Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
Read: 13 August to 22 August 2012
3 / 5 stars

It's no secret that I get to read on the job. I proofread for a financial publisher, which means that I spend my days getting lost in the lilting legalese of prospectuses, trustee meeting results, shareholder reports, highlight sheets – it's riveting stuff, trust me. But we're a small operation with only a few clients and the fiscal schedule is defined by a feast-or-famine work flow: While the numbers are still being tabulated, portfolio managers are polishing their semiannual interviews and style redesigns are being approved before the work descends in avalanches, I’m usually catching up on my reading with on-the-clock me-time.

Since it’s almost instinctive to dislike the person whose job it is scrutinize and correct everyone else’s work (especially when said person has one of the few oh-so-coveted offices with a window overlooking the bucolic charm of two parking lots and a heavily traveled roadway), I have spent the better part of my three years there endearing myself to my coworkers to soften the blow when I literally cannot hack through a report because it’s so choked with errors. My efforts have mostly paid off and a number of my mom-aged coworkers have grown rather maternal with me, as it’s also not a secret that I stopped speaking to my parents more than two years ago.

When a coworker recently came into my office brandishing an almost-finished book and saying that she kept thinking of me while reading this memoir she couldn’t put down, I assumed she was referring to the way I always have my nose in some kind of reading material at work. And then a little bit of research revealed that The Glass Castle was about growing up under the rule of parents who clearly had no business accepting the responsibility of parenthood, which was when I realized that this was my coworker’s way of reaching out to me.

A couple of days and maybe about 100 pages (and a lot of wincing because, holy crap, the Walls kids are tiny troopers) later, I got into a car accident during my commute home via a road that sees about seven or eight accidents a day, most of them during rush hour because it is a totally good idea to have a direct route to and from Philly narrow down to two lanes in one of the area’s larger suburban oases. Long story short, I escaped the ordeal with my admittedly low expectations of humanity exceeded by miles. As I watched the tow-truck driver (who was totally cool with my nervous habit of asking a thousand rapid-fire questions as he drove both my car and me to the auto-body shop) load up my beloved, battered car with minimal fanfare, the last sigh of relief I heaved tasted something like “At least I don’t have to explain this to my parents.”

The thought resurfaced throughout the evening, like when my husband met me at the mechanic's and I just lost whatever composure I'd been faking when he was right there to help me out of the truck before pulling me into a bear hug. And later when my in-laws, who live right next door and treat me like the daughter they’ve always wanted, greeted me with open arms, said that Mom’s car was all ready for me whenever I was ready to go back to work (as they all but told me that I was going to stay home for a day or two) and reiterated that “A car can be replaced but you can’t” every other sentence and meant it.

By the time I was going fetal on my couch and started to feel the damage that a seat belt and steering wheel are capable of (which is surprisingly extensive when you’re a small-statured, large-chested woman who always knew she’d pay for leaning too far forward while driving), still marveling over how I received neither a single verbal evisceration nor a ticket after two of the most emotionally draining hours of my recent existence, I blurted some garbled admission to my husband about not knowing how to stop expecting someone to punish me, which is about when I realized that I’ve spent my adult life bracing myself to be torn down for every misstep as if the fate of the universe relied on me not fucking up, which isn’t entirely unlike the way my parents reacted to the staggering majority of the things that came naturally to me.

I called out of work for two days not because my boobs were bleeding (they were) or because it hurt to move my neck (it did) or because pulling open doors made me feel like my chest was on fire (holy crap, did it ever), though my collection of minor injuries eased the terminally itchy conscience that won't even be appeased by having a valid excuse for calling out and leaving other people to pick up my slack unless I accept a load of Catholic-sized guilt in exchange lest I give myself a few justifiable recovery days without the appropriate reciprocal suffering. I needed some time to consider how much an inherently lousy experience opened my eyes to damage I didn’t even know I was still carrying around (what the hell, surely talking about going to therapy is just as good as actually going, right?). My coping method of choice? Alternately napping like a champ and juggling three books, including this memoir of the girl who was born to a bitterly brilliant drunk she idolized and an indifferent, self-involved artist who she tried so hard to understand, only to become the person she was meant to be with little support from the two people who should have been there to cheer her on all the way.

