The Parent Trap

After years of sucking the wind from famous people's sails, New York journalist Jeannette Walls has achieved some fame of her own. Her best-selling childhood memoir, The Glass Castle (the title refers to a solar-powered house that Walls' father dreamed of one day building in the Arizona desert), has gathered Walls a ton of publicity and has recently been optioned for film by Brad Pitt's production company. It chronicles her upbringing by an eccentric, frustrated-artist mother and a nomadic, alcoholic father, both of whom wound up as homeless "squatters" in New York City while Walls lived on Park Avenue and enjoyed a high-profile career in journalism (she's currently the gossip columnist for Her folks refused offers of help, but Walls -- who'll be reading from and signing her book, just out in paperback, at Barnes & Noble in Phoenix on Tuesday, January 24 -- remains upbeat about her wacky parents. "They're wonderful people, and I have a wonderful life," Walls says with a booming laugh. "What's the point in complaining?"

Robrt L. Pela: I have to be honest: I was sick of "my-hardscrabble-life-as-a-poor-kid-with-dysfunctional-parents" memoirs. Then I read The Glass Castle.

Jeannette Walls: Thank you! And you know, I didn't want anyone to know my story for a long time. I think one reason my book is different is that I'm not blaming or bashing my parents for what happened to me. People are shocked and uncomfortable when I say this.

Pela: There's a lot of talk about the truth setting you free. Did it?

Walls: And then some! I feel like I've been walking around in a suit of armor for 20 years. It was time to take it off. It hasn't been all fun and games, though. You expose yourself like I did [in my book], and there are people who want to hurt or insult you. But the good so outweighs the bad.

Pela: Honestly?

Walls: I know. I thought, "Who in the world will relate to this book? Some wretched child and her ne'er-do-well family?" But I've been stunned by the number of people who've connected with my story. It's been, "My father was an alcoholic but I loved him, and no one understood it." One woman gave it to her niece, who told her, "I will never be mean to the unpopular kids in my class again." Hearing from readers has taught me a lesson about the capacity for compassion.

Pela: The middle section of your book takes place here in Phoenix. You lived on North Third Street in the early '70s, when downtown was in early decline. But I didn't know about the Phoenix connection because none of the half-dozen magazine articles I read about the book mentioned Phoenix. I know this place is a hellhole, but what gives?

Walls: None of the articles mentioned Phoenix because we had running water when we lived there! The people who wrote about me and the book went for the more interesting sections -- my horrible life in West Virginia, or sleeping in boxes in a little mining town. Phoenix was as close as we got to normalcy in our lives when I was a kid, and I have incredibly fond memories of that city. It was literally and figuratively the bright point of my life. Sadly, our old house on Third Street has been torn down.

Pela: What's been your mother's response to The Glass Castle?

Walls: Honestly? I didn't show her the manuscript because I was nervous. Like there's a scene where we kids are all hungry and she's in bed eating a chocolate bar. I was afraid of what she'd say when she read that. Now she's read the book, and never mentioned [the chocolate scene]! But then she was livid that I wrote that she's a bad driver. Or she's said, "You wrote that I take things out of Dumpsters. Well, you know, I've put things into Dumpsters, too!"

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela