Jeannette Walls enjoyed the success of being a well-known New York gossip columnist living on Park Avenue. But as a child, she dug through trash looking for food. What happened during the years in between is an amazing story of hope and resilience after being raised by parents who simultaneously loved and neglected Walls and her siblings.
Walls, author of the New York Times best-selling book “The Glass Castle,” will share her story of growing up in an unorthodox and dysfunctional family at Oaklawn’s Spring Spectacular at 7:30 p.m. on May 9 at the Lerner Theatre in Elkhart.
In her memoir, Walls describes an early childhood living much like nomads in the American Southwest. Her father, Rex, was brilliant and taught his children about physics and geology, but he was an alcoholic who also likely lived with an undiagnosed mental illness. Her mother, Rose Mary, was a free-spirited artist who also may have had an undiagnosed mental illness.
The family moved often, packing only a few of their most beloved belongings in the car in the middle of the night – trying to outrun the federal investigators or mafia men who were after them, her father said. Sometimes Rex or Rose Mary had steady jobs, and the family had money for food, clothes and even hobbies. When Rex wasn’t working, he drank. Sometimes he worked on an invention he said would help him find gold so he could build the family a glass castle.
Rose Mary painted. That’s what she was doing when Jeannette was 3 and accidentally set herself on fire while making hot dogs. It’s what Rose Mary did instead of cooking, cleaning or working. Why spend all day cooking a meal that would be gone in 15 minutes when you could make a painting that could last forever, she reasoned. So Walls and her three siblings learned to take care of each other, find food where they could and accept their parents’ shortcomings.
Despite being caught up in their own pursuits, Walls’ parents loved their children. One Christmas Eve, when the family had no money for gifts, Rex took his children one by one outside and let them pick out a star. Walls asked for Venus.
“I had admired Venus even before that Christmas,” Walls wrote in “The Glass Castle.” “You could see it in the early evening, glowing on the western horizon, and if you got up early, you could still see it in the morning, after all the stars had disappeared. ‘What the hell,’ Dad said. ‘It’s Christmas. You can have a planet if you want.’ And he gave me Venus.”
“The Glass Castle” follows the Walls family throughout their time in the southwest, through the years the family spent in poverty in Welch, W.Va., and the children’s decision to move to New York to start their own lives. Their parents eventually joined them in New York and became homeless — a situation the Walls parents referred to as an “adventure.”
“The Glass Castle” has been on the New York Times best-seller list for four years, sold more than 3.5 million copies, been translated into 22 languages and is being made into a film starring Oscar-award winning actress Jennifer Lawrence of “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Hunger Games.”
Walls is a graduate of Barnard College and was a journalist for New York magazine and MSNBC.com. She is the author of two other books, “Half Broke Horses” and “The Silver Star.” She now lives in central Virginia with her husband, author John Taylor.
Tickets to hear her keynote address, “The Glass Castle: Overcoming Your Past for a Better Tomorrow,” are on sale now for $20 each and can be purchased online here.