Book Review: The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle:  A Memoir, by Jeanette Walls

This is the second book in the CASA book of the month club [1], and as might be expected, it is a book about a broken family.  In fact, this book is squarely within my wheelhouse of reading books about dysfunctional families.  There are a lot of memoirs written about this sort of background [2] and I find myself reading many of them.  One tends to find out that unhappy families are often unhappy in the same ways.  There are generational patterns of alcohol, physical, and sexual abuse.  There is a certain lack of stability in life, a certain tendency to engage in flight or fight responses, and a definite lack of bonding between husbands and wives and parents and children.  There are delusions that things will be better this time, and that all one needs for a better life is different scenery.  The specific details may change, but the the general patterns repeat over and over and over again.  They are, it should be noted, patterns I am quite familiar with in my own life and in many of those I have observed deep empathy and compassion, and more than occasional irritation and frustration, in my dealings with those around me.

This memoir is a straightforward one, more or less.  It begins with the embarrassed author seeing her homeless mother and being told to tell the truth.  And she does–this is unpleasant truth, certainly not covering over her own flaws of character, her own flight away from her parents as a teenager or from her staid first husband or the abuse she receives from a paternal uncle.  Nor do the author’s parents come off very well here–her father is an shiftless alcoholic who continually sponges from any family member with any money, and her mother owns property in Texas worth about $1 million but is content to let her family live without heating or food so she can mope about, eat chocolate, and pursue her artistic ambitions without being tied down to a job.  Worse, she views the suffering of her children without any sort of feeling or empathy whatsoever.  These two people deserve each other–but their children deserve better and struggle intensely to live better lives for themselves, with varying success, in this vivid memoir full of intense detail.  One can easily picture the picture of poverty and struggle the author’s life exhibited, and the way that the past is not something that one can easily leave behind because it keeps following you around.

The title of this book comes from the delusional building plans for a glass castle that the author’s father was going to make for his family.  And this book represents an honest attempt by a skilled journalist to get at the truth behind the delusions that people have, and come to accept their family members as they are, for all of their eccentricities, all of their flaws, without letting those flaws ruin their own wishes for happiness.  This book suggests, and it is a thoughtful and wise insight, that in order to know genuine success in life one has to both acknowledge and overcome one’s family background when it is a bad one.  By providing a measure of achievable if imperfect success for the author, success in relationships and in life, this book provides the sort of example others need if they wish to overcome their own histories of abuse and neglect as the author had, with scars showing character, and with a full and even at times gracious acceptance of the mixed legacy that one’s family background gives, a legacy that can never be returned for one we might prefer.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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9 Responses to Book Review: The Glass Castle

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