The first time I read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, I hated it. A memoir about a family—dysfunctional, charismatic, poverty-stricken and painfully stunning—The Glass Castle painted a picture that I could not bear to look directly at for the first few years that I knew it. There are few books that incite such anger in me and at fifteen years old, I felt as though The Glass Castle was the most abhorred summer reading ever required. Today, I look back with a gentler smile.
The summer leading into my sophomore year of high school I can only vaguely define with the scent of thickly sweet sunblock and hours under the sun practicing tennis contouring the edges of my memories. But I do recall speeding through the pages of The Glass Castle with an anxious fever—as though I could sooner read for the Wallses a better future. Even as I glided through those pages—a quality I had yet to truly appreciate in novels—I found myself snowballing with frustration, concern, and even anger.
I couldn’t grasp the gentleness of Walls’ narrative, the non-judgmental voice she colored her family in, and ending of acceptance that the author wrote from. At the time, how she could stand to not simply cut off her family was the biggest question for me. But the worst part of my anger came when a beloved professor questions Walls’ perspective as a student at Barnard College to understand poverty and the lives of the underprivileged. At the time, I felt a sense of injustice for the author, wanting to reach through the pages as if to shake Walls and yell, “Tell them! Tell them all!” So when Walls backed down from her professor, I felt more pent-up frustration than I had with most novels at that age. (Little did I know how many more I was to face!)
As part of high school’s summer reading, I couldn’t just leave the book there and walk away as I might have done with any other book that brought such frustrations. When fall arrived, I argued vehemently in our English class that the parents had failed their responsibilities. On one hand, I developed a better sense of what I expected from a parent and realized I would never make a good parent myself unless I inherently changed as a person. On the other hand, I don’t think I quite realized how defensive of Jeannette Walls I was, to say the least.
So years later, I shocked myself when I turned to The Glass Castle once more. Someone had asked me something mid-argument, along the lines of Walls’ professor’s question—albeit not about my understanding of poverty, but about understanding struggle and pain and what have I ever experienced that is as difficult as —-
I took a breath. Admittedly, I’ve lived a fairly charmed, colorful life, so it’s little wonder anyone would question that of me. But like Walls might suggest of others, “they all had their problems, too.” (270) For myself, I’ve taken enormous steps to cover my own tracks, to clean up after myself, and just keep moving. So in that moment I thought of unloading all the pain and hurt I carried during those years for one reason or another. I was up to the brim with frustration, so many emotions contending for a platform in my answer to the other person’s question. Instead, I learned what it meant to yield and back down from a question like that.
By the time I stepped back, I thought about Jeannette Walls. I thought about how I may have judged her story too harshly for her own refusal to judge.
So the next time I came to The Glass Castle, I read it with different eyes. I laughed and I cried and this time, I walked through her life story with a lighter tread. With a new set of family struggles in my life, I came to understand the shades of character and depth that Walls brings into her book. I appreciated the undemanding, uncritical writing. I adored the crispness and the clarity with which she told her story without losing the pigmentation of beauty or pain she encountered. With an encompassing, clear, and unjudging sense of sight, I can only hope to someday be as strong and resilient of a writer as she is.
As I prepared to head back to college this summer, The Glass Castle was part of a summer reading list I had prepared. This past week, I flickered through its pages in one fell swoop. So when I saw its trailer in the movie theater right before Wonder Woman, I felt an inexplicable thrill of both fear and excitement. I’m excited to watch the movie, but I’m also cautiously afraid. I hope they do the family justice. I hope they tell it honestly.