Appalachian Perspective: Author Jeannette Walls describes lessons from her childhood

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

Walls, whose memoir The Glass Castle is the 2008 Freshman summer reading book, wrote about her unorthodox childhood living with parents who were not capable of providing the basic necessities. They were, however, able to give her a love of learning, the desire to dream and a strong sense of self-esteem.


Kenneth Peacock: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is our 2008 Fall convocation speaker Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle. Her memoir presents a fascinating account of an individuals ability to overcome the odds. We'll meet this dynamic author coming up on Appalachian Perspective.

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is 2008 convocation speaker author Jeannette Walls. Welcome Jeannette! We're honored to have you on our campus. Thank you for being here, for your wonderful lecture this morning, and for sharing your life story with us.

Jeannette Walls: Thank you, it's a real joy to be here.

KP: For those who may not have read the book, I want to encourage everyone to get The Glass Castle and read it, you won't regret it, you can't put it down. Share a little bit about your past.

JW: I had a nomadic childhood, we were always on the run from somebody. My father said it was the CIA or the mafia, mom said it was the bill collectors. But whoever it was, we were always running away from somebody, we'd sleep in cars, we'd sleep in liuttle rental houses, we'd settle down for a year, usually less, and then we were on the run again. Even while we were running from something we were also chasing something, we were chasing our dreams. Dad said all this running around was temporary and that one of these days he was going to build us a mansion in the desert and he called it the glass castle, all we had to do was find gold and he would build us our glass castle.

KP: during those years, you were hungry?

JW: yes.

KP: had no indoor plumbing?

JW: yes.

KP: What was it like going to the schools as a child?

JW: When I was very young, I didn't realize how strange my life was. I would look at other kids and it seemed they were dressed differently than us, other kids would look at us, they woiuld poiunt at us, sometimes we'd go into a restaurant and be told there weren't any available seats even though the place was half empty, so I knew something funny was going on. The school experiences, sometimes we weren't even enrolled in school, sometimes my parents would teach us. I have to say my parents were very intelligent people, and they loved education and put a very high value on that, so for whatever we didn't get, I will always be grateful to them for that. When I went to school, one of the odd things was, despite my wacky childhood, I knew a lot, and I could read a lot earlier than most kids my age but at the same time, I could tell I was dressed a lot more shabbily and sometimes we were teased mercilessly.

KP: The story does have love, it has dreams, it has challenges. There are moments in it where you are moved to anger and other times where you laugh out loud. It's a very personal story though.

JW: It's very personal.

KP: What really convinced you to share this story?

JW: You know, Ken, for a long time, I hid my past. I never actively lied about it, I never tried to pass myself off as a Rockefeller, but when somebody would ask me about it I would change the topic. At one point my job was writing about celebrities, it was covering fabulous parties and fabulous people and I was all decked out in some designer clothes heading to a party, and the taxi got stuck in traffic a couple of blocks away from the party I was going to. I glanced out the window and I saw my mother rooting through the garbage. I slid down in the back of the taxi and asked the driver to take me home. I got together with my mother a couple of days later and I said mom, what on earth am I supposed to tell people when they ask me about you. And she looked at me as though I had just asked her a really dumb question and said tell them the truth. That was really probably the moment that I said I have to do this. I'd wrestled with trying to come clean about my past, but I couldn't do it. The fact that I was out there writing about other people's secrets while keeping my own really stuck me as painfully hypocritical, and also painfully burdensome. Those of us who carry around our secrets, and I've come to understand how many of us there are out there, we live in this world in which we think those secrets make us less of a person. One of your professors said something brilliant to me earlier today, he said secrets are a little bit like vampires, they thrive in the dark and they suck the life out of you, but you expose them to the light and at the first moment, it's scary but then, they lose their power.

KP: How did your family react when you said I'm going to write this story?

JW: I did not have permission from my kid sister, we'd been out of touch for ten years, so I was nervous about what she would think. My brother has been fabulous and supportive from day one. He was the only one I showed the manuscript to while I was working on it and I would bounce stories off him to make sure they were as accurate as they could be. I offered to show the manuscript to my mother and she had no interest in seeing it while I was working on it. She didn't read it until after the publication and she was fine with it. Everybody's been fine with it, I think they're as shocked as I am with the success of the book. I did not think it would do well and the fact that it has, I think, is less a testament to me than it is to readers about how smart and compassionate they are for this poor little wacky kid who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.

