Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls strengthened by life's hard lessons

For someone who grew up so poor in material possessions, Jeannette Walls seems extraordinarily rich in things that can’t be seen or touched: things like empathy, intellectual curiosity, zest for life, love of learning and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to find value in each experience, no matter how painful.

Jeannette Walls talks with students.
Jeannette Walls talks with students.

Walls, now a best-selling author, was on campus Oct. 24 to address students and discuss her life as she related it in her memoir, The Glass Castle, which was this year’s Common Reading Experience for the campus and community. In addition to a public lecture that evening, she talked with students in BG Experience classes, which involve the exploration of values.

The child of eccentric, intelligent but deeply destructive parents, she and her siblings were often hungry and homeless, looked down upon by their schoolmates and left to fend for themselves from an early age.

What their unconventional parents did give them, she told the students, were the beliefs that they could be anything they wanted to be and that art and books were more important than worldly goods. They also—through their sheer neglect—engendered in the children the skills and stamina to survive under the most difficult circumstances. Walls considers that a blessing.

After becoming a successful journalist in New York while hiding her past as a terrible, shameful secret, Walls finally “decided to come clean,” she said, and reveal her life to her husband and friends. She was inspired to do that when, after struggling with her mother, who by then was living the life of a near-homeless person in New York, she responded one day to her mother’s “simple and elegant challenge—just tell the truth.”

“Could I rise to that challenge?” she wondered. And what is the truth? She realized that there are many truths and many aspects to every situation, and they are all valid. As a friend once told her, Walls related, the truth is a liquid, not a solid, and it can take many shapes.

However, in deciding to reveal what she saw as the truth of her life, “I had no doubt I would lose everything: my job, my friends, my husband, whatever meager standing I had achieved.

“But I had underestimated the goodness and kindness and compassion of others in the isolation of my own shame,” she said.

What she found, she said, is that almost everyone has something they are ashamed of, and it’s tough to realize that if we experience bad things—especially if we trust authority—it doesn’t mean we are bad.

The important thing, she told the students, is to “take what has happened to you and turn it to your advantage,” or, as her father told her when she was afraid of monsters, to “take the demon and harness him and make him work for you.”

She also urged the audience to never stereotype others, as was done to her, because you never know what they might be going through—and to “think about what voice you might become in other people’s lives.”

Perception shapes reality
How you perceive events makes all the difference in how they affect you, she said. While she is under no illusions about her parents and still worries “constantly” that she will become like them, she also was able to see another facet. Remembering her alcoholic father’s Christmas “gift” to her when they had no money of allowing her to choose a star to be all her own, she said, “Was that a meaningless gesture or a priceless treasure? Both are right.” But she had always thought of it as the latter. Similarly, when he promised that one day they would live in a glass castle, “Was that an empty promise or a dream and a hope for the future?” She will go for the hope and the dream every time, she said.

It is important to realize that hardships are an advantage, she said, noting that many parents, in trying to protect their children, “deny them the gift we get from learning to navigate obstacles.

“I had the good fortune of having a really weird childhood,” she said.

The book itself has been an avenue for making something good from something bad. If reading it gives hope of escape to anyone who has faced similar circumstances, she will have achieved her fondest hope; if it inspires more fortunate readers to feel empathy for others, she will also have achieved a goal. From the response she is getting from the public, that seems to be the case, she said.

Students in attendance had many questions for the author, who has now resigned from her job as a gossip columnist after rethinking what it means to write about someone’s life. She signed copies of her book after her talks.

“You’re one of my mom’s idols—you and Scout Finch,” one student told her, referring to another brave girl, in To Kill a Mockingbird. To another, who said he had not looked forward to reading the book but found it brought out memories of his own family, she wrote, “To John, a kindred spirit.”

October 29, 2007