Jeanette Walls talked to hundreds of people in IPFW’s auditorium as if she were talking to her best friends over a coffee. As she explained, when you’ve written a book about your extremely dysfunctional upbringing by an alcoholic father and a sometimes-homeless-by-choice mother, there isn’t much point in trying to hide stuff.
The book, of course, is the wildly successful The Glass Castle, of which 3.5 million copies have been sold and a movie is soon to be made.
The wonder is not that she is so popular. The wonder is how she made it through her horrendous childhood at all. Walls was raised in the West and in the tiny mining town of Welch, W.Va., with intermittent periods of homelessness, sometimes rooting in the garbage for food. Along the way, she evolved a philosophy that she shared with her listeners at last Wednesday’s Omnibus lecture.
It seemed to boil down to some familiar truths that most of us have a heck of a time learning. Face life with courage. Accept who you are and what life has in store for you, and find a way to make the most of it.
For many years, Walls was deeply ashamed of her past and her family. Though she was able to run away from West Virginia and make her way to fame and fortune in New York as a gossip columnist/commentator, she always feared that someone would find out about her family, who eventually followed her to the city.
She recalled being in a cab on her way to a fancy party and seeing her mother in an alleyway. Her reaction was not compassion or concern, but fear and embarrassment.
When I was living on Park Avenue and writing about celebrities, my mother was homeless and rooting around in the garbage, she said.
What would she say if the story came out? Would she lose everything?
Her mother later told her, Tell the truth.
Slowly, encouraged also by a talk with a man she would marry, Walls accepted a new way of looking at her past.
One doesn’t have to consult the best-seller histories to see how that choice turned out for her. The comments and questions she received from her audience showed that her book made an intimate connection with lots of readers.
I can meet a complete stranger, and we just cut right through the small talk, she said.
Confronting her past, she realized that though her parents put her through suffering and humiliation as a child, they also taught her some things that were actually valuable lessons.
The worst experience in the world has a valuable gift wrapped inside, she believes.
In The Glass Castle, Walls tells of how, like many children, she feared that a demon was under her bed. Instead of telling her there was no such thing, her father got his hunting knife, gave her a pipe wrench and the two of them searched the area for the entity.
Though they didn’t find a demon, the strategy worked, because her father had taught her to face her fears.
As an adult, she told her audience, she came to understand that the demon was my own past.
We all have things from our past, she said. Everything is a blessing and curse.
The trick is to turn things around and find some good in your situation.
And so Jeanette Walls told her story to the world. Full of confidence and a happiness that eluded her until she changed her way of thinking, she came to tell it again, with some new lessons, to an auditorium full of Fort Wayne people who love her and love her work.
Someone said, secrets are like vampires, Walls said Wednesday night. They can suck the life out of you. In the light, there is perhaps a moment of shock.
But then, she said, they go away.