KP: Jeannette, in the book, there are so many times when you take the high road, the optimistic side. One story I liked so much was about your mother when the piano was being delivered. Tell that story, please.

JW: Well, my mother bought this piano, she loves to play. For her, accuracy in playing is less important than enthusiasm, so she just bangs away on those keys. So we got one, but we had trouble getting it in one of the doors, so my father rigged up this elaborate contraption where we hooked it up to the truck and the ropes went through the house and my mother was supposed to get in while my father and his children guided the piano through the house. My mother is not the best driver in the world, so dad said ok, move forward and she gunned it, so the piano took off and went right through the house and it ripped off the door frames and ended up in the back and my father didn't want to get it back in, and my mother said ok, that's fine, that's great! I have this piano outside and now I can play in the outdoors and everyone around me can enjoy my music! So she always sees the upside of any situation.

KP: See, somehow, you got that gene, for better or worse.

JW: I did, for better or worse, some people would say it's optimism, some would say it's an unwillingness to see the direness of the situation, but I believe every situation has something good in it, and that you can find that good thing. You should also be realistic and try to face the situation. Maybe that's what my mother lacks is the ability to be a little more realistic about the situation. But my mother's a very happy person, I have known so many people who have great lives and they're not happy, and if you can find the good and the joy in a situation, that's a great gift.

KP: Were you happy?

JW: Actually, I was! I was a happy kid. I think my adolescence was a lot less happy, I had a tough adolescence for a number of reasons, we moved into a little coal mining town in southern West Virginia, and we didn't have indoor plumbing, and we didn't have heat, and I was hungry a lot of the time, and adolescence is tough for everybody, but it's especially tough if you dress real shabby and smell a tad funky, so that was not easy for me, but I never doubted that I was loved, and I think that's what got me through.

KP: You said a while ago that your mother was brilliant, and I agree with that. She, as I recall, always had books around for you to read, she'd go to the library to get books for you to read and would teach you, and every school you went to, with or without records, you were always ahead of the class. She was a teacher, but then she chose not to teach.

JW: My mother hated the conformity and the structure of jobs of having to teach, of having to show up on time and to fill out the lesson plans but she did love teaching and to this day, she loves sharing stories. I am shocked sometimes with how much she knows. I think that was a great gift that both of my parents gave us. The outdoors was always this big lesson, and I think that my parents infected me with that love of learning, and I am a huge fan of education, I think that's what it's all about whether it's learning about yourself or the outside world or other people. I believe the fact that they gave me that, that's not a bad legacy, they gave me that as a sense of self esteem and if you get those two things, you don't have a whole lot to complain about. Ideally, you also get fed, but if you are given the tools with which to take care of yourself, that's a greater gift.

KP: Yes, it is. You had to face disappointment sometimes, and it doesn't come out, but I read this story about how you and your brother worked hard for a long time to dig the foundation for this glass castle, but then, what happened?

JW: Well, my father was an alcoholic, and anybody who's ever loved any addict of any sort knows how maddening it is, they just disappoint you time after time, and they restore your faith, and then they bash it. My father tried so many times to stop drinking, and he gave us so many dreams and plans, but he'd always destroy those dreams and plans as well and one of them was when we moved out to West Virginia, my father showed no signs of starting the glass castle there, so my brother and I went out to dig the foundation, and we wound up using the hole that my brother and I had dug as a garbage pit. It was around that time that it finally dawned on me. Dad isn't going to build me this glass castle, is he? But you know, around that time, I started feeling that I had the resources to take care of myself. I think I understood a long time before that that he wasn't going to build me the glass castle, but we let go of our dreams only when we are able to replace them with something else, so my belief in him was replaced by belief in myself, which I think is necessary for a lot of kids to go through, to say, ok, my dad's not perfect. In my case, my dad maybe had some greater imperfections, but that realization, that it's ok that my parents are flawed, it's time for me to take care of myself.

KP: How did you feel when you found out that your mother had wealth at her fingertips, and I don't mean the teaching, but Uncle Jim's land.

JW: You know, it's funny, when I found out that mom's property might be worth quite a bit of money, I just sort of rolled my eyes at that point. If I had found out when I was younger I might have been angry. When I found out, I was fine at that point, so there was no anger at all, it was sort of like, oh mom. Gosh I can't believe it, all that stuff we went through, that was just a whim of yours?! Now, I think I understand it, I've discussed with her a great deal about it, and that was her dream, that was her hope, her glass castle. There was always going to be someplace she could go in the worst of circumstances. I almost didn't include that tidbit in the book because I thought it was almost insignificant, I told my husband, it doesn't matter one way or another, the land is what it is, it's my mom's, it doesn't matter. My husband said, trust me Jeannette, it's very relevant. My husband was very valuable in looking at the book. I think sometimes we don't have a perspective on our own life and that's what sitting down and writing your own story can help you get.

