Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Glass Castle

I finally read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. My friend, L, recommended it to me a couple of years ago, but I never picked it up. It was chosen for my mom's group bookclub, so I bit the bullet and dove in. In talking about it, L had commented that while it was a very sad story in places, it was comforting in its own way to know that there are success stories among the kids that we worked with everyday.

It's not that people necessarily 'rise above' their childhood, it's that those events and experiences coupled with the way you utilize your current resources often determine what you become.

In reading this book, I found so many of the same emotions I had at work. I vacillated between feeling so outraged at the level of selfishness displayed by the parents and understanding that there were often deeper reasons that people make the poor choices they do; a history of abuse in their own childhood, untreated mental illness or a plethora of other obstacles and forks in the road where the path taken was not the one that most would have chosen for themselves or for those they loved.

I was especially frustrated with the mother who had an education degree, was raised in an affluent family, and had inherited property and real estate (later revealed to be worth roughly one million dollars) yet chose to live a lifestyle that exposed her children to extreme hunger, sexual predators (and victimization) and other potentially unsafe persons and/or situations. When made aware of the instances of sexual abuse perpetrated upon her children (disclosed to her by her children), she responded that "sexual assault is a matter of perception." That would be unforgivable to me, yet forgive the author did. It was also notable that the parents were so staunch in their refusal of 'hand-outs' that the children were denied the opportunity to have a regular source of food in the form of public assistance for which they would have undoubtedly qualified.

It was so striking to me that in the midst of all the neglect, alcohol abuse and (what I think was) untreated mental illness, this was ultimately a set of parents that legitimately loved their children, and attempted to give them a childhood that would mean something. These were not ignorant or uneducated people; they had a nightly ritual in which they sat as a family and read on their own, Mr. Walls explained complicated theories and processes to his kids, and demonstrated an extensive knowledge of the sciences. There were also specific instances in which they tried to preserve the innocence of their children (a specific example is one in which the mother will not explain the purpose of the neighborhood brothel.) It was also hard to reconcile that the overall tone of the book was so positive. In spite of all that happened, her childhood was full of funny anecdotes, making this a book that you really did not have to slog through to get to the end of a dreary life. I think it helped a lot that you began the book knowing that she 'got out of it' and is now happy and successful (not to mention gets to eat on a regular basis).

Reading Ms Walls' memoir during this point in my life reinforced what an awesome responsibility parenting is. The decisions you make on a daily basis impact the social and emotional welfare of the people that you've chosen to bring into this world, be that choice through purposeful family planning or lack of appropriate contraception.

As we discussed the memoir at book club, one member pointed out that it was interesting that Ms Walls did not have ultimately have children of her own. Was this a conscious decision based on her childhood, or something that just never happened for her? You'd have to ask the author that, but it was notable to us nonetheless.

In spite all of the sarcasm and facetious comments I make on an almost-daily basis, I do sincerely enjoy raising H and I look forward to Baby C joining our family. I would do anything to ensure that their welfare is not ever compromised.

Perhaps more than anything, reading this book made me appreciate my own parents even more. They sure set that bar high, and I have a lot of expectations that I place upon myself to provide an equally amazing childhood to my kids.

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