On my birthday ten years ago, a little memoir called The Glass Castle was published and became a national bestseller, which was then translated into over 20 languages. I remember at the time I was intrigued by the book and put it on my mental to-read list, primarily because it dealt with real life family dysfunction and how the author got through it. I thought at the time that maybe something about this book could resonate with me. And this week, I started reading it, and it’s been hard to stop because of how honest Jeannette Walls’s voice is and how much I can actually relate to her sentiments around both her parents and her siblings.
The dysfunction I grew up with isn’t “dysfunctional” from a white person/outsider view because I had all the “basics” for survival that parents are supposed to provide their children: a safe home to live in, food on the table, the ability to go to school. These are the things that Walls and her siblings were deprived of; even though they were able to go to school, they never went with a packed lunch and oftentimes went by for days without a single mouthful of food going down their throats. I can’t relate to these predominantly “white” problems that the average poor Asian American family would probably not have. Walls’s family has all the stereotypical poor white dysfunctional problems: a deadbeat dad with a drinking problem who cannot provide for his family, a mom who is unfit to take care of herself, much less her four children, and is resentful of a mother’s responsibilities, the constant running away from debts for everything from rent to electricity bills. The four kids grew up going from town to town barely knowing what it was like to have running water or electricity in their homes, or a refrigerator with even a loaf of bread in it. Oftentimes, their mother would use her last few dollars on chocolate, which she’d eat by herself while hiding under the bed covers. Her children would eventually find out and take the chocolate away, splitting it into equal pieces for everyone in the house to share. The father stole grocery money and disappeared for days, if not weeks, and spent it all on alcohol, cigarettes, and prostitutes. The kids eventually had to fend for themselves, earn their own money, and find ways to get out of the house on their own. And they all did.
Throughout the book, Walls expresses her anger and frustration, but it’s obvious she holds no grudges against either parent. She makes it obvious that no matter what her parents did, no matter how much they neglected her or beat her with a belt, she still loved them and always would. In interviews, she is constantly asked how she was able to forgive her parents for what they did to her. But in mature adult fashion, she responds that it’s not about forgiveness; it’s simply about acceptance. Without the experiences she had, she wouldn’t be who she is today. That’s kind of how I feel about my own life, as I’ve been asking repeatedly by multiple people how I’m still able to visit my parents so regularly, how I was able to publicly speak so highly of them at my wedding events. One friend said, “You were so nice to say all those great things about your parents at the wedding. You really didn’t have to do that.” It’s true. I don’t have to, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that they weren’t all bad, and I have experienced a lot of life’s greatest privileges because of the sacrifices they made for my brother and me. Sadly, Ed isn’t with us anymore, and he was treated drastically different than I was. But to compare to Walls’s experiences, Ed never knew what it was like to not have electricity or running water, nor did he know what it was like to have a literally empty refrigerator. She says that her parents weren’t perfect, as no parent is, but she thinks they did the best they knew how to for her and her three siblings. And as hard as it is for me to acknowledge, even in light of Ed’s suicide, I feel the exact same way about my parents.
What actually does bother me is how a lot of people have received Walls’s memoir. I skimmed a few reviews of the book, and a number of them have accused her of fabricating information and exaggerating how bad her life really was. How much could she really remember from her childhood, from the ages of 3 to 6 to 9? The people who accuse her of this have clearly led lives within a privileged bubble and just have a complete inability to fathom parents who would feed themselves before their children, drunkenness that results in constantly losing jobs and falling deeper into debt, or delusional thinking on the parents’ parts that they’ve “never let you down, have we?” (I can relate to that. My mom insists all the time, even after Ed’s death, that she is the best mother in the world and no one else can compare. She’s not joking. She really means it). The foster care system in this country is huge because of parents who fall into these exact categories, and it’s so disturbing to think that people are not aware of this. I’ve even been asked myself if all the things I’ve shared with friends are “really true;” in the same way I’m sure Walls responds, why would I ever lie about experiences with my own family — what do I have to gain from this? Neither Walls nor I would share information simply to garner another person’s temporary sympathy; the reason we share stories is so that hopefully, other people can increase their levels of empathy and ultimately understand us and how we think better, as well as people who have had similar experiences. Because isn’t that what all human beings desire — to be truly understood?