Monday, January 29, 2007

Jeanette Walls

This morning I went to see Jeanette Walls, a nationally known gossip columnist for MSNBC who published her memoir in "The Glass Castle."

Her childhood was one of tremendous poverty, with parents who were eccentric on a variety of levels. There were times she and her three siblings were hungry, with no indoor plumbing, while her brilliant alcoholic father dreamed and her mother painted and ate chocolate.

She summed up her childhood by saying, "When we weren't running from something, we were chasing something."

She writes candidly about her childhood, without blaming her parents, and merely seeing them as they were - flawed but loving. She said of her parents, "Despite what they didn't give us, they gave us a good measure of self-respect."

She is not bitter about her childhood. She said, "I'm a pragmatist. I don't believe there's much to be gained from anger and bitterness."

She also said there are some positives to the lifestyle she had. "The upside to having a life like mine is that you learn you can survive."

At the luncheon afterwards, she talked about a school that had a lot of poor students using her book in class. She said the teacher told her that they message they went away with was, "Take responsibility for yourself at the earliest possible age and you'll be OK."

Walls moved to New York at 17 and finished high school while working. She and her sister had an apartment in the Bronx. When her brother joined them a year later they could split the rent three ways instead of two. She said it was a revelation to her and her sister - you paid the bills and the water stayed on - it seemed amazing.

She got a job at a local paper in Brooklyn and it was the editor there who encouraged her to get a college education. At the luncheon she explained that she was very naive and just asked what the best college in NY was. Someone said Columbia so she called them and said she wanted to register. They didn't take women at the time, so suggested she call Barnard. She said she had no concept of ACTs or SATs but just went and took the test and got in to Barnard.

No doubt the years of reading nonstop served her well in that regard. She said her mother used to go the library with a pillowcase and come home with it full of books for all of them. In the lecture she mentioned teachers and librarians as those who can make a tremendous difference in a child's life.

Walls went through college with scholarships, grants, loans and her own savings. She needed $2,000 in her senior year and only had $1,000. Her father gave her the other $1,000. Her parents were living on the street at the time and she said she couldn't take it. His response was that he wasn't going to see his daughter not graduate from college.

Walls was burned when she was three years old. She was cooking a hotdog and her dress caught fire. She was in the hospital for six weeks, where nurses asked why a three year old was cooking for herself. Walls didn't think it odd, of course. It was just her life as she knew it.

When she started dating her husband, she was telling him that her body was scarred from that event and apologizing for it. His response was, "Don't ever apologize for your scars. Your scars show that you've survived. Scars give you texture. Smooth is boring."

She said after telling that story at a lecture at a very upscale gathering after the book came out that someone came up afterwards and said, "There's no such thing as smooth. You look closely, even silk has some texture."

At lunch today she said that she used to think every child needed one parent to take an interest in them but she has now decided just any adult can do that. She said if a child has one adult that believes in them, the child will cling to that, and they can make it.

She told this story about reading a comment made by a former teacher, Mrs. Owens. The teacher was asked if she knew the conditions and she recounted a story of helping Walls with something and she noticed that Walls' arms were dirty under her sleeves and she suddenly thought, "oh my, Jeanette's family doesn't have running water." But her next thought was, "but she'll be OK."

Walls said whenever she walked into that teacher's room, the teacher's eyes lit up and all she ever felt from her was admiration and respect. And she said that's what she needed most at that point - dignity. She did not want anyone to know they were poor and would even wash her face in the snow to avoid anyone knowing they didn't have water.

Walls said she will always be thankful for her teachers. "Education is the great equalizer."

She encouraged people to realize, "When you pull up other people, you're not pulling yourself down."

In her job, Walls covers celebrities. She said one thing she has learned is that, "Deprivation comes in all forms." She said when she went to New York she was shocked at how unhappy people who seemingly had everything could be.

She realized that she and others like her are blessed in some ways. "We have certain advantages. We understand the difference between need and want."

