Perspectives On Childhood In The Glass Castle
The Glass Castle has been a controversial topic of discussion since publication in 2005. The memoir is a reflection of the author’s childhood, wherein Jeannette Walls and her three siblings are forced to become independent while their erratic, maverick parents toggle between acting as inspiration and obstacles in their lives. When encumbered by his dilapidating alcohol addiction, her father was dishonest and violent, a man incapable of maintaining a job.
However when sober, the brilliant and charismatic Rex Walls offered a cornucopia of knowledge, teaching Jeannette physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, his wife, despised domesticity and rejected the socially constructed nurturing characteristics of the maternal role in family structure. She was a self-ascribed “excitement addict” (Walls, 93) who pursued freedom over responsibility and romanticized instability. Nevertheless, Rose Mary provided for her children in a different sense, through her unwavering sense of optimism and ability to uncover the beauty in everything. Jeannette Walls’ childhood was distinct as it contained a series of unconventional and unfortunate events that can be traced back to the lifestyle her parents provided. Jeannette rapidly discovered that her family’s nomadic lifestyle had a number of painful lessons to teach her. At the vulnerable age of 3, Walls was so severely burned while boiling herself hot dogs that she required extensive hospital care. Not only was she left with physical disfiguration, but she was also mentally scarred and developed a strange fixation for the element; she had developed pediatric pyromania. At age 17, Rex Walls ransacked her piggy bank and stole all of the money to feed his alcohol addiction. Jeannette had set that money aside to fund her move to New York City, and her father’s betrayal left her bereft and devoid of hope.
Despite their apparent lack of parenting skills as displayed in Jeannette’s childhood, Rex and Rose Mary Walls helped expand her mind through all the learning experiences they exposed her to. When burned at age 3, Walls’ father labeled it a learning experience, declaring that she had to “get right back in the saddle, [as] you can’t live in fear of something as basic as fire” (Walls, 2). This taught Jeannette Walls resilience and to remain brave in the face of adversity. This raises an important question: does the author believe her parents chose to live outside the boundaries of society voluntarily to teach her grit? Additionally, despite financial hardships, Rose Mary Walls insisted the family buy a piano, as she valued emotional desires over physical needs. She taught her children to appreciate culture as an instrument to higher learning. Rose Mary and Rex Walls activated the desire to learn in Jeannette Walls, and this is what gave her a fighting chance for survival.
This memoir has reinforced the love I have for my parents, as they provided me with a polar opposite adolescence from the one Jeannette Walls experienced. In contrast to Jeannette Walls, I was extremely privileged to never have to worry about financial struggle or question my safety when growing up. Much like their banking habits, my parents were also very structured when it came to disciplining me. They advocated structure, form, and obeying authority figures. This was different from Walls parents, as Rose Mary Walls encouraged self-sufficiency and tended to remain independent from her children’s lives altogether. However, I also noticed unfortunate similarities between our lives. When Jeanette was berated by her mother for finishing the last of their food, she responded with defiance and Rose Mary was startled. Jeanette had broken one of their unspoken rules: they were always supposed to pretend their lives were “one long and incredibly fun adventure” (Walls, 69). When there is conflict my parents tend to withhold from discussing the topic and instead ignore it altogether.
Our parents share this self-sabotaging defense mechanism of denial. I believe this to be a contributing factor as to why there is a disconnect in Jeannette’s ability to be honest about her past. Walls was meticulous in her writing style, using her powerful memory to recollect the most minuscule of details in order to bring her past back to life. In the flashbacks, Walls shows us exactly how easily she and her siblings were convinced that their chaotic life was actually an exciting adventure (Prose, 2005). She describes her feelings of betrayal towards her parents transparently, holding nothing back. However, the sections of the memoir which recount her childhood are interesting. She does not attempt to psychoanalyze or theorize the past behavior of her parents. She does not condemn or spite her parents for the way they raised her but rather remains detached.
There is an obvious disconnect between the way Walls speaks candidly about her feelings as her younger self versus her ambiguity as her older self. This makes it hard to connect with and understand her experiences. I can speculate that this is due to embarassment of the lifestyle her parents ultimately chose, as Walls chose instead to assimilate into societal culture. This theory brings up the important question: Why does the author actually diverge on her approach to expressing feelings at different parts of the book? When reading this memoir, I was rudely awakened to the mass amount of privilege I hold. It is crucial to recognize that each of us contributes to the system of institutionalized privilege, and I am privileged in class (both social and economic), education, and also in ability.
Previously, I had normalized a singular type of childhood and disregarded all others because of my positionality as an educated middle-class, able-bodied female. Learning about Walls’ life as someone who experienced a different upbringing than mine made me aware of my unintentional tendency to exclude and ignore certain groups of people. I became aware of how my actions (both direct and indirect) as a privileged person contribute to the subordination of others. I learned I must make an ongoing effort to recognize my advantages and how they affect my life. The recognition of my privilege is my first play of resistance against the unequal distribution of power to deconstruct the system of institutionalized privilege. This memoir solidifies my impression of family as enduring, because despite her parent’s inability to support her, Walls never gives up on them. Nowadays, Jeannette Walls is an esteemed author with a loving family and net worth of $4 million dollars. This raises another important question I would like addressed: does Walls attribute her success in adulthood to the hardships she faced in childhood?
Although Jeannette Walls was expected to develop a virtually absolute sense of self-sufficiency while her parents pursued their own self-serving needs, they still provided her with invaluable life lessons and she never gave up on their relationship.
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