Like I’d said, I knew I wasn’t going to be unbiased in how I approached Jeannette Walls’s coming-of-age story: No matter how sympathetically she painted her parents (which she did quite well), I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from resenting them for failing their children. But then the little-girl hero worship Jeanette felt for her tortured, misunderstood genius of her father just struck every raw nerve I have and just poked and poked until I had to physically distance myself from the book. The killer was that I’d stew in whatever calamity last befell these children to the point of needing to know how things were resolved (or avoided entirely). It's distracting to be doing other things and thinking about the book you'd rather be reading.

Not even the blatantly narcissistic ravings of Jeannette’s mother sounded enough alarms to keep me from venturing back to this book if I’d stray too far for too long. And I’d’ve thrown the book across the room at Mrs. Walls’s “I’m not crying because you’re leaving me for New York City; I’m crying because you’re going and I’m not!” outburst had I not already been forced to corral all my determination to return this borrowed book in acceptable condition after Mama W -- whose “Oh, I don’t believe in discipline because children need to learn their own lessons” philosophy barely disguised the maternal disinterest and selfish absence that I know all too well – wailed that she has sacrificed so much for her children when the scamps had demonstrated time and again that they’re more responsible for their family than the matriarch is. I, uh, may have transferred a lot of my own lingering anger at my emotionally damaging mother onto Mrs. Walls, which makes me question how justified my screaming dislike of her is.

The less said about Papa Walls, the better. My father might not have been a hopeless drunk but I kind of wish he had some kind of excuse for routinely breaking promises to the children who thought the sun rose and set on him. An absent mother is easy to hate while growing up and even easier to pity once you’ve come of age. That simpering animosity is something you get used to after a while and, if you’re like Jeannette and a better person than I am, you simply accept that your self-involved mother has constructed such an elaborate alternate reality around herself that nothing real can get through to her if she doesn’t want it to, that she can even turn homelessness into an enviable adventure. But an idolized father’s fall from grace? The older you get, the harder it is when you finally realize the one person you’ve told yourself can do anything is the person who's let you down with the least remorse. That first hard look at how helpless and broken the man behind the curtain is.... that is not easy to come back from. That’s how little girls grow up to become giant messes.

When Jeannette found her way to the school paper and sampled her first taste of print journalism's sweet, sweet escapist nectar.... oh, my heart went out to her younger self in eagerly over-earnest ways. Being a half-consumed whiskey bottle rolling around an otherwise empty desk away from calling herself a true-blooded journalist at such a young age would have won me over if the entire book preceding such a moment hadn't already made me want to see Jeannette find her place in the world. Newsroom nostalgia will always be the easiest way to my too-soft heart.

I am amazed that this isn’t one of those “Oh my God, so let me tell you about my super-sad story so you’ll feel just awful about the craptastic childhood I had and then you’ll be totally amazed at how far I’ve come and how functional I am hey, why don’t you love me yet please love me and feel sorry for me I need your sympathy give it to me” memoirs, thank bouncing Baby Jesus. It’s a documentation of these things that happened to the four Walls children and how at least three of them embraced responsible independence and sibling camaraderie. Walls describes what she sees, reporting the facts and supplying exposition as needed like any good journalist. Also like a good journalist, emotions get minimal face time here. Jeannette is the perfect narrator because it seems as though she is the most willing to accept her parents for what they are. Even though I selfishly wanted to know how her adult self dealt with the fallout of her turbulent childhood (because every little adult grows up to be a big child, let's be honest), I found myself admiring how Jeannette was in no way reliant on cheap feelings to maneuver the story to its conclusion.

Jeannette and her siblings are the heroes of this story. They get themselves out of a bad situation one by one, fishing out each younger sibling as the means become available. Because what’s a better introduction to a new life of stability after years of only knowing that what comes next is an obstacle you can rely on exactly yourself and your equally young siblings to overcome?

This book was quite good but it struck far too close to home in ways I may have overly personalized. It didn't make me laugh like it did my coworker but it sure as hell did make me appreciate how Jeannette Walls turned out. I've had a lot of people recently and unknowingly demonstrate that humanity might not be as awful as I've always thought it to be, and witnessing a grown child forgive her parents for their many crimes against her certainly made for the kind of book that confirmed it's probably time to fix my perspective. Maybe we're not as fucked of a species as I've feared all along.

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