have taken, that of moral continuity, allows us to acknowledge that both this act and that stem from Walls père's psychological dysfunction, that both are 'impure' with respect to the motives behind them, yet still grants the obvious distinctions between them. (To digress, there is a helpful analogy which supports distinguishing continuity from equivalency in a book I recently read, When We Pray Together, by the former general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Emilio Castro. He writes, '[T]here is something wrong... [if we make] no distinction between the sadistic frenzy of the torturer and the hatred of the prisoner being tortured. [p. 78]' And that is in the context of affirming universal human sinfulness.)
[Mom had] been thinking we should move to Phoenix ever since Grandma died a few months back, but Dad had refused to leave Battle Mountain because he was so close to a breakthrough in his cyanide-leaching process.Every once in a while, one of the Walls parents will say or do something that makes you think, 'hmm, that's a good point, actually,' and one of those moments occurs when Rex Walls takes the family to the zoo in Phoenix to prove a point:
"And I was," Dad said.
Mom gave a snort of a laugh. "So the trouble you kids got into... was actually a blessing in disguise," she said. "My art career is going to flourish in Phoenix. I can just feel it." She turned around to look at me. "We're off on another adventure, Jeannette-kins. Isn't this wonderful?" Mom's eyes were bright. "I'm such an excitement addict!" [p. 93] You'll have to read The Glass Castle to learn what the 'trouble' was that the kids got into that caused the family to uproot itself yet again. Suffice it to say that it involved getting the authorities involved, which, of course, would have meant the Walls parents being held to account. In this little passage Walls auteur encapsulates the psychological dysfunction of both her father and mother. Walls père is, of course, 'so close to a breakthrough' in whatever scheme it is that will 'make everything right' - but he has been 'so close to a breakthrough' for years and years. Walls mère in her excitement blurts out just what her problem is: ' "I'm such an excitement addict!" ' But her insight is insufficient to penetrate the suffocating shell of habits that she has built up to feed that addiction to excitement - the practical result of which is, of course, that she is incapable of the kind of day-to-day work that makes it possible to enjoy anything exciting at all. Many people, and not just addicts or others suffering from one or another illness or psychological dysfunction, fall into the trap of thinking that a 'change of scenery' will make all the difference - when, of course, it is their internal mental scenery that determines how they will live and act, wherever they are. I myself fell for this kind of thinking. I remember making a pastoral visit to someone during one of my internships who talked about her alcoholic husband, who promised that he would change for the better once the family had made the move to a cottage. Unsurprisingly, after the move was made, he changed not one bit; she eventually had to take the children and move back to the nearest municipality. Throughout The Glass Castle, move after move does not change circumstances for the better for the Walls family (it is particularly heartbreaking when they have to leave Phoenix for Welch); the Walls children all move to New York, and the reason they succeed there is because they, unlike their parents, have learned the resiliency they need to avoid self-destructive habits and addictive compulsions. (It should be admitted that New York City also affords more opportunities to make a life for yourself than Welch does.)
City life was getting to Dad. "I'm starting to feel like a rate in a maze," he told me. He hated the way everything in Phoenix was so organized, with time cards, bank accounts, telephone bills, parking meters, tax forms, alarm clocks, PTA meetings, and pollsters... . ...Speaking of moments in which one or the other of the Walls parents does something appropriately parental, or else something that challenges our understanding of society, I have to admit that there seem to be fewer such moments (or so it seemed to me) with respect to Rose Mary Walls than for Rex, probably because she came off for the worst whenever they had an argument, or whenever she tried to exert some control, as I think many of the passages I have cited above demonstrate. So even though the remaining passages I am going to cite present Walls mère in a rather unflattering light, it is still easy to sympathise with her. Walls auteur recounts two occasions during which, as a teenage girl (when the family was living in Welch), she expressed unhappiness or dismay with her mother.
Dad missed the wilderness. He needed to be roaming free in open country and living among untamed animals. He felt it was good for your soul to have buzzards and coyotes and snakes around. That was the way man was meant to live, he'd say, in harmony with the wild... not this lords-of-the-earth crap, trying to rule the entire goddamn planet, cutting down all the forests and killing every creature you couldn't bring to heel.
One day we heard on the radio that a woman in the suburbs had seen a mountain lion behind her house and had called the police, who shot the animal. Dad got so angry he put his fist through a wall. "That mountain lion had as much right to his life as that sour old biddy does to hers," he said. "You can't kill something just because it's wild."
