Adventures First, Explanations Take Such a Dreadful Time
William Yeats said, “I am of a healthy and long lived race, and our minds improve with age.” It’s true that as individuals face the world, they can only gain wisdom from exposure. For a young Jeannette Walls, it’s none other than her troubling life and great number of powerful experiences that mold her outlooks on the world. In her memoir The Glass Castle, she and her family constantly face hopeless challenges like starvation, homelessness, and addiction. From the desert to New York, Jeannette’s attitudes towards her family’s idealistic poverty and nomadic homelessness change over time from naive youthfulness to reflective acceptance.
For the Walls, coping with extreme poverty, haphazard relocation, and virtual homelessness is pretending that their life is an “incredibly fun adventure” (Walls 85), and for young Jeannette, the mere concept of “adventure” is more than enough to eliminate many of her worries about their uncertain lifestyle. Describing one desert night, she recounts, “…we slept under the stars…Dad said that was part of his plan…I told Lori how lucky we were to be sleeping out under the sky like Indians. ‘We could live like this forever,’ I said. ‘I think we’re going to,’ she said” (18). Jeannette is not stopping to think about how they don’t have pillows, money, or even a place to sleep at night; instead, she perpetuates the serene image of sleeping under the stars and connecting with nature. Her strong bond with her father is apparent, seeing as she fully believes that their misfortune is all “planned.” She is still so dependent on family that she is blind to the facade of adventure that masks the reality of hardship. Her use of the word “lucky” illustrates that she isn’t merely searching for a bright side to the situation; this is a real adventure for Jeannette, or at least she has thoroughly convinced herself so. Conversely, while Jeannette gazes at the stars, Lori offers the stark contrast to her young sister’s starry-eyed wonder. Older than Jeannette, Lori is recognizing that homelessness is not something to be romanticized.
Though adolescent years are always awkward transitions from dependence to independence, Jeannette’s transition is driven by the contradiction between her love for her family and her developing embarrassment towards the family’s lifestyle and choices. One day, after a disturbing encounter with a welfare officer, she narrates, “At least when Ernie and his gang came around yelling that we were trash, we could fight them off with rocks. But if the child-welfare man got it into his head that we were an unfit family, we’d have no way to drive him off” (194). Jeannette’s words serve as a metaphor that perfectly embodies her struggle. She describes her retaliation towards Ernie as juvenile and rugged, fighting with rocks; she is a rough-and-tumble, vengeful girl responding immaturely to bullies. This fearless air greatly contrasts her helplessness in facing the welfare man. For her, he symbolizes government and adulthood, in the sense that she must learn to deal with things she doesn’t particularly like. As age brings responsibility, it also brings wisdom, and she realizes that she’s also becoming more embarrassed by her family’s social standing and grows conscious of their image. In other instances, Jeannette is deeply upset by a woman’s use of “poor,” in reference to her pitiful hitchhiking. She even feels the need to research the option of welfare and encourage her own obstinate mother to get a job, or go on welfare. In each example, Jeannette is confused by the contrast between the allegiance to family that drove her childhood and the new awareness of the fact that in the real world, the lifestyle she’s used to doesn’t quite cut it.
By the time she reach New York, although her parents still possess some signature Walls optimism, Jeannette is mature and fully understands that vagrancy is quite the opposite of an honorable adventure. When given the opportunity to confront people degrading her family, she says, “that would have meant explaining who I really was, and I wasn’t about to do that…I was tired of taking on people who ridiculed us for the way we lived, I just didn’t have it in me to argue Mom and Dad’s case to the world” (256). After a life of ignorance for bliss and facades to disguise famine, Jeanette is coming full-circle in self-awareness with the same bluntness and severity she always had in her wit from a young age: her whole upbringing has practically been a lie. She portrays guilt, yet it’s overridden by twenty-some years of exhaustion and suffering for the sake of “adventure.” Jeannette’s uses of phrases like “didn’t have it in me” and “tired” only display that she considers defending her parents to be almost physically (and surely mentally) exhausting, and who wouldn’t be tired after carrying much of the burden of a heavily burdened family from childhood into adulthood? In addition, she’s not even able to reveal the truth about her past, showing just how embarrassed she feels thinking about the depths to which her family has sunk just to exist. While she still loves her mom and dad, Jeannette is finally fully grasping what independence, survival, and self-preservation entail.
A constant that remains throughout the story is Jeannette’s naivety and non-accusatory view of most things, as if the story is told through the mind of an optimistic girl in a hopeless world. However, whether due to her nature or to the way in which she was raised, Jeannette shows at a young age remarkable traits of wisdom and understanding, if only through unadulterated affection. “Unadulterated” in itself is an interesting concept, as if her affection is never tainted by the clutches of adulthood, or as if adulthood only contaminates pure thoughts and emotions with the burden of knowing “too much.” While Jeannette watches her family with growing pity as time passes, simultaneously her life clarifies as she, in adulthood, can comprehend the full picture. Ultimately, even if Jeannette decides that she can’t fully trust the teachings of an untrustworthy family, there is at least one piece of advice from her mother Rose Mary Walls that evidently holds true: What doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger. Through hungry nights, physical abuse, and emotional turmoil, what doesn’t kill Jeannette Walls her only makes her wiser, and stronger.
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