Reading Challenge Book 1: The Glass Castle

On Friday I kick-started my reading challenge to read 16 books that have most impacted my life, starting from most recently read to the books most distantly, tracing my steps from the woman I am now, to the young girl I once was. I hope to find or reignite parts of me that have gone dormant through the course of my adulthood. I am excited to see where this journey goes and hope to gain some clarity and meaningful self-reflection along the way.

The first book on my list is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

This memoir kicked my emotional behind both the first time I read it and this most recent round.

About the book (you can scroll down to the next section if you’ve already read it):
For those who are not familiar with the memoir or the 2017 film adaptation, The Glass Castle is the remarkable story of Jeannette’s young life and her family’s tribulations through poverty, alcoholism, inexplicable parental neglect, love, survival, and resilience. It is filled with raw accounts of children learning how to feed, protect, and take care of themselves while their parents stood to the side, consumed with their own challenges, skewed perceptions, and selfish desires.

Rex, the Walls patriarch, was a brilliant exuberant force who instilled creativity, imagination, and deep resiliency within his children. Throughout this story, I found it hard not to be drawn in by his magnetism, despite his dangerous and debilitating penchant for alcohol. Yet for all his creativity, intelligence, and undeniable talents, Rex was clearly haunted by his own abusive upbringing and plagued by paranoid delusions, the cost of which, was his children’s well-being.

Rose Mary, the Walls matriarch, never once seemed particularly fond of her matriarch position. Over and over she failed to prioritize the care for her children out of resentment of having to give up her daydreams for their survival. Often blaming her alcoholic husband or simply because she did not want to, Rose Mary regularly refused to seek employment or to take any sort of responsibility for the lives she and Rex brought into the world.

While Rex’s behaviors were at times gut wrenching and utterly unforgivable, I find Rose Mary and her apathy the most difficult to comprehend. I know that this stems from my experience with my own mother and her similar disregard for taking care of my sisters and I; so please be aware that my perception has a biased skew.

One particular example of Rose Mary’s behaviors shined through when her children found a diamond ring. They brought the piece of jewelry to their mother to be appraised in hopes that they would have money to quell their starvation. Instead of choosing to feed her children, Rose Mary chose to keep the ring, explaining: “It could improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food (186).”

That is simply staggering to me. Especially, when this was not even the worst incident of her irresponsibility.

This is a challenging story to stomach and tugs hard on the emotions of any person, regardless of whether the Wall’s family experiences are near or far from your own. For me, while Jeannette’s and my upbringings are far from comparable, there were numerous trigger points planted throughout the memoir that set off memories of my own that I would usually prefer to leave untouched.  

Below are the two reactions I’ve had to The Glass Castle, the first occurring at 25 when I was still very much coming to terms with my own dysfunctional upbringing and the memories that were taunting me.  

Reaction at age 25:
I first read this memoir shortly after I moved to Virginia from Connecticut at the age of 25 in 2016. While I was excited about this new chapter of my life, I had never thought that I would return to Virginia and had to come to terms with the experiences I thought I had left behind.

About 7 years prior, I had moved to White Post, Virginia out of support for my mother who was fleeing Connecticut after the loss of her alcoholic husband, a two year probate battle with his family, bankruptcy, and years and years of familial and emotional chaos. My mother, who has been diagnosed with Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorder (NPD & BPD), thought this new place could give her the blissful life she thought she ought to have. To keep the story short, it did not and I was the one who took the brunt of her resulting volcanic breakdowns.

Two years into our Virginia escape, she had one particular breakdown triggered by my decision to attend a family gathering with my dad’s family. After expressing her profound and unbearable disappointment in me, she told me not to come home.

After years of doing all I could to earn her love, to gain her approval, and make her happy, I was finally released from an unattainable emotional contract I’d been forced into. And in a demonstration of the obedience she had instilled within me, I did as I was told.

We essentially have not spoken since.

As you may imagine, reading a book involving dysfunctional parents was not an especially healing experience. Even though it was about 5 years past that explosive day, during that first reading of The Glass Castle, a lot of old wounds were ripped open and I felt the newly constructed structures of my healing buckle under the weight of those most pernicious memories.

When I read I The Glass Castle in 2016, I saw the primary story as one of abuse and parental neglect. I was enraged and deeply unsettled by the fact that the Walls family could continue to meet at the Thanksgiving table despite their parents horrendous, and in my opinion, unforgivable actions – as well as inactions.

I could not comprehend Jeannette’s sense of love, forgiveness, and generosity for parents who, to my perception, could barely scrounge up the same for her or her siblings.

What incensed me about her parents is what I still find deeply challenging within my own; that is, the knowledge that they are unable, or simply choose not, to take accountability for their actions and for the weight of dejection they dropped on our childhoods.

One thing in particular that stood out to me at the time was when Jeannette’s parents would dismiss their children’s pains, hunger, and struggles by saying, “that which hurts you, only makes you stronger.”

I’ve heard this phrase a million times myself, and it is one that I have historically disliked. From my perspective at the time, the only “strength” obtained, were the emotional calluses that prevented severe blistering during the war of my mother’s episodes. Those blisters simply meant that I was able to stay in that relationship longer because of the shell I had built up to numb my reality.

Another point I found repugnant, was the praise of children from dysfunctional upbringings for their resiliency and adaptability. Did they not understand the cost we had to pay to earn those abilities? And did they not see the interest we were still paying to maintain our adeptness?

The cost of the Walls children was beyond evident as they had to become their own parents and ensure the survivability of the family. For me, I often had to step in as the counselor, consoler, and overall emotional support system for my mother, including one particular incident when I had to hold her hands down to keep her from, as she so often threatened, slamming me.