Dad stewed for a while, sucking on a beer, and then he told us all to get in the car.
"Where are we going?" I asked. ...
"I'm going to show you," he said, that no animal, no matter how big or wild, is dangerous as long as you know what you're doing."
We all piled into the car. Dad drove, nursing another beer and cussing under his breath... . We turned in at the city zoo. ...
At the entrance gate, Dad bought our tickets, muttering about the idiocy of paying money to look at animals, and led us down the walk. Most of the cages were patches of dirt surrounded by iron bars, with forlorn gorillas or restless bears or irritable monkeys or anxious gazelles huddled in the corners. ...
We stopped at a bridge. Below it, in a deep pit, alligators sunned themselves on rocks surrounding a pond. "The biddy who got that mountan lion shot didn't understand animal psychology," Dad said. "If you let them know you're not afraid, they'll leave you alone."
Dad pointed to the biggest, scaliest alligator. "Me and that nasty looking bastard's going to have us a staring contest." Dad stood on the bridge glowering at the alligator. At first it seemed to be asleep, but then it blinked and looked up at Dad. Dad continued staring, his eyes in a fierce squint. After a minute, the alligator thrashed its tail, looked away, and slid into the water. "See, you just have to communicate your position," Dad said.
"Maybe he would have gone for a swim anyway," Brian said.
"What do you mean?" I asked. "Didn't you see how nervous that gator got? Dad made him do it."
We followed Dad to the lion's den, but the lions were sleeping, so Dad said we should leave them alone. The aardvark was busy Hoovering up ants, and Dad said you shouldn't disturb eating animals, so we passed it by and went on to the cheetah's cage, which was about as big as our living room and surrounded by a chain fence. The lone cheetah paced back and forth, the muscles in his shoulders shifting with each step. Dad folded his arms on his chest and studied the cheetah. "He's a good animal—fastest four-footed creature on the planet," he declared. "Not happy about being in this damn cage, but he's resigned to it, and he's no longer angry. ..."
... Dad squatted outside the fence opposite the cheetah. The animal came closer to the bars and studied him curiously. Dad kept looking at him, but not in the angry-eyed way he had stared down the alligator. The cheetah looked back. Finally, he sat down. Dad stepped over the chain fence and knelt right next to the bars where the cheetah was sitting. The cheetah remained still, looking at Dad.
Dad slowly raised his right hand and put it up against the cage. The cheetah looked at Dad's hand but didn't move. Dad calmly placed his hand between the iron bars of the cage and rested it on the cheetah's neck. The cheetah moved the side of his face against Dad's hand, as if asking to be petted. Dad gave the cheetah the kind of hardy, vigorous petting you'd give a big dog.
Situation under control," Dad said and beckoned us over.
We climbed under the chain fence and knelt around Dad while he petted the cheetah. ... I knelt close to the cheetah. My heart was beating fast, but I wasn't scared, only excited. I could feel the cheetah's hot breath on my face. He looked right at me. His amber eyes were steady but sad, as if he knew he'd never see the plains of Africa again.
"May I pet him, please?" I asked Dad.
Dad took my hand and slowly guided it to the side of the cheetah's neck. It was soft but also bristly. The cheetah turned his head and put his moist nose up against my hand. Then his big pink tongue unfolded from his mouth, and he licked my hand. I gasped. Dad opened my hand and held my fingers back. The cheetah licked my palm, his tongue warm and rough, like sandpaper dipped in hot water. I felt all tingly.
"I think he likes me," I said.
"He does," Dad said. "He also likes the popcorn salt and butter on your hand."
There was a small crowd around the cage now, and one particularly frantic woman grabbed my shirt and tried to pull me over the chain. "It's all right," I told her. "My dad does stuff like this all the time."
"He should be arrested!" she shouted.
"Okay, kids," Dad said. "The civilians are revolting. We better ske-daddle." ...
