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Book Club Reflection: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

21 Sep

A lot of you commented on my book review of Jeannette Wall’s memoir, The Glass Castle and had wonderful things to say about it. I loved it, too! What a great book. My book club agreed and we had a wonderful discussion about the memoir.

The woman who volunteered to lead our discussion made up some of her own questions. She has a psychology background so some of this discussion might bet a bit technical, be warned! The first thing we talked about was if Jeannette should have written the book. Her husband encouraged her to write it and a part of me wonders if he thought she needed to deal with her past. A lot of us thought she needed to get this off her chest. Walls talks about hiding how she grew up while in school and maybe she wanted to finally put it out there so everyone would know where she came from. The story seems too crazy to be true, but we doubt she embellished any of it. The psychologist among us told us that our memory is heightened by trauma. It’s why we remember being scared of the circus as six-year-olds but not what we had for dinner last week. Some of the back material said that Walls’ siblings remembered most of her stories the exact same way, but from their eyes. Walls has a lot of traumatic memories and she’s ashamed of them. But the book opens with her being ashamed of being ashamed of her mother. She wants to confront what’s bothering her. This book helped her do that.

The style of this book was amazing. Walls is not asking for our sympathy. She doesn’t need it, she’s doing fine. She’s telling us the love story of her family. They didn’t have much, but they had love. She writes from an unbiased mind, the mind of a child, at the beginning. She’s telling us the facts. As she grew up, she was able to analyze things and knew what was wrong and right.

We asked ourselves if the Walls children should have been taken away from their parents. There is a lot of debate around if child protective services are really doing something for the good of the child by doing that. Our group has a lot of teachers and many of them felt strongly that the teachers failed to do their duty and tell someone about neglect at home. But in the end, was it better for them to have stayed together? The children might have been split up and they might not all have had a good foster care experience. Not everyone does. We did agree that Rex crossed the line twice; taking Ben to a whore house (which is implied but never explicitly stated) and when he took Jeannette to the bar and let the older man talk to her. Those were the only things we thought were explicit abuse. Everything else could be counted as neglect.

The kids are lucky they survived the conditions of the house. The older three raised each other for the most part. Maureen was babied her whole life and never had to fight for herself. Their father ignored her for the most part as well. Maybe that was the love she would have needed. The kids appreciated what they had later in life so much more because of their background.

Growing up poor and being neglected are different things. A poor family can be doing everything possible to put food on the table and fail to do so. A neglectful family, like the Walls, isn’t exhausting all its resources. We said that this was different from poverty during the depression because there were other options ($1,000,000 property, house in Phoenix) that the parents didn’t resort to.

Rex is a character and a half. We genuinely think he was incredibly smart, so much so that he didn’t fit in. ‘Severely gifted’ was a phrase we tossed around. He seemed to give up on a lot of things when he felt everyone around him couldn’t keep up with him. The alcohol and confrontational manner didn’t help, but feeling like he was smart but couldn’t get ahead would have been defeating.

Jeannette was disillusioned with her father in her childhood and got mad in her adolescence when she saw that he wasn’t everything he pretended to be. He was killing cats, pimping her out, and stealing money. Toward the end of his life, he seemed to feel some regret about the way he brought the children up. He realized the Glass Castle was never going to happen and when he asked if she’d been let down, their old back-and-forth banter, he knew he had. In the end, it seems Walls had a good amount of respect for her father and what he endured.

There’s no doubt he loved his kids, but he didn’t have a good model of how to show it. We see that Rex’s parents were not ideal, either. They ignored him and dealt with their own issues before looking to their child. We think he loved them more than Rose Mary. In the end, he was the better parent.

On page 155 in my copy, it’s implied that Rex was sexually abused by his mother. A lot of us think that’s likely. We don’t think it excuses what he did and his alcoholism, but it gives us a reason why things might have started off badly for him and why he was reluctant to return home. I’m glad that it seems that cycle of abuse ended with Rex. As I said, the kids might have been neglected, but they didn’t seem abused.

Rose Mary and Rex were toxic together. She enabled him and it’s possible he drank more because she was around. She didn’t hold him accountable for anything and he had no reason to stop drinking. We suspected that Rose Mary was bipolar. Our psychologist told us that many people with bipolar disorder will avoid commitment because they can’t maintain it between their highs and lows. We think part of the hatred toward Rose Mary’s mother was because she tried to put her daughter in a box, a nice safe teaching box. Rose Mary didn’t want this because when she went through her lows, she couldn’t be a teacher. We further suspect that Maureen might have inherited her mother’s bipolarity. She struggled so much toward the end with mood swings that it seems likely.

Our psychologist said that the Walls were the most dysfunctional family she’d ever encountered. The kids thought they were special because their father had always told them they were and that might have been their only saving grace. Jeannette never felt like a victim of her circumstances. She never gave up and always kept trying. We did find it interesting that she has no children of her own. It might be out of fear of repeating her own childhood or another reason, but it does seem like a deliberate choice.

I’ll be missing the next meeting of this book club, but we’ll return in late October.

Until next time, write on.

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