When it comes to branding — the kind that marks you for life — corporations have nothing on families. Jeannette Walls’s mother branded her children this way: Lori, the oldest, was the smart one. Maureen, the youngest, was the pretty one. Brian, the boy, was the brave one. And Jeannette? “The only thing going for you,” her mother informed her, “was that you worked hard.”
As I drove onto Walls’s 205-acre farm in Virginia and the Technicolor green grass and trees unfurled to reveal horses in their paddocks, it seemed clear that hard work had lost its power as a put-down.
When Walls published her memoir, “The Glass Castle,” in 2005, it became an instant classic. It tells the story of her outrageous upbringing by Rex, her alcoholic father who was probably bipolar, and Rose Mary, her mother, a self-described “excitement addict” who is a hoarder and also probably bipolar. The book has sold 4.2 million copies and been translated into 31 languages. Hollywood has threatened a movie version for years; Jennifer Lawrence was recently announced to play Walls.
“No one ever uses the front door!” Walls called, tearing out from behind the house. She is almost six feet tall, whippet thin, with a mane of dark red hair, wild at the possibility that I might enter her home the wrong way. Given her background, it’s no surprise that her default instinct is to impose order. Walls’s childhood was peripatetic, to say the least — her parents had 27 addresses in the first five years of their marriage. They were not only running out on the rent, but her father was convinced that the F.B.I. was after them. They finally landed in Rex’s Appalachian hometown, Welch, W.Va., in a three-room house without plumbing or heat, infested with snakes and rats. Walls says she still has nightmares about the yellow bucket the six of them used each night as a toilet.
“The Glass Castle,” beautifully written in deceptively simple prose, gets its name from the dream house Rex promised to build his family. He drew up the blueprints; he just needed to discover gold so he could pay for it. Here’s how the book begins: At 3, Walls is on a chair in front of the stove in the family’s trailer, boiling hot dogs, because her mother is painting and can’t be bothered to cook. Walls’s pink-tutu dress catches fire, and her stomach, ribs and chest are badly burned. She is hospitalized for six weeks, until her father, irritated with the uppity doctors, breaks her out and takes her home. When she returns to the chair to cook more hot dogs, her mother says to her approvingly: “Good for you. You’ve got to get right back in the saddle.” Then she continues painting.
As Walls, 53, led me around back, the right way, into her tastefully restored farmhouse — salvaged pine floors, soapstone counters, wood-burning fireplaces — she chatted nonstop. That antic energy suited her well for the 29 years she lived in New York, having fled Welch at 17, to join Lori in the Bronx (Brian and Maureen came later). She finished high school in the city, and with grants, loans, scholarships and a year spent answering phones at a Wall Street law firm, put herself through Barnard. (Rex contributed $950 and a mink coat that he won at poker.) In 1987, at 27, Walls took over the Intelligencer gossip column at New York magazine, and later covered gossip for msnbc.com. She was married to an entrepreneur for eight years and lived on Park Avenue. Life was good, except that Rex and Rose Mary had followed their children to New York. Homeless at first, her parents eventually became squatters. Continue reading the main story