... [W]ho cared what [those people] thought? None of them had ever had their hand licked by a cheetah. [pp. 106-9] I should mention that the Walls's bought some popcorn shortly after reaching the cheetah's cage, which is why Jeannette had salt and butter from popcorn on her hand for the cheetah to enjoy. In this passage, I rather felt that Walls père, despite his best efforts to display social deviance (and despite the fact that he popped a couple brews before and during the trip to the zoo), managed to make a point that anyone could, and ought, to appreciate. Our treatment of wild animals need not be motivated by hysterical fear. Whichever time it was when the Walls's lived in Phoenix and took the family to the zoo was, it seems, not much less anxiety-ridden than folks often are today. Websites operated by authoritative bodies which deal with wildlife invariably recommend that in an encounter with a wild animal, one should not panic, and, back when Reader's Digest had its 'drama in real life' story, there would sometimes be the tale of a parent or other person who saved a kid from a wild animal (such as a cougar) by standing her ground and putting up a fight, and so on. It should also be noted that Walls père is (relatively) prudent: he doesn't get into the alligator pond in order to have his staring contest with the gator, he doesn't awaken the lions, nor does he interrupt the aardvark while is eating. (Anyone with a cat, for example, can tell you that they don't care to be petted or bothered while they are eating.) It's not as though the cheetah, which remainds behind bars (so to speak), could have done a lot of harm, either, had things not worked out. Incidentally, Walls's description of the Pheonix Zoo sounds pretty bleak: the animals at that time are, mostly, in small cages (the cheetah's cage, you will recall, is described as 'about as big as our living room'); today the zoo seems to treat its charges much better. (The zoo bills itself as one of the 'top five zoos for kids' and encourages people to vote for it as the best zoo - in the U.S., I imagine.) For what it is worth, the Wikipedia article on the zoo describes it as having been focussed on conservation from early on. The zoo also opened late in 1962 and was not very big, so was probably still in its infancy when the Walls went to visit. Of course, one imagines that any zoo, however well it took care of its animals, would be frowned upon by Rex Walls. So far as I can tell from what Walls recounts, her father's decision to take the kids to the zoo and show them how to deal with dangerous animals was motivated by his inability to cope with the 'routinisation' of modern life. While there are good reasons to question why we let ourselves get all caught up in routines, from what we have seen of Rex Walls already it is easy to see that his failure to cope with modern urban life stems not from some 'essential' difference between him and city folk, but from ingrained habits and behaviours and his own poor coping strategies. Regarding the cheetah, it is hard to doubt that Walls père knows what he is doing, but when Brian voices his skepticism regarding the alligator, it is not hard to agree with him (from what Walls auteur writes, it is hard to tell either way); Brian, of course, is of the Walls children the most critical of his parents - not without reason. In any case, what we have here is a dysfunctional lesson - one still worth learning - about the excessive anxiety some people have when faced with even the slightest prospect of danger (consider the 'frantic woman' trying to 'rescue' Jeannette from an animal that is manifestly not trying to hurt her) and how to respectfully but forcefully deal with wild animals, even those which are bigger and more dangerous than a person.
Mom could be as wise as a philosopher, but her moods were getting on my nerves. At times she'd be happy for days on end, announcing that she had decided to think only positive thoughts, because if you think positive thoughts, then positive things will happen to you. But the positive thoughts would give way to negative thoughts, and the negative thoughts seemed to swoop into her mind the way a big flock of black crows takes over the landscape, sitting thick in the trees and on the fence rails and lawns, staring at you in ominous silence. When that happened, Mom would refuse to get out of bed, even when [her fellow teacher] showed up to drive her to school, honking impatiently.
One morning toward the end of the school year, Mom had a complete meltdown. She was supposed to write up evaluations of her students' progress, but she'd spent every free minute painting, and now the deadline was on her and the evaluations were unwritten. The remedial reading program was going to lose its funding, and the principal would be either furious or just plain disgusted. Mom couldn't bear to face the woman. [Her co-worker], who'd been waiting for Mom in [her car], drove off without her, and Mom lay wrapped up in blankets on the sofa bed, sobbing about how much she hated her life.
Dad wasn't there, and neither was Maureen. Brian, typically, started doing an impersonation of Mom carrying on and sobbing, but no one was laughing, so he picked up his books and walked out of the house. Lori sat next to Mom on the bed, trying to console her. I just stood in the doorway with my arms crossed, staring at her.
It was hard for me to believe that this woman with her head under the blankets, feeling sorry for herself and boohooing like a five-year-old, was my mother. Mom was thirty-eight, not young but not old, either. In twenty-five years, I told myself, I'd be as old as she was now. I had no idea what my life would be like then, but as I gathered up my schoolbooks and walked out the door, I swore to myself that it would never be like Mom's that I would not be crying my eyes out in an unheated shack in some godforsaken holler.