She mentioned going to a brother's friend's house as a kid and thinking, "wow - there's heat and his mother is cooking breakfast - this would be wonderful." Then his father came downstairs and hit the kid who was sitting at the table drawing a picture of a horse and told him not to be putting on airs. She said she suddenly felt like she was living the good life, even though there wasn't heat or food at her house. "Us poor folks have to understand we're not the only ones who suffer," she said.

Her life is so different now. She joked at the lecture that she now has a "big yellow house - yellow on all sides - with four flushing toilets in it." She said everytime one flushes she's grateful.

Her husband, also a writer, really helped motivate her to write her story. She expected people might shun her and she was worried about being disloyal to her family. Before she wrote the book, she asked her mother what she should tell people about their lives and her mother said simply, "Tell the truth."

So that's what Walls has done - the truth, unvarnished and un-interpreted. Of course, that isn't always easy.

She did distill the lessons she learned from her childhood.
1. Don't underestimate people.
2. Don't be afraid to do the "skedaddle" - but go toward something instead of running away from something because that will catch up with you.
3. Face your demons.
4. Accept your own past.

The thing she said that really struck a cord with me was, "Kids like us, we're fighters. One of things we don't know is when to stop fighting - when to take off the armour." I can relate to that so incredibly well.

The other thing that really resonated with me was that she said she never takes anything for granted.

I know just what she means.


The following was written later that evening, in reaction to the speech. It was originally a "friends only" post on livejournal but I decided to amend it to this post as well.

7:21pm: My Reaction to Walls

It has been a difficult day. Hearing Jeanette Walls talk about her childhood pretty much incapacitated me for the whole day. It hit very close to home.

I went up to her after the luncheon and said, "I, too, know what it's like to live without indoor plumbing." She was shaking my hand and squeezed it a little harder and said, "There are a lot of us, honey. There are a lot of us." I didn't take time to explain it was much different circumstances - but I suppose it didn't matter.

That hand squeeze was like the secret handshake. I wanted to ask her if there weren't times when she wasn't so upbeat. I'm sure there are. There certainly are for me, even though in general I'm very happy go lucky. And I'm thankful for my life - so thankful. I would not want to be without the knowledge I gained "the hard way."

I was never hungry growing up and I had a mother who would have done anything for me and certainly would never have eaten without me having something first. But I know the shame of hiding who you really are. I've been doing it my whole life. I still am to a degree.

When you're different than others, and your family is different, you learn to keep it under wraps. My family was terrific in many ways - and I'm thankful for so much of my childhood - but it was definitely different. And no matter how much people tried to minimize it, it was always there.

I know the trauma of a father who drinks and all that goes along with that. Walls said in an interview that if she could change one thing about childhood that would have been it - that her father didn't drink. If you haven't lived it, it can't really be explained, but it's a daily trauma/stress no child should have to live with. It was many years after his death that I accepted this about my father and grew to appreciate him on other levels.

I know what it's like to realize you better get wise and you better make it fast. Some of us don't have the luxury of waiting for wisdom to come with age. We have to ferret it out through trial and error when we're young if we're going to make it to old age - or even to adulthood - with anything resembling sanity. I often say that my sanity has been hard-fought-for and I won't give it up casually, and it's true.

I know what it's like to have an old man touching your 12 year old body. That uncle's transgression made something in my psyche snap. I had already been down that road with another relative a few years my senior when I was a pre-schooler, and I wasn't going back. I realized there were things far worse than death and, although I thought he might kill me if I resisted, I made the split second decision it was worth the risk.

Janis Joplin was on the radio singing "Me and Bobby McGee." That line, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," has always had real meaning for me. Truer words were never spoken and I got some freedom that day. I didn't exercise it in a healthy way, but what can you expect from a pre-teen? But knowing from the time you're 12 that there are things far worse than death, and being able to live your life without that fear, is freedom.

Of course, you also have to live with the knowledge that others suffered because you didn't handle your freedom well. More than 20 years after that I learned what should have been obvious, that I wasn't his only target. Others went through hell because I didn't do the right thing. That's my burden to bear and it's heavy sometimes.

