I wondered if the fire had been out to get me. I wondered if all fire was related, like Dad said all humans were related, if the fire that had burned me that day while I cooked hot dogs was somehow connected to the fire I had flushed down the toilet and the fire burning at the hotel. I didn’t have the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes.
Jeanette Walls recounts a childhood of, shall we say, peculiarity, in her memoir, The Glass Castle. Her first memory is of being on fire — she was three years old. Oh, you little baby. [My first memory was of my father chasing me around the house with a knife. It was a game, I knew then, because I was giggling while I huddled into a corner of my parents’ bedroom. Far-off, I can hear my mother say, “Stop it, Jeff.” I was not in any danger. It was a game, my father loved me. I can remember his dark face, that ruddy nose, the mole on his cheek, looming.]
Walls’ recounting of her childhood is an odd experience for the reader, looking in. You’re invited to look, but you can’t help but judge. But they’re happy, you tell yourself. But, but. The Walls are unbelievable. It’s a radical lifestyle, skirting the edges of what is legal — it’s one I don’t necessarily agree with. I can be angry with the chronicling, angry at the “irresponsible” parenting — but this is an impotent anger. But they are happy, you tell yourself. Happy enough, at least. At least they’re happy at the beginning. And with this near-useless anger, there’s dread, of course: Something bad will happen, it’s nearly inevitable. The bliss of children just covering up ugly truths: How neglected they are. There’s this scene where the eldest, Lori, gets glasses. And she cries, realizes she’d been seeing a hazy version of the world all this time, and she never knew it.
As the children grow older, rebellion brews: Against carelessness, and the unbelievable childishness of the parents. And I found myself hoping that they would go all the way, to get away, to free themselves. And to stay together despite such a materially craptastic childhood.
Mom gave me a startled look. I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was on long and incredibly fun adventure.
The memories are shared with a child’s ignorance of the nature of judgment. Because Jeannette narrates so matter-of-factly, the reader’s outrage is intensified. Run away, you fume. Someone ought to have reported this, the more pragmatic side of your bristles. Does this make Walls a passive narrator? No, merely a fair one. And that, in itself, is incredibly amazing. By choosing to be clear, by allowing the story to speak for itself, the act becomes one of admirable bravery. Your heart breaks because you know these parents, unfit as they could be, love the children genuinely. But they’re just rather aimless and damaged and so selfish too many times.
Can you blame their philosophy — the abuse, the hunger, the destitution? What can you do when you can’t help but judge because someone has to. Someone has to be outraged in behalf of these children. First, you sigh. You laugh occasionally. Then, you fume. You groan. You murmur, Please, don’t do that. Eventually you scream. And then, well, all you’re left to do is shake your head in wonder. It’s a beautiful, gripping, terrifying, lovely story. Thank you, Miss Walls.