I walked down... [the street]. It had rained the night before, and the only sound was the gurgle of the runoff pouring down through the eroded gullies on the hillside. Thin streams of muddy water flowed across the road, seeping into my shoes and soaking my socks. The sole of my right shoe had come loose and flapped with each step.
Lori caught up with me, and we walked for a while in silence. "Poor Mom," Lori finally said. "She's got it tough."
"No tougher than the rest of us," I said.
"Yes, she does," Lori said. "She's the one who's married to Dad."
"That was her choice," I said. "She needs to be firmer, lay down the law for Dad instead of getting hysterical all the time. What Dad needs is a strong woman."
"A caryatid wouldn't be strong enough for Dad."
"Pillars shaped like women," Lori said. "The ones holding up those Greek temples with their heads. I was looking at a picture of some the other day, thinking, Those women have the second toughest job in the world." [pp. 207-8]
In late August, I was washing clothes in the tin pan in the living room when I heard someone coming up the stairs singing. It was Lori. She burst into the living room, duffel bag over her shoulder, laughing and belting out one of those goofy summer-camp songs kids sing at night around the fire. I'd never heard Lori cut loose like this before. She positively glowed as she told me about the hot meals and the hot showers and all the friends she'd made [at a summer camp for students with special aptitudes]. She'd even had a boyfriend who kissed her. "Everyone assumed I was a normal person," she said. "It was weird." Then she told me it had occurred to her that if she got out of Welch, and away from the family, she might have a shot at a happy life. From then on, she began looking forward to the day she'd leave [town] and be on her own.And with that, here ends my marginal commentary on The Glass Castle.
A few days later, Mom came home [from a summer course renewing her teaching certificate]. She seemed different, too. She had lived in a dorm on a university campus, without four kids to take care of, and she had loved it. She'd attended lectures and she'd painted. She'd read stacks of self-help books, and they had made her realize that she'd been living her life for other people. She intended to quit her teaching job and devote herself to her art. "It's time I did something for myself," she said. "It's time I started living my life for me."
"Mom, you spent your whole summer renewing your certificate."
"If I hadn't done that, I never would have had this breakthrough."
"You can't quit your job," I said. "We need the money."
"Why do I always have to be the one who earns the money?" Mom asked. "You have a job. You can earn money. Lori can earn money, too. I've got more important things to do."
I thought Mom was having another tantrum. I assumed that come opening day, she'd be off in [her co-worker's car] to [the school at which she worked], even if we had to cajole her. But on that first day of school, Mom refused to get out of bed. Lori, Brian, and I pulled back the covers and tried to drag her out, but she wouldn't budge.
I told her she had responsibilities. I told her child welfare might come down on us again if she wasn't working. She folded her arms across her chest and stared us down. "I'm not going to school," she said.
"Why not?" I asked.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"My mucus is yellow," Mom said.
"If everyone who had yellow mucus stayed home, the schools would be pretty empty," I told her.
Mom's head snapped up. "You can't talk to me like that," she said. "I'm your mother."
"If you want to be treated like a mother," I said, "you should act like one."
Mom rarely got angry. She was usually either singing or crying, but now her face twisted up with fury. We both knew I had crossed a line, but I didn't care. I'd also changed over the summer.
