Read from 1st to 4th of January 2018
In an article published in Vanity Fair after the release of the movie adaptation of The Glass Castle, Christine Champagne quotes Jeannette Walls remembering the effect her memoir had on her mother: “The book was tough on her. But bless her heart—she said, ‘I don’t see it quite the way you did, but that’s the way you saw it.’ It’s crazy that she can see that.”
This candid statement made me meditate, not for the first time, upon that controversial and sometimes even ingrate place memoirs, diaries, even personal letters occupy – not quite fiction, because the events are supposed to have truly happened, but not quite reality – not only because human memory is faulty but also because the interpretation of the said events often distort them. Therefore these works are suspended somewhere in between, where everything is a little blurred and you cannot really accept nor deny objectivity, reliability, spontaneity and so on. Sometimes one of them makes that big step towards the literature realm and becomes art, like Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, in which the truth and the way the truth is told are equally important, but most of them inhabit the grey zone forever.
Jeannette Walls’s Glass Castle, despite its fairytale title and its peculiar talent to present the gruesome in an affectionate way is no exception. A very good memoir, but, as Francine Prose justly remarks in her NY Times review that “falls short of being art”.
Which does not mean the book is not worth reading, on the contrary, for it raises many serious and frequently debated questions about parenting, family life, social conventions, social institutions and so on. It also may shatter your opinions about the homeless and the poor, about the role of education and importance of money for the human being, since the story is about two educated adults who never fit anywhere not because they aren’t able to, but because they don’t want to, considering they don’t have much responsibility not even towards their four children whom they feed when they feel like it, bur more often they do not, conveniently proclaiming that even looking for food in the garbage pails at school strengthens the character.
However, The Glass Castle is not really about childhood tragedy, and this could maybe explain why one of the images I remained with after finishing the book was not one of the children’s misfortunes (which are many), but the symbolic image of the homeless parents entering a library with double purpose - to read and to keep warm:
As fall came and the days shortened and the weather cooled, Mom and Dad began spending more time in the libraries, which were warm and comfortable, and some of which remained open well into the evening. Mom was working her way through Balzac. Dad had become interested in chaos theory and was reading Los Alamos Science and the Journal of Statistical Physics. He said it had already helped his pool game.
In a way, The Glass Castle seems to prove Freud right when he said that civilization is the source of unhappiness for the individual by pressuring him to work and to sever the family ties that bond the individual tighter than any other ties. The Walls are prisoners of a world that keeps reminding them they have to work and pay their due to the society and that menaces to dissolve their family, forcing them to periodically run away. But family, not matter how dysfunctional, is the only thing that matters to the Walls, whose life, like that of the primitive foragers, depends on what they can gather and what they can hunt, but keeps them free enough of social constraints (and didn’t Yuval Noah Harari observe in his brilliant Sapiens, that that was the only time of true happiness of the humankind, until the Agricultural Revolution set its “luxury trap”?). As I said earlier, their nonconformist life, although hard for children, did not stop the latter to enjoy the constant moving from home to home, town to town, state to state, viewing it like a continuous adventure, being enchanted to be given stars as birthday gifts from their father and helping him draw the blueprints of a magic house where all wishes would come true:
The Glass Castle would have solar cells on the top that would catch the sun's rays and convert them into electricity for heating and cooling and running all the appliances. It would even have its own water-purification system. Dad had worked out the architecture and the floor plans and most of the mathematical calculations. He carried around the blueprints for the Glass Castle wherever we went, and sometimes he'd pull them out and let us work on the design for our rooms.
I have truly appreciated the way the author told her story, without righteous outrage, without pathetic inflexions, in a tranquil, sometimes even nostalgic narrative. You feel her love for her irresponsible parents whom she rarely judges nor justifies. However, the past has forged her while leaving its mark on her. Thus, writing her story was somehow cathartic, as she acknowledges in the same article from Vanity Fair: “I had dreams last night about Welch, which I have not dreamt about in a long time,” she says. “But it was a very wise man who said, ‘Secrets are a little bit like vampires—they suck the life out of you. Once they’re exposed to light, they lose their power over you.’ And I have found that to be very true. So I kind of own the stories, and my past doesn’t haunt me the way it used to.”