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Growing Up in Half-Broke Homes

Last night I had the pleasure of attending New York Timesbestselling author Jeannette Walls’ reading at my favorite independent bookstore.  Rather than reading from her new novel,The Silver Star, Jeannette elected to talk about her difficult upbringing in West Virginia—a childhood that is recounted with skill, humor, and grace in her widely acclaimed memoir, The Glass Castle.

The Glass Castle is one of the top selling memoirs of all time, and deservedly so.  Walls is a candid writer with a story that is at once extraordinary and easy to relate to.  Her story is my story and your story, and it’s that universal feel to her narrative that has attracted readers from around the globe.

I’ve read the book several times, and have found numerous similarities between our childhoods and our wish to overcome the challenges we faced as kids from half-broke homes.  She was raised by an eccentric mother and an alcoholic father.  She was poor.  She salvaged food from garbage cans in order to survive—and this was before the dirtbag culture became trendy.  She was confused and often left to her own devices.  And yet she didn’t only survive: she carved out a life of great success for herself.

What’s nagged at me during my readings of her work is this: I felt that Jeannette Walls was either exaggerating about her background, or received more love than what comes through in the book.

Jeannette was dynamite at the event: hilarious, self-confident, and down-to-earth.  Her comments touched everyone in the audience, and her answers to the questions raised by the attendees were honest, thoughtful, and provocative.  She also proved to me, and perhaps the rest of the audience, that her story was true, accurate to the bone.

Jeannette told a story that strengthened my trust in the veracity of her memoir.  When she was a child, her father gave her Venus as a Christmas present.  Years later, after the publication of The Glass Castle, a woman who was raised on Fifth Avenue by an incredibly wealthy family confessed: “I would have done anything to have had my father give me a Venus as a gift; I would have preferred to have been raised poor if it meant that my father would’ve been a presence in my life.”

Surely this is a tale that will stay with me.  Jeannette was raised, at certain points, without plumbing, electricity, adequate nutrition.  But if love is present, she emphasized during her talk, it can compensate for everything else.  It can make the whole world go ‘round.

I expected to feel bitter about her clarification of this.  I have distinct memories of thinking, when my mother was either passed out or absent for days at a time, that if only she’d been home, singing my name, brushing my hair, holding my hand, it wouldn’t matter that we didn’t have coal or groceries, and a lone candle was used to light up our entire apartment.  What would matter: We would have been together.  We would have endured the cold and long nights side by side, heart by heart.

Like Miss Walls, I learned to cope, parent myself, persevere.  Like Miss Walls, this made me fierce, outspoken, and independent.  It gave us both courage to reinvent ourselves.  Empowerment.  Unlike Miss Walls, however, it wasn’t love and affection from my family that kept me going.  It was the knowledge, deep down, that one day Iwould sprout wings.

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