The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls
288 pages (hardcover)
I have unusual issues with the book. I did not sympathize with Jeannette--in fact, my sympathy steadily decreased as the story progressed--due to, I believe, certain personal circumstances and beliefs that are very much not
mainstream. My reaction is atypical and despite it, I would recommend this book to most people.
Jeannette Walls, one of four children of Rex and Rose Mary Walls, grew up in a household rich in love and neglect, poor in finances and responsibility. If that description sounds contradictory, it is; yet it is also an accurate description of Jeannette's unusual childhood. I could go on about this heart-warming, inspirational tale of horrific poverty and incredible courage--but while I can see how those accolades could be true, they were emphatically false for this reader.
Walls did offer me a new perspective into poverty, specifically homelessness and parental neglect. I've experienced poverty but with hard-working parents who always managed to provide; in that respect, Walls educated me and I'm glad for that education. However. Oh, the however. As most people know by now, I am atheist--openly and outspokenly atheist. This colors my reading of one scene in particular, on pages 256-7, when Jeannette is confronted by a favorite Barnard professor. Jeannette offers a controversial reasoning for homelessness, one justified by her own experience; yet when Professor Fuches demands, "What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged? What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?", Jeannette falls back and simply replies, "You have a point." She
has a point, but she doesn't have the guts to argue it. She is afraid of the social stigma of her impoverished background and homeless parents. Certainly I acknowledge this stigma, but I also condemn her for selfishness and cowardice. I feel very strongly that if you support a cause--as Jeannette demonstrated by going halfway and saying, "Sometimes, I think, it's neither"--then you should advocate it when given the opportunity. If someone makes a racist remark, I believe it is almost a moral obligation for you to speak out if you consider yourself anti-racist. I would apply this philosophy to all areas of life, with the common-sense exception for emotionally traumatizing experiences. And although I can't directly empathize with Jeannette's hardships, I can
empathize with the social stigma that she faces. As a female Asian atheist--or even as an ally to those three causes--I have encountered similar situations and I have acted differently. Yes, it's immensely difficult to speak up against cultural assumptions, norms, and expectations. But Jeannette never acknowledges that she has work to do in that respect, that it is weak to give in the way she does. Walls overcomes her fear by writing this memoir, of course, but I do not critique Walls--I critique Jeannette, the character that Walls presents. If I as a high school student can endure equal or greater social stigma (and if you don't think being an outspoken atheist carries a stigma, go read the part of this article
that discusses Presidential polling), then it's not unreasonable to expect college-junior Jeannette to do the same, and to judge her when she fails.
Furthermore, in an irrational gut reaction, I felt that Jeannette was, well, spineless. Extraordinarily resilent, but never resistant
. For the same reason that most people will connect with Walls' story, I experienced a complete disconnect. I honestly cannot understand why Jeannette never lost faith in her father until the very end. My own faith would have been long since shattered. Hell, even with a loving and relatively normal childhood, I don't have that kind of faith in my parents. I don't think I will ever, nor that I should
have that kind of faith in anyone but myself. Perhaps that's an atheistic viewpoint, now that I consider it. I believe that faith must be earned, and if the trust of faith is broken, then you should stop having faith
And now that I've finished tearing apart Wall's memoir--which is a well-written, poignant tale of "unconditional love" in a seriously messed-up family--I would still recommend it to anyone (i.e. almost everyone) who disagrees with my opinion as stated above. If you understand such unconditional faith, if you aren't absurdly passionate about advocacy, then you won't have my issues with the tale and you'll probably love it.