KP: Did you ever consider getting out?

JW: Leaving?

KP: Leaving. It didn't come through to me in the book at all.

JW: I would not have run away in a wreck-less way because I was taught very early on that that sort of care-freeness never works out, you have to have a plan. And that was one of the up-sides of having a tough childhood like I did is it made me see how important responsibility can be because I had to be an adult from a very early age. I did think, starting at age 13, that I am getting out of here. I'm going to do it intelligently, but I'm going to get out of here because my father is not going to build me a glass castle, and if anyone's going to build a glass castle, it better be me, because he's not going to do it.

KP: Tell the part about the time where you and Brian were out in the yard and you found the ring.

JW: We were all the time exploring and looking for wood to burn because we couldn't afford coal, and we were out and turned over some logs and my brother found a great big diamond ring, and we thought oh wow! This could buy us so much food, and new tennis shoes, and actual clean clothes and we showed it to my mother and she ended up keeping it. She didn't want to sell it because she felt it would be good for her self-esteem. My mother to this day is wearing that ring, she wore it while she was homeless and living on the streets, and I said didn't you ever worry about somebody stealing it? And she said no, it's so big that everyone thinks it's fake. Well, about a week ago, my mother who lives with me and my husband in Virginia she turned to me and says you know this diamond ring, I think I'm going to sell it. After all, what do I need with a diamond ring while I'm living in Culpepper, Virginia? At first I was sort of outraged, but then, I thought, well, if she doesn't feel that she needs this external manifestation of self-esteem anymore, maybe that's a good thing.

KP: Right. I felt that her words to you, in that, were self-esteem is even more vital than food. That really has some meaning to it, you have to pause when you hear or read that and think about that for a moment.

JW: It's true! Well, it can be true, if you're really hungry, tell that to someone who's genuinely starving, get some food in the belly, then worry about self-esteem. But she's always been big on self-esteem, and I think that's a gift she gave us.

KP: At one point, you and Brian, I think, encouraged your mother to get out.

JW: I actually encouraged my mother to leave my father and go on welfare. And she did not. I had done some research to see what we would qualify for, and she said I will not turn you kids into a charity case, and it's something that I've thought about a lot because I think that she had a point and I think that I had a point. If I had been in her situation, I would have gone on welfare. I think on the other hand, the fact that she didn't, there's something commendable about it, and I don't for one second condemn anybody who decides to go on welfare to help their children, I think that's fabulous, but I think there's also something to be said for trying to maintain our sense of self-esteem, not that I recommend that as the solution, like I said, if I'd been in the same situation, I'd have gone to soup kitchens to make sure my kids had something in their bellies, but that's my mother, and I have to accept that. I can't change her decisions. I can't change the past, I can control how I felt about it, but it was what it was.

KP: At one point, I think I read that you said, mother, we've had nothing to eat but popcorn for three days. Were there times where you really could say I am hungry?

JW: Yes, there's no question, I was hungry a lot. Some people have asked me, if you were so hungry, how come you're so tall and you don't look like you were malnourished. There's a big difference between hunger and starvation and malnourishment. I was hungry a lot, but I don't think I was ever starving. And I think hunger is more of a natural state than most people realize, I mean, it's only been within the last 100 years or so, and only in rich countries such as America today, well, there are other countries that are doing a lot better, but in many parts of the world, people still live with constant hunger, it's not going to kill you. So it's something that is alien to most Americans, but it's something that a lot of cultures live with.

KP: Were you cold?

JW: Oh, I was cold a lot. I was cold probably more than I was hungry. And I think that stays with me a little bit more than the hunger. In fact, my kid sister, the one I said I'd lost touch with, I'm back in touch with her, that's one of the many blessings as a result of the book, and I've invited her to come live with my husband and me in Virginia. She's living in California now, she said she never wants to live where it's cold ever again, and I keep telling her, you know Maureen, cold isn't so bad when you have a thermostat, you just move a little switch and all of a sudden you're warm, it's not that bad. She just doesn't want to. We were so cold all of the time, and my brother still has a little bit of a problem like that, he's said he felt like he's sort of frozen on the inside in a way that will never completely thaw.

