“I wanted the world to know that no one had a perfect life, that even the people who seemed to have it all had their secrets” –Jeanette Walls, ‘The Glass Castle’



The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls is a true and humbling Cinderella story. It is about Jeanette Walls and her experiences growing up as one of four children, an alcoholic/genius father, and a mother who is disgraced by social injustice/domestic habits/rules and regulations. The vignettes outline the dysfunction the children were raised in–and some hidden treasures that can be found within that dysfunction.

Lessons derived from this memoir:

  • We can’t judge other people’s ways of life.  We all have our faults; the mom says, “Everyone has something good about them. You just have to find the redeeming quality and love the person for that”. It is true that the parents had every ability to provide a decent upbringing for their children. The mom, college educated and a self-proclaimed artist, secures several teaching jobs, only to be fired from irresponsibility or just decides she cannot bend to rules anymore and chooses to not go into work. The dad, an obvious alcoholic, chooses to earn his wages through gambling and some other potentially shady business schemes. In their last place of residence, the family lives in the hills of West Virginia: a house without running water, no refrigeration so they eat maggot infested ham, no heating, mold that grows throughout the ceiling that later collapses, etc. It basically cannot get any worse. So, when the kids all decide enough is enough and move out to New York, the parents decide to join and live on the streets. Rose Mary, the mom says, “Why can’t we live like this? Homelessness is an adventure”. When we see other people living differently and making different decisions than we ourselves would, we are quick to judge: “Oh, you should never get married that young”; “Why wouldn’t you want to have kids?”; “Those poor homeless people. They must have no one who cares about them”; “I can’t believe you did that to your own mother”. As my middle class American values cringe as I read about the filth and ‘life lessons’ the parents raised their children with, I have to remind myself that everyone is different and everyone chooses to live in different ways. At the end, the parents choose to live as homeless people; they have every opportunity to move in with their children or live in a shelter, but they would rather adhere to their own personal values and beliefs rather than accept defeat and adhere to societal expectations (ok, so I am still trying to decide if these were just excuses for the parents to be selfish, or if they were really enacting a parenting agenda they truly believed in).
  • You can’t change someone who doesn’t want to be changed. This is something I wish I would have learned waaay earlier in my life. Growing up, I wanted to fix everything in my family; I thought I knew exactly how to fix everyone’s problems and devoted so much of my energy to doing so. In the end, it only added more stress to myself, because the people did not want to be changed; they were fine being who they were. Jeanette and her older sister, Lori, experience a very similar need to nurture; they are tired of never having any food, so they create a budget for their mom, of which she turns down; they desperately want their father to stop drinking, so they attempt to hide the booze that he coerces them to bring out anyways. It is quite sad and I know many other people experience the same mending reactions, whether it be with family members, spouses, friends, co-workers. etc. But, you cannot change someone; they have to want the change themselves, which is why addiction is so stressful and traumatizing on the onlookers; we blatantly see these destructive habits and clearly know what it will take to fix it but are ultimately helpless.
  • Siblings have an undeniable, strong, protective bond for each other. It is uplifting to see how the four kids took care of one another, even when it meant self-sacrifice for themselves. They would beat up the neighborhood bullies together, take on extra jobs to provide food for each other, stand up to their alcoholic dad for each other, sleep sardine-style to keep each other warm. There is something to be said about the unbreakable bond between siblings, especially those who go through hardships together. I am very grateful for the bond that I have with my own siblings. My sister and I have been discussing how we want to raise our own children (um, and if you know me, this is a very strange concept, but I am blaming it on the holiday season…). One of the points that she brought up was that she wants her kids to share bedrooms, especially in those early years of life. She loves babysitting and going by the kid’s rooms to hear them gabbering late night talk with each other; it is a built in best friend and room mate. I personally had to share a room with my older sister until I was 10 and, while we often beat each other up, I have fond memories of standing in front of the T.V. and acting out Mary-Kate and Ashley music videos, building forts in our closet, hearing her Halloween candy wrappers fall down the wall and her deny the littering (I guess I probably shouldn’t mention that we stopped sharing rooms after my brother fell out the window/my little sister maybe pushed him out?).

I must say, while my family never lived in a shanty town and had to safety pin our shoes together, there were a lot of familiar threads that I saw in my own childhood; one part that I particularly liked was when the family decided to do some spring cleaning, the mom “insisted that they chant Hail Marys while we worked; ‘It’s a way of cleansing our souls while we’re cleaning house. We’re killing two birds with one stone”, which reminded me of the time we had holy water sprinkled around our house and white sage burning in the foyer (also, the third sister is even blonde, blue eyed, and gets taken over by the religious groups in town…). Overall, I appreciated this memoir and would definitely recommend it. It is a humbling story that reminds me of how truly fortunate I am (things could always be worse) and shows the pure strength of the human spirit.

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