Author to students: Everyone has a story to share
Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2011 9:09 pm
By: Glenda Caudle, Special Features Editor
By GLENDA CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
An optimist by nature or nurture?
Ask any group of people who have read or listened to best-selling author Jeannette Walls of “The Glass Castle” and “Half Broke Horses” fame and you’re likely to get not just one of two specific answers but an array of opinions that eventually abandon the original question altogether and, instead, delve into the mystery of the human spirit and the marvel of the human will.
Ms. Walls invites deep thinking from her audiences. She’s clearly engaged in lots of it herself.
In a six-month marathon of writing, she first got her story down on paper. But it took five more years to make the story reveal what was vitally honest to her.
Her message comes down to this: Everyone has a story of their own. No one can live it but you; so no one can tell it but you. And you can both live and tell victoriously.
Ms. Walls lives in a country home in Virginia with her journalist husband, John Taylor.
She has six toilets.
They flush beautifully, she says.
No plumbing, no heat, no food
The author’s mother, Rose Mary Walls, lives in a home of her own on that Virginia farm at the invitation of her famous daughter. She is a talented artist with roots in the wide-open spaces of the American West, a college-educated senior citizen, a person of much greater than average intelligence, an individual devoted to seeing the positive in any situation, an impressive equestrian. She is also a woman who has been homeless by choice — although she has her own more positive spin on those circumstances — and a mother whose concern for the well-being of her four children appears to have bordered on the nonexistent throughout most of their lives.
She is also deeply loved by her writer daughter.
The author’s father, Rex Walls — an alcoholic electrician from a hard-scrabble town in West Virginia who seldom put his talents to constructive financial use and whose choices exposed his family to countless hardships — is no longer living.
He, too, is deeply loved by his writer daughter.
From both her parents, Jeannette Walls says, she gained much.
Multiple toilets that flush, a grocery cart filled with whatever takes her fancy, a home equipped with a thermostat that provides toasty warmth in winter and refreshing coolness in summer, stylishly tasteful clothing, free-flowing water available 24 hours a day for bathing — these are things Jeannette Walls has provided for her comfort and pleasure through her own hard work, however.
They are seemingly simple basics largely missing from her nomadic childhood, which took the Walls family from the desert in Arizona to rural West Virginia, with hardship and deprivation a recurring theme in their travels.
Ms. Walls told students from Union City, Obion County Central and South Fulton high schools and eighth-grade honors English students from Union City Middle School — all of whom have read “The Glass Castle” over the past few weeks — of the fear that haunted her even after she fled her parents in West Virginia and headed for New York as a teenager, planning to separate herself from her family. In the shadow of skyscrapers, she obtained her high school degree while working to meet her basic needs and then put herself through an elite college and, finally, obtained a good paying and glamorous job as a chronicler of the “glittering” people of New York and Hollywood.
She worked for various well-known publications in New York and for MSNBC television.
She knew everyone worth knowing in her new world.
To all appearances, the beautiful and talented young writer had it all.
It should have been enough.
It was not.
“For most of my life, my story was a source of deep shame. I grew up as an unpopular kid in school. And although I never actually lied about who I was, there was no doubt in my mind that when people knew my story, I would become an outcast,” she told the students. It was a confession she had made Tuesday evening, as well, at the Union City Rotary Club Distinguished Speaker banquet at the Hampton Centré.
The message she delivered in person explained why she eventually undertook to tell the horrific tales revealed in the book that has sold more than 2 million copies and has been translated into 25 languages.
“There were things I put in that book that I had never told anyone. I had never told anyone that I had rooted around in the garbage for food. And I thought if people knew the truth, I would lose everything. But since writing the book, I’ve learned how wrong I was about people. I grew up not trusting people, but I’ve found that they really are willing to listen if I’m willing to tell the truth. Telling my story has taken me out of the isolation of my shame. And the most important lesson I’ve learned is, everyone has a story.”
Students and many adults in the area now know Ms. Walls’ story, thanks to a community reading initiative suggested by Union City Director of Schools Gary Houston and brought to fruition by his fellow Rotarian Clay Woods. He worked with Houston and a volunteer committee to encourage adults and teens to read the award-winning book and its follow-up volume, “Half Broke Horses,” and then to bring the author to Union City to “fill in the blanks.”
Local readers have described their impressions of “The Glass Castle” as horror and outrage that increased from chapter to chapter as they read the can’t-put-it-down chronicle of a family whose parents unfailingly nourished their children’s dreams and actively warmed their imaginations but mostly ignored their need for simple protection, basic human comfort and even minimal bodily sustenance.
Ms. Walls, however, treasures the gifts she was given by her parents and refuses to be limited by the ones they withheld.
Although she says her goal is to encourage young people, in particular, to tell their own stories, her book and her appearance convey a larger truth and a more profound message: It is within your power to live your life in such a way that your story will have the ending you truly want it to have.
“I thought I was ‘hot’ because I had obtained status,” she told the auditorium full of teens Wednesday morning. “But on my way to an important event in New York one day, I saw my mom on the street, digging through a dumpster. I slid down in the seat of the taxi to hide because I was afraid she might look up and see me and call my name. There I was, with everything I had ever dreamed of having, and I was still afraid.”
It was, finally, her mother who advised Ms. Walls to simply tell the truth.
“I thought people would hate me if I did. But I had run and tried to hide from my past for so long. I finally learned that you don’t have to be defined by where you came from and it’s only when you confront the truth that you gain control over it. My dad taught me the importance of facing my fears. I’ve never been afraid of much, but I finally came to understand that my own personal ‘demon under the bed’ was my past. Most of us have demons. But most of us are also stronger than our demons. Most of us can put those demons to flight,” she says.
Truth — the truth she had to confront before she could share it — can be complicated, however.
“Someone once said that truth is a liquid, not a solid, and that it takes many shapes. We shape our life truth by the stories we tell and how we choose to tell them,” she said in explaining that her siblings and her mother agree that the events she describes in the book are real and accurate, but they each have their own “truth” about what those events meant and how they shaped their individual stories.
“I’m just a woman with a really weird childhood, but telling my story has made me wiser and happier,” she says, adding that once she began revealing herself, she also began to question whether she could go on revealing the lives of others to earn her living. In time, she opted to give up her career as a celebrity chronicler and focus, instead, on encouraging others to record their own lives.
“You can see my book in many ways,” she advises her audiences. “I see my story as a hope and a dream for the future. That, and an education, are not such a bad legacy.”
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at glendacaudle @ucmessenger.com
Published in The Messenger 3.10.11