My ability to connect with others, to experience vulnerability, and have happy, healthy, and loving relationships has been substantially marred. My resiliency has been a wall. And my goodness, it has taken everything within me to try to take it down.

So the first reading of The Glass Castle was a complicated one. However, this memoir has lingered in my mind these past two years and it was the story that pushed me to restart therapy and take healing my emotional health more seriously. For all that it reopened my wounds, it gave me the push to get them firmly closed.

Reaction at age 27:
I was not super keen about having The Glass Castle be the book to kick-start my reading challenge. I knew it would draw out some of my most uncomfortable experiences and also knew it would be a challenging book to write a reflection for. Yet, every time I tried to add another book or re-arrange the order, somehow I always came back to the one that starts with this memoir.

So, did two years make a difference in my reaction?

Yes and no.

I definitely still felt quite a bit of anger and frustration towards Jeannette’s parents (with continued resentment for her mother specifically). When reading about the depth of poverty and the depth of irresponsibility displayed by Jeannette’s parents, it’s very hard not to.  However, there were three takeaways that I did not have during that first reading.

For one thing, my ability to emotionally bounce back from especially poignant passages was far faster than it was before. While the last reading created lots and lots and lots of ruminating, obsessing, and overall unhealthy thought bundling; this time, when I felt the snap of frustration build up, I was able to ease out of it within moments and continue on my way.

There’s a second point that stood out to me that I was not yet ready to see at age 25. Our parents, regardless of where they stand on the spectrum of function to dysfunctional, have a lot of teach us, so long as we are willing to listen to their lessons. Those lessons come in so many different forms and sometimes cannot be understood until you step away and place some time in between. Some of those lessons are kind and inspiring, while others are bleak and heartbreaking.

Rose Mary could see the beauty in unusual things and taught her children to see the world more openly. During one of the most beautiful moments in The Glass Castle, Rex taught his children that the best gifts of life cannot be wrapped in a box and are far more lasting than the plastic toys found at a store. These kinds of moments matter, even when the overall experience is less than inspiring.

For me, the good moments I had with my mother instilled hope, creativity, and furthered my imagination. The bad moments, alternatively,  have helped me assess how I choose to treat others by reflecting on how I wish I had been treated. There is a depth of patience and empathy I hold for strangers that I do not think I would have, were it not for the negative experiences of my upbringing.  I am grateful for those lessons and hope I see more of them as I continue to grow and heal.

The last takeaway was something that could only have occurred at this point in my life.

Throughout the memoir, it is clear that Jeannette and her father had a particularly strong bond. It was clear because Rex often told Jeannette that she was is favorite. And while that is perhaps not the best form of parenting, that love was true and clearly helped Jeannette become the woman she is. It is that love she held onto when she got off a bus in New York to begin a new life. This is one of my favorite moments:

For years Dad had been telling me I had an inner beauty. Most people didn’t see it. I had trouble seeing it myself, but Dad was alwaysing saying he could damn well see it and that was what mattered. I hoped when New Yorkers looked at me, they would see whatever it was that Dad saw (245).

When I first read this passage, I was jealous of Jeannette. I was envious of her having a parent who could see her and who loved what they found. As far as I can tell, my parents did not have that insight and as I grew up, I hoped that others would see what my parents seemed to ignore or possibly dislike.

Today though, I do have a community of people who support me and seem to see something in me that I’ve never been able to. When I left my job about three weeks ago, so many colleagues came forward and told me how much I meant to them and to the organization, and how much of an impact I was leaving behind. A number of people told me that they wanted to write letters of recommendation when I begin the process of seeking employment, and person after person reminded me that I would always be part of the family.

I was not expecting this outpouring of support and have somewhat found it challenging to process it. What I hope, as Jeannette hoped, is that when others look at me, they see whatever it is my working family sees.

In Conclusion
While it has been an emotionally revealing experience, I am glad that I chose to start my reading challenge with Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle. I wanted to go on this journey to bring back memories that have faded and re-reveal parts of me that I, or others, have pushed aside. I can see that in just two years, so much of my life has changed and so much has improved.

I am excited to see where the rest of this journey leads me and what it will reveal about myself.

If you have not read The Glass Castle, I highly recommend giving this book a read (with a box of tissues handy). There’s also a film adaptation (trailer below) featuring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts. I haven’t seen it yet, so if you think it’s worth a watch, let me know!

And if you have a stack of books that have made an impact on you, it may be time to give them another read – you never know what you’ll find.

Up Next
The next book on my reading challenge adventure is Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations! In my post on February 10, I’ll reflect on how this book helped me in the first few months after the separation from my mother while I was studying abroad in London.

As a reminder, below is the schedule of books that I’ll be reading and reflecting upon, if any of these books are your favorite, please pop by and share your experience!

February 10: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – originally read at age 20
February 14: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – originally read at age 20
February 17: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver – originally read at age 18
February 21: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley – originally read at age 17
February 24: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – originally read at age 16
February 27: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – originally read at age 15
March 4: The Odyssey by Homer – originally read at age 14
March 11: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – originally read at age 13
March 14: A Time for Dancing by Davida Wills Hurwin – originally read at around age 11/12
March 17: Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip – originally read at around age 11/12
March 20: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – originally read at around age 10/11
March 23: Squire by Tamora Pierce – originally read at around age 10
March 25: Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – originally read at around age 10
March 27: Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne – originally read at around age 8
March 29: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen – read to me at around age 5/6

See you on Sunday!

Walls, Jeannette, The Glass Castle. Scribner, New York. 2005

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