KP: Your brother is a police officer, is that right?

JW: He's actually retired from the police force, he's now a 9th grade english teacher, and I could not be more proud of him.

KP: Wonderful! Well, where's he teaching?

JW: He teaches in a very tough area in Brooklyn. All these people told him that the kids would be a real discipline problem, they said these are some bad kids. They're a piece of cake, he has those kids eating out of his hand, and they love and respect him, and he feels the same about them. He said that some of these kids' stories just make him want to cry, he's said they've had such tough lives. He said becoming a parent made him appreciate mom and dad less because it's so easy to feed your kids, but becoming a teacher made him appreciate them more. He said some of these kids in his classes, it's shocking to him what they have not been given by their parents. The way that they just glob onto him and cling to him, they don't want to leave his classroom, and it breaks your heart to hear some of these stories, but they just adore him, and I think that's one of the gifts brian was given. I do believe everything is either a blessing or a gift depending on how you want to look at it, and one of the gifts of his tough childhood is that he's able to relate to these kids who have tough childhoods. They get him and he gets them, and it's a beautiful, beautiful thing.

KP: Today as you look back, describe your parents for me. Describe mom, describe dad.

JW: My mother was a free spirit, an artist. She enjoyed life, lived it to the hilt. She may not have been the most responsible mother, but I believe she was and is capable of great love and great joy. She is not someone who takes care of her children that much, but I think she passed a number of gifts on to us. My father was an alcoholic. Brilliant, self-destructive, tragic in so many ways. The shock to me, once I met my father's parents and realized the circumstances he grew up in, a very unloving atmosphere, drinking since age 12, once I understood my father's past, the shock to me was not that he was as flawed as he was or as damaged as he was, but that he had as much good in him as he did. And watching him and knowing him and loving him was such a struggle, and seeing the struggle of the good and the bad in him and seeing him trying so hard to be a good dad and seeing the alcoholism just win out time and time again was heartbreaking, but I cling to the good memories of him.

KP: You've talked about Maureen, you've talked about Brian, but what about older sister?

JW: Lori is still living in Manhattan, she's still an artist. She's a very good artist, she's very talented. She's just thrilled with the success of the book and the story, but it's funny, if she had written the book, it would have been an entirely different story, she and I have discussed this, if any of my siblings had written it, it would have been a different story.

KP: Your mother's art, it still continues? Does she still paint and draw?

JW: Like a fiend! She paints a couple of paintings a week, we have a lower barn that is chock-full of her paintings, and she just really enjoys it. A producer was by doing a television segment on us the other day and tried to buy one of her paintings, and she asked for what I thought was a lot of money, and I said mom, go ahead and take it, it's a good deal! And she just kept on upping the price and I just didn't get it. Then a reader that's smarter than me said you know Jeannette, maybe her paintings are for sale the way your rock collection was, for the viewers who didn't read the book, I had this rock collection and I was selling them for a couple hundred bucks a piece, and they were pieces of flint and stuff, and that's one of the great things about sharing your story, sometimes things you don't get, other people do. So, mom's less interested in making a living as an artist than she is just being an artist, and each of her pieces of artwork is a creation, they're her babies, and for her to part with them is very difficult, so now I understand that, and that's fine. It wasn't so easy when I was looking to her to take care of me. It's fascinating to me how many people truly hate my mother after reading the book and I understand that, they're just very alarmed and they don't think children should have to live like that and they're very angry with mom, and I understand that, I accept that perspective. Now as an adult, I don't need to be taken care of anymore, I think she's a hoot, and I enjoy her company.

KP: Tell me about the blueprints. Where are they?

JW: The blueprints for the glass castle are long, long lost. I don't know, they're probably still back in that garbage pile in West Virginia. But let me tell you how good life is, I think anything that you think you've lost at some point will come back to you many fold if you let it. What has happened since the publication of this book is that a number of architects have drawn up their version of the glass castle and sent them to me, so I have this whole wall at my home filled up with blueprints of the glass castle. So I lost them, but I have them back in excess now.

KP: In your travels, and from writings, and television, and campuses and places that you've been, what do people say to you? Do they come out and say Jeannette, I have a story like that, or what do they say?

