Embracing gift of a ‘wacky past’

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Jeannette Walls signs The Glass Castle for a student as part of the Shared Read Program started by Provost DonnaJean Fredeen.

By Gianluca D’Elia

Having her memoir The Glass Castle shared at Rider University is a dream come true for author Jeannette Walls, who spoke and signed books at Rider on Nov. 12. “Nothing makes me happier than students reading my book,” said the author and former MSNBC gossip columnist as she prepared for her lecture backstage in the Bart Luedeke Center.
“If I had one fantasy for this book, it was not about the bestseller list or being made into a movie,” said Walls. “I hoped that teens would read it, either teens who didn’t understand what crazy poor families are like, or teens who are from those crazy poor families, so they could better understand themselves. And maybe somebody would get a glimmer of hope from my story.”

Novel beginnings
The Glass Castle is a memoir about Jeannette Walls’ eccentric upbringing, during which she and her family moved several times, briefly settling in places including Arizona, Nevada and West Virginia. There were some periods when Walls and her family were homeless. Her parents referred to this nomadic lifestyle as “doing the ‘skidaddle.’” A 17-year-old Jeannette and two of her siblings, Lori and Brian, saved enough money to move to New York City. Their father, Rex Walls, who Jeannette Walls now believes may have been bipolar, struggled with alcoholism. Their mother, Rose Mary, was an artist who craved independence, and who tended to neglect the four Walls children. While the Walls children resented her erratic behavior, Jeannette Walls now says she admires her mother for putting self-sufficiency before her own comfort and safety.
As a writer, Jeannette Walls believes storytelling is magical. “It’s all about having a shared experience,” she said. “Once somebody opens up about
their secrets, the other person will open up about theirs. And in my experience, kids are so smart. It’s kind of stunning the way kids get it. This sort of thing is greater to me than winning a Pulitzer Prize.”
The power of storytelling to help people open up and share their own stories inspired Walls to publish The Glass Castle and has changed her life for the better.
“I thought nobody was going to get it,” she said. “But not only do they get it, sometimes they get it better than I do.”
Writing a memoir about her nomadic and somewhat abusive childhood was something that Walls had planned to do for a long time. But before The Glass Castle was published, the idea of sharing her story made her uneasy. “I was terrified, initially,” she admitted. “I was practically hiding in a fetal position under my desk.”
Art imitating life
After moving to New York, Walls went on to become a successful journalist. Enjoying a comfortable lifestyle while her parents were living in cars and homeless shelters made her feel guilty, even though her parents insisted that they chose their way of life. Her mother considered being homeless “an adventure.”
Reflecting on the process of writing her memoir, she said, “I sat down to write my story thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I exposing myself to what I was certain was going to be shame and humiliation? I have this fabulous job, everything I ever dreamed of, and I’m throwing it all away to tell this raggedy little story.’” However, publishing The Glass Castle had a completely opposite effect on her.
“It’s the most cathartic thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said. “Every now and then someone will come up to me and tell me, ‘I loved your book.’ It’s just been miraculous. It’s helped me come out of my shame.” Feeling as if she had to try to hide her past made Walls feel isolated. “I was alone because I didn’t think people would get it,” she said. “But now I understand how many people out there also have wacky pasts.”
With a New York Times best-selling confessional memoir being read by millions, Walls finds she has a direct connection with some readers.
“People will come up to me and say things like, ‘You know what your mother’s problem is?’ And then we’ll just have incredible conversations.”
Even while working as a gossip columnist, Walls recalls times when she would be interviewing celebrities, and they would ask her to turn off the microphone for a moment so they could talk about The Glass Castle.

Extending her thoughts to readers
Through the warm reception of her memoir, Walls learned to take ownership of her past and reach others through her story. In The Glass Castle, a recurring motif is the glass castle itself, the blueprints of a dream house for the entire Walls family to live in, created by Jeannette Walls’ father, Rex.
“I chose to see it as a hope and a dream,” she says. “And the belief that maybe all this doing the ‘skidaddle,’ and sleeping in cars and cardboard boxes, was all temporary, and one of these days I would actually have a nice place to live. It is what you choose to make of it. I hope that in the process of having relived and revisited my own story that I tried for so long to run away from, I learned some of the lessons I should have learned a long time ago.”
The Glass Castle has also led people to question how they think about poverty. In early 1980, in a college classroom, Walls tried to voice her opinion when she disagreed with a professor on homelessness. At the time, her parents were homeless. The teacher responded by asking, “What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged?” A young, fearful Jeannette kept her mouth closed. Now, Walls has done a substantial amount of speaking on behalf of homeless people, and she still finds it to be a complicated issue that cannot be explained in simple terms.
Looking back on that experience in college, Walls did not mean to “stick it” to the professor. She was actually in awe that this professor cared about people of the lower class even though she didn’t know one of her students was part of that life.
“I was a nerdy political science major,” Walls admitted. “I signed up for that class because I loved these heated debates about minimum wage and whether it helps or hurts poor people. I don’t know the answers to all these questions about poverty, but I’m fascinated by the issue.”
Now, people ask Walls difficult questions regarding poverty and homelessness. But even though she does not always know the answers, the fact that people now use her book as a springboard to ask questions is the best she could have hoped for her “raggedy little story.”
After learning humbling life lessons from sharing her story and being able to relate to countless readers, Walls encourages students to embrace their pasts.
“If students read my book and leave thinking only about me, then I haven’t done my job,” said Walls. “I hope it makes them reconsider their stories. Maybe it will change the way they see themselves, or the way they treat other people.
“I think very often, we run from our pasts,” said Walls. After having tried to do so for several years, one of the most important lessons she learned is that there is no escape. If you run from your past, it will catch up with you. But, according to Jeannette Walls, if you can confront your past, not only will it stop scaring you, but you can get the most incredible gifts from even the wackiest of experiences.

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