Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

book cover: the glass castle

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is misery porn. This isn’t an insult; it’s a descriptor. Misery porn is a sub-genre of memoir built around the thesis: My childhood was worse than yours, but I’m going to be cavalier about it so you know how tough I am. Memoirists can paint their histories however they choose, but it’s near impossible for misery porn to not be a self-indulgent humble-brag: Look how independent I was; look how I persevered. True to genre, The Glass Castle is a litany of obstacles in the form of abusive, neglectful parents and grinding poverty.

The Glass Castle opens as a three-year-old Jeannette Walls boils hotdogs for dinner and accidentally sets herself on fire. She’s taken to the hospital, but her father sneaks her out early to avoid paying. Walls writes herself as a rational and well-spoken three-year-old. Some reviewers have questioned her memory—how accurately do you remember your time as a three-year-old?—but I won’t.

I don’t care whether Walls’s stories are strictly “true.” Memoirists can take liberties. We all have stories that ring false to outsiders because they contain unlikely events or a turn of luck. But while some writers cushion their harder-to-believe stories, Walls leans into the absurdity of her childhood.

What does feel true about Walls’s well-spoken three-year-old (who grows into a well-spoken ten-year-old) is how the tenor of her stories changes over the years. When she’s young, she believes her parents when they cast their financial setbacks as adventures. It’s not until she’s a little older that a negative light develops and her stories focus on cold, hunger, and her inability to reason with her mother or father. Even if Walls has embellished the language of her younger self, she successfully contrasts her former innocence with the person she became.

The Glass Castle is a hard book to read because her parents’ chief skill is finding new lows in selfishness and addiction. At the outset, her father, Rex Walls, seems a bigger villain than her mother because the family would have money for food if Rex weren’t confiscating his wife’s paychecks and drinking himself into a stupor. Later though, it’s clear that Rex isn’t the whole problem. Even when her mother stumbles into free money, she doesn’t put it towards food, clothing, or her children’s welfare:

We brought the ring home and showed it to Mom. She held it up to the light, then said we needed to have it appraised. The next day she took the Trailways bus to Bluefield. When she returned, she told us it was in fact a genuine two-carat diamond.
“So what’s it worth?” I asked.
“That doesn’t matter,” Mom said.
“How come?”
“Because we’re not selling it.”
She was keeping it, she explained, to replace the wedding ring her mother had given her, the one Dad had pawned shortly after they got married.
“But Mom,” I said, “that ring could get us a lot of food.”
“That’s true,” Mom said, “but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food.” (186)

You’d think failing to feed her kids would be a blow to that same self-esteem… This scene was an especially hard read because when the kids find the ring, their only thoughts are to pay off the house and buy food—they aren’t looking for luxuries. They give the ring to the person they think will provide, but she’d rather wear it instead. The scene where the kids catch their mother sneaking food under a blanket while they go hungry about made me throw the book. When Walls says she’s hungry, she means it:

“We haven’t had anything to eat but popcorn for three days,” I said.
“You’re always so negative,” she said. “You remind me of my mother—criticize, criticize, criticize.”
“I’m not being negative,” I said. “I’m trying to be realistic.”
“I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances,” she said. “How come you never blame your father for anything? He’s no saint, you know.” (187)

And speaking of Walls’s father—
At one point the book shifts from simple memoir into something more voyeuristic and uncomfortable. After Bryan (Jeannette’s brother) is groped by their grandmother, Walls speculates about whether their father was sexually abused by his mother. She points to this as a likely reason for his drinking and discomfort around his family. I suspect Walls included this speculation because she didn’t want to depict her father as only an alcoholic, as the villain. However, I find myself surprisingly resentful of her willingness to spill one of his biggest secrets in a bid for sympathy—as if he wouldn’t deserve help or pity without a Legitimate Reason for his drinking. As if alcoholism isn’t a disease—something that Walls convincingly (and heartbreakingly) portrays elsewhere in the book.

Reading The Glass House is like being stuck next to a stranger on a train who insists on giving their whole life story even though you’ve just met them and didn’t sign on to play therapist. It’s easier to close a book than to change cars but, ultimately, The Glass House made me wonder: Why was this book written? Do people need to learn and grow in a memoir for it to be a “good” book?—it’s not as though static people don’t exist. Is a series of repetitive anecdotes enough to make The Glass Castle a “good” book?

Overall: 2.7 (out of 5.0) Before you think this score is unduly harsh, remember that a 3.0 is average. 2.7 is only a touch below average. And, while Walls’s experiences may be unique, the book and presentation are average. My initial reaction was to give it a lower score, but I think Walls deserves credit for being so open/forthcoming (which can’t have been easy) and I’ve seen people call this story “helpful” online. It’s hard to be harsh on a memoir. I don’t want it to seem like I’m rating the author’s personal story when I’m only rating the book.

Image credit: Goodreads

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