JW: The number of people who have told me the details are different, but we have so much in common, and they'll start telling me all about their lives, and very often these are people who will wait until the crowds go so that they can tell me something in private, and sometimes they start crying and they'll just tell me these stories that, honestly, make my childhood look sort of tame, I've heard stories that are unbelievable to me, but sometimes there were people who had very privileged backgrounds but their parents were sadistic or something. We all have a story, and it breaks my heart, but I understand that some of these people are ashamed of their stories. They'll come up to me and say I've never told anybody this before, but I think you would understand and they start telling me details. At first I think, just tell people don't worry, but then I remember the shame and embarrassment I went through and I know how difficult it is to come clean with these stories, but I also know from experience how good and smart people are about accepting you and I think that very often it's hard not to accept yourself if you think other people would reject who you really are so we build up these façades, and in my experience, honey, tear down that façade! Because people are so good, and it's really hard to walk around this world with this barrier up thinking once they see and know who I am, they're going to hate me. And that's the opposite.

KP: Is that your message? What's your message to young people now? You had a great delivery this morning, but what would you want them to get from reading your book?

JW: You know, if there is someone who was raised in great privilege and a relatively calm life, have a little compassion for those who have a tougher situation. Understand that this is not the kids fault, I know how difficult it is, peer pressure and the teasing and the bullying, have a little humanity. And for the people on the other side, the people that are going through the teasing or bullying or shame, know that you can survive, that you can get out of it. Know that we're all a lot alike, and in the long run, you will be ok.

KP: And the book is totally true?

JW: It is absolutely true! I couldn't make this stuff up, if I could make it up, I'd go out and write another one. It's about telling the truth, to me, that's what memoirs are all about. I actually dialed back a couple of scenes because they were so outrageous, I didn't want people to think that this could never happen, and a number of people have come up to me and said almost identical things have happened to them, but yes, of course it's the truth. I think memoirs have a bond with their readers, it's confiding in somebody and telling them a secret, and to lie would defeat the whole purpose, so absolutely, it's true.

KP: Is there anything in the story that now you look back on and think I wish I hadn't put that in there, and also, is there anything you look back on in your life and think I wish I had included that?

JW: There's a couple times where I've thought oh my gosh, I forgot that, or oh that was a funny little episode, I could have put that in, but nothing major that I left out. There was a professor when I was going to Barnard who asked me what on earth would you know about the underprivileged, what would you know about homeless people, and I wish I'd changed her name. I didn't in any way want to embarrass or humiliate her and I think it might have brought a certain amount of teasing or unwanted attention to her. I did not write this book to embarrass or humiliate anybody. That particular professor was a great inspiration to me, she was the reason I became a political science major, she cared so passionately about the underprivileged, even though she didn't realize I was one of the underprivileged , but I wish I'd changed a couple of people's names.

KP: I just want to thank you for your openness and for sharing your story in writing and today at the convocation, and I shared with you earlier, but I'd like to share with you again my favorite part, and there were two parts of it, and it was towards the very end of the book, and it's with your father and it's the end and you know it, and you have carried him his gifts, you've carried him what he's asked for, perhaps against your will, but your love there was for him, and that respect continued through this very last part of his life, and you exchanged words of love for each other, and it was very evident that he loved you and that you loved him through it all, it was there. But the part that really spoke so much to me was when he said, we never did build that glass castle, and you said no, but we did have fun planning it. I think all of us have our glass castles, our dreams and hopes, and sometimes they may not come true, but that meant so much to me when I read that, I thought, that is powerful. That is a life lesson.

JW: Bless your heart, thank you so much. It's insights like that that make talking about this book such a joy, when people get it on such a big level, so I thank you.

KP: I thank you! Thank you for being on Appalachian Perspective, and thank you for really enriching the lives of literally thousands. Now, the book has been translated to other languages, how many?

JW: About 30 at this point, I've got a whole shelf full of them, it's quite fascinating.

KP: So in the international market, what response are you getting? Like it? Question it?

JW: It's been phenomenally good, but one of the interesting things that a number of interviewers have told me from overseas is that this story could only happen in America, not the poverty part, that could happen anywhere, but the part where you remake yourself, that could only happen in America. So I think that's something for us all to consider is that even if we get mad at this country from time to time, it's a great country where you really can decide I don't want to be this person, I want to be somebody else, I want to change my life, and we have the power to do that.

KP: Yes, we do. So let's both continue to have our plans for our glass castles, and work on those because that's the hopes and dreams that will pull us through all these challenges we face. Jeannette, thank you so much for being on Appalachian Perspective.

JW: Thank you, what a pleasure. Thank you.