Someone asked Walls today if she had children and she said that no, neither she nor either of her sisters have children, and it wasn't an accident. I could relate to that, too. I had a great mother, but I knew from the time I was three that there are things a mother can't protect you from - regardless of how wonderful they are. I never wanted that responsibility.

I knew I would never be able to bear the horror if I had been unable to protect my child, when I knew all too well what older boys did to little girls in dark places. It's different if you don't know to expect it, but I knew. I knew what it was like to be three years old, crouching in the dark, holding your breath, hoping you're not found.

And I knew if I had a child and it happened to her that that would finally do me in. Some things cannot be survived. So the solution was to never take that chance and have that child. Even those of us who are risk-takers draw the line somewhere.

I remember thinking as a kid that I couldn't wait until I was an adult so I could make my own choices. God knows some of them have been horrible ones. Lets just say I've "had issues" with things I now keep "under control" and have for a long time. Of course, the food addiction is all too obvious. Oddly enough, it would be more acceptable if I were a cocaine addict, but I'm not.

I know what it's like to have to tell someone you think you might love that they are getting "damaged goods." Some scars are outward and some are inward. You always expect the man to walk - and some do - and all you can do is say goodbye. It hurts. And it just confirms your worst fears, making it all the more difficult to try again.

Some men can't bear it. They can't handle it. They just can't. They can't imagine touching you knowing what they know. You can be disappointed, but you can't be angry. You are who you are and they are who they are, and the two just can't mesh.

So, you learn to hide your damaged parts as best you can. You only tell people when it's essential to be honorable and truthful - that it would be deceitful to take a relationship any further without telling them. You learn from experience that you can't hide it forever anyway - not at night when the subconscious takes over. They'll know one way or the other. At least if you tell it you can put it in "nice" terms.

So, you tell the story, hitting the highlights, and waiting for the reaction. You want to do it in the dark so they can't see you flinching. But you know to do it in the daylight so you can see them flinching. That way you know when you can stop, that there's no point in baring your soul anymore because this man is gone. As soon as he can get away from you, he's going to, and you're never going to see him again. That line about, "You can't handle the truth," is appropos. And, yes, they'll always think of you differently. It can't be helped.

I never share anyone I'm seeing with friends until we're past that point. I don't want to have to explain "what happened" if he's suddenly gone.

Sometimes people amaze you and sometimes people disappoint you. Sometimes the same can be said for yourself.

Even some of the men who stay for awhile still think of you as "molested by your uncle crazy," and are always looking for confirmation. They'll tease you about the nightmares, not out of cruelty, but out of discomfort because they don't know what to do. They complain about the startle reflex that is so finely honed your heart pounds and your breath stops just at having your name called unexpectedly. They dismiss your problems with authority figures and just can't understand how a seemingly capable woman has so many abandonment issues. I've become convinced that we never "move past our raisin'." We may well learn to cope - and do so very well - but it's always with us.

But, like Walls said, people who grow up with some difficulties learn to survive. Another part of that is that we learn we can take risks - we'll make it. People often say to me, "you're just not afraid of anything." In reality I'm afraid of everything. But I don't see any choice but to move on anyway, so I do. I assume it will all work out.

Walls said today that she asked her mother about something and her mother said, "Oh Jeanette, things generally work out in the end." She said, "but what if they don't work out, mom?" Her mom said, "Well, then it's not the end."

Kids who grow up with some challenges learn to not be bitter - that there's no point. We learn choices have consequences at an early age. We want to grow up so we can be in charge of our own lives as soon as possible. We tend to not have much drama in our lives later - we've had enough already. We learn to run to something because you can't run from anything - it will catch up to you. We learn to accept and forgive. We learn education is the key, and desperately try to get it, because we know that's the way to a different life.

We grow up to have compassion for those less fortunate, who find themselves in need of some help like we once were. We take nothing for granted. We know how tenuous our "success" in life is. We know that but for the Grace of God and a kind word and deed here and there, our lives would be very different. We know.

We are happy, because we know how life can be, compared to how it is today. We want everyone else to have a chance at happiness, success, a decent life. And we are grateful - oh so very grateful - that we got a chance to make a life.