"How dare you?" she shouted. "You're in trouble now—big trouble. I'm telling your dad. Just you wait until he comes home." [pp. 218-9] While these two passages hardly show Walls mère in a sympathetic light, I have to admit that I still feel for her (at least a little bit), because at my characteristic worst I've behaved in ways uncomfortably similar to hers. I'm not going to turn this into a talk-show confession, or anything, but I wanted to make it clear that I wasn't sitting at my computer thinking the Walls's were bad while I was some kind of fine fellow; no, I think an awful lot of what gives The Glass Castle such affective power as it possesses is the fact that we can all - if we are honest - find something about ourselves in Rex or Rose Mary Walls. Jeannette's complaint that 'Mom needs to be stronger' is, as you might imagine, rather naïve: Walls auteur recounts following that passage that she herself had an opportunity to be a forceful opposition to her Dad, but wasn't able to be - he wheedled from her money for booze just as ably as he could from her mother. Jeannette Walls, in the absence of her mother and older sister (both of whom were away for the summer), became the 'woman of the house' - and it is as if she slipped right into her mother's spot in the family dynamic. Hell, her dad even calls her 'hon', which is not, I think, something you usually say to your teenage daughter (at least, not in my experience). Rex is no pervert (unlike his brother and mother, who are much more dysfunctional than he) - although to repay the money he borrowed, he later arranges to fleece an acquaintance at a game of pool while leaving Jeannette (his teenage daughter, mind you) in the man's company in order to create the false expectation that she will have sex with him - but it is interesting how easily people in any given family system slide around to fill other spots when the people who usually occupy them are absent. Lori's point that even caryatids aren't strong enough to control Walls père is better made; her comment that theirs is the 'second toughest job in the world' implies that the toughest, of course, is Rose Mary's. Jeannette's experiences in these passages show how difficult it is, when you are a teenager, to re-negotiate your place in the family system, or to challenge others to hold theirs properly. Her criticism of her mother provokes neither a self-reflective response nor self-pity, but fury. Walls mère, meanwhile, claims to have learned so much about herself during her re-certification, but, so far as we can see, everything she has learned has only confirmed her current, distorted, self-perception. God knows probably everyone, at one point, undeservedly feels she deserves a break from her responsibilities (I know that I have, at more than one point). This largely stems from the difficulty we have in enforcing boundaries. The more dysfunctional a cultural system is (be it family, relational, organisational, whatever), the more 'porous' the psychological boundaries of its individual members. Those who are least able to enforce their own boundaries come to feel the most put upon. (Ironically, the same people are often the most passive-aggressive.) The only way they think that they can protect themselves is by pulling inward. In this respect, Walls mère is trying to recover from the constant demolition of her psychological boundaries - but, characteristically, she goes about it the wrong way (as do many people in similar circumstances, I might add). She has also not learned how to find and appreciate gratification in doing the little things in life - or else only appreciates them in a narrow and circumscribed field, such as art - and so she often has to create situations of crisis in order to stimulate and gratify her need to 'be somone' whenever she is faced with the prospect of doing something she considers beneath her. Hence, she procrastinates on getting the paperwork done until the last minute - until, in fact, it is too late. (I should also point out that whenever Rose Mary Walls teaches, her children often become involved in doing her paperwork for her.) The paperwork also looms large in her mind the longer she does not do it; neither does it occur to her to complete it in small, manageable chunks. In any event, when, upon returning from her re-certification, Walls mère says, 'it's time I started living my life for me,' one feels like exclaiming 'well, what did you think you were doing before?' The sad thing is that under the circumstances in which she lives, Walls mère will never - never - feel as though she is 'living for herself', no matter how self-serving her behaviour becomes, as when she abdicates responsibility for breadwinning to her daughters. And this is the rub: very often 'living for yourself' will not mean changing a lot of what you do - and certainly cannot mean giving up on your responsibilities to others - but it does mean learning a new inward disposition. Finally, the case of Rex and Rose Mary Walls - to name but one particular instance of a general trend - perversely demonstrates the reality of intuition. There are some who would pooh-pooh the existence of any faculty such as intuition, but how else can you explain that they knew they were 'right' for each other? The 'perverse' part comes in because each intuited that the other would be just the sort of person he or she needed to enable his or her dysfunction. Couples whose intuition guides them (as it were) to relationship (whether healthy or dysfunctional) often say that they can't explain 'why' they 'knew' it was love. An analysis of their family histories and systems in which they are embedded often gives an explicable account for how well they complement each other, but when they met, fell in love, &c., it is not as though most went to all the trouble to sort this out explicitly. Rather, they carried around their own role in their family systems and histories, and sensed in each other something that made the other right for them. (Or anything but, in some cases.) This also explains why Walls auteur's first husband was exactly the opposite of her father. She had not been in a romantic relationship with any peers while living at home (and being the 'woman of the house' and pimped by her father did nothing to help), so it is no surprise that when she went to New York City, she latched on to a boring, steady, hard-working, responsible guy. (Walls auteur does not provide all that much detail about either her first or second husbands, but that's not surprising - the book isn't about them, after all.) It comes as no surprise that, after her father's death, she ended her relationship with her first husband. With her father's death she no longer needed a man who would 'compensate' for Rex Walls's deficiencies. All this is not to say that intuition is always 'good' (like every human faculty it is affected by sin and dysfunction), but that, as a faculty, it exists and is operative in people's lives.