By Livia Meneghin II Contributing Writer
“I was on fire. It’s my earliest memory.” (9)
Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, includes many encounters with fire, and weaves through the tragedy a detached memory.
The first section of The Glass Castle, before her incident engulfment, describes her Park Avenue self sitting in a taxi and witnessing her mother scavenging for food. Walls continues the narrative recounting, through the eyes of young Jeannette, constantly doing the skedaddle from house to house across America with her highly dysfunctional yet inexpressibly vital family. The circus-like reality is filled to the rim with unimaginable tales of loss, horror and an underlying acknowledgement of danger, leading to her bubbling over desire to escape. For Walls’ main attraction: maintaining an impressive sense of critical distance.
Walls’ upbringing was dictated by the sense of the adventure her parents chased after. Jeannette collected rocks and geodes to raise money to put food in the refrigerator. Jeannette almost drowned in “a natural sulfur spring in the desert…surrounded by craggy rocks and quicksand” to learn how to swim (65). Jeannette didn’t have a choice.
Walls started off her writing career remaining in the background, working for her high school newspaper in Welch, VA and using it as an excuse to attend school functions, such as football games. After travelling to New York, Walls got a degree from Barnard and started working as a journalist. She became a gossip columnist for MSNBC.com as well, writing news (truth unknown) about others. It was her second husband, writer John Taylor, who convinced her to tell her own story.
The Glass Castle takes on the voice of Walls’ younger self and carries through time until just before her decision to write the memoir itself.
All of the narration, therefore, is from her past. While this may require research and gathering other voices, Walls had the advantage of time. She flatly delivers bad news, and only directly points out issues like her father’s alcoholism when her younger self learned the terminology. In the middle of the book, Walls starts to make distinctions between herself and her siblings, and starts to notice the issues of her family unit, particularly her father.
A dramatic scene, and pivotal moment in Walls’ life, was when her father ruined their planned-to-be-perfect (for once) Christmas. She quickly described the flames consuming the needles on the tree, and the ornaments exploding, and her father drunkenly laughing. She ends the chapter simply stating, “When Dad went crazy, we all had our own ways of shutting down and closing off, and that was what we did that night” (115). But is her unemotional language only possible because of this time gap? Or is maintaining critical distance her only choice, since the writing process itself is forcing Walls to remember these painful moments? Maybe she’s shutting down again, in a sense, by remaining detached.
Creating critical distance seems to be more than a writing tool; sometimes it’s the only choice an author has. Memoir writing requires gaining the trust of readers; Walls is revealing her story to the world, and also to her family, but she has to convince everyone that her story is real (at least that her memories are real.) Readers may or may not feel empathy for the narrator. By creating a critical distance, Walls is establishing herself as a responsible writer. She never complains about her situation, in the content or in the language, her second level of authority of the story.
Reading The Glass Castle struck me in a lot of ways. Not only did I trust Walls as an author, but also, I felt what she felt. My upbringing was much safer, but I couldn’t help but understand what she went through. Little Jeannette guided me; I walked with her across the country, to places I’ve never seen. When she found herself in New York, where I’m from, I felt swollen. She was trying to escape, and now, being a senior in college, I also have the option of moving forward from my memories.
Even when writing her memoir, Walls was courageously trying to tell the truth, yes, but she was also trying to put her past in a place where she didn’t have to carry it around anymore. So perhaps Walls’ memoir is like her glass castle, a fortified reminder of her family, but still something she can see through, made of walls that don’t hide the pain it took to build them.
Senior Livia Meneghin is a contributing writer. Her email is lmeneghi@fandm.