In the deep end with Jean­nette Walls

With the film adap­ta­tion of her best-sell­ing mem­oir, ‘The Glass Cas­tle,’ the au­thor un­packs a tough child­hood through a new lens

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY MICHAEL O'SUL­LI­VAN

Jean­nette Walls has to be care­ful with pro­nouns.

When talk­ing about her for­mer life as a gos­sip colum­nist for such venues as New York magazine and MSNBC, she uses the first per­son: “I was a ‘jour­nal­ist,’ in air quotes,” she jokes. It’s the same when she’s speak­ing about her best-sell­ing 2005 mem­oir “The Glass Cas­tle,” whose child pro­tag­o­nist — Jean­nette Walls — was the daugh­ter of a no­madic, of­ten job­less and home­less al­co­holic and his pain­ter wife. The book, de­scribed by the New York Times as “an al­ter­nately wrench­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing yarn,” chron­i­cles the har­row­ing child­hood that Walls and her three sib­lings, Lori, Brian and Mau­reen, ex­pe­ri­enced with their fa­ther, Rex, and mother, Rose Mary, wan­der­ing from town to town be­fore set­tling in Rex’s home town of Welch, W.Va. No­table episodes of mis­treat­ment by Rex in­clude be­ing thrown into wa­ter over her head so that she would learn to swim and be­ing left alone, at the age of 13, with one of her fa­ther’s lech­er­ous adult male co-work­ers.

Then there’s the new movie ver­sion of the book, adapted by film­maker Destin Daniel Cret­ton (“Short Term 12”) and star­ring three dif­fer­ent ac­tresses as Walls at var­i­ous ages. (Os­car win­ner Brie Lar­son plays the teenage and young-adult ver­sions. Woody Har­rel­son plays Rex, who died in 1994, and Naomi Watts por­trays Rose Mary, who now lives with her daugh­ter on a horse farm in Or­ange, Va.) While vis­it­ing Wash­ing­ton to talk about the movie’s por­trayal of her­self, Walls some­times switches be­tween “I,” “she” and “they.” Q: Does watch­ing your­self on screen give you a lens through which you can view your story in a way that’s a closer to the way a reader might per­ceive you — al­most like hav­ing an out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence? A: The an­swer is yes. I didn’t feel that way watch­ing the other ac­tors. See­ing Woody was bizarre to me, be­cause he cap­tured Dad so much. Ditto, Naomi. See­ing Ella An­der­son, the mid­dle Jean­nette, broke my heart. Here was this 10-year-old, 11-year-old, try­ing to get her dad to stop drink­ing. See­ing him throw her into in the pool, I just wanted to rush at the screen. That was a shocker. I was on the set when Brie, as me, was told by my older sis­ter Lori [Sarah Snook] that she was leav­ing for New York. I burst into tears. It was the ef­fect of see­ing my­self from a dis­tance. Q: Was there a sense of de­tach­ment? A: Ex­actly. I first tried writ­ing the book from the per­spec­tive of an adult look­ing back. But it was too stilted. So I wrote it from the viewpoint of a child go­ing through th­ese things. See­ing them, th­ese ac­tors, play­ing me on screen — this is go­ing to sound schmaltzy and hokey — but I think I was able to for­give my­self a lit­tle bit more. Q: For what? A: For the de­ci­sions I had to make. Any­body who pulls them­selves up by their boot­straps, to some de­gree, has to cut off their fam­ily. You re­make your­self. Q: Were you plagued by guilt? From left, the Walls fam­ily in “The Glass Cas­tle,” with Sadie Sink as Lori, Char­lie Shotwell as Brian, Ella An­der­son as Jean­nette, Woody Har­rel­son as Rex, Naomi Watts as Rose Mary and Eden Grace Red­field as Mau­reen. A: That’s a harsh term, but it’s ac­cu­rate. I was. Q: Why? Be­cause you felt you owed some­thing to your par­ents? A: Not just my par­ents, but my kid sis­ter, Mau­reen. Could I have done more for her? Did I leave for New York too soon? Did I leave too late? Should I have taken her with me? I’m a scrap­per and a sur­vivor, but I’ll never know if I did the right thing. Q: Didn’t you once call your­self patho­log­i­cally in­de­pen­dent? A: I did. One time, I was car­ry­ing two pieces of lug­gage and my hand­bag, and my hus­band [nov­el­ist John Tay­lor] said, “Let me help you with all that.” I said, “I can do it on my own!” He said, “Of course you can, but you don’t have to.” That was such a rev­e­la­tion, be­cause I was so afraid of de­pend­ing on any­body else. And then you see the movie, and you’re like, “Ah, no won­der.” She — that would be me — had to make some tough de­ci­sions. One of them was my de­ci­sion to fol­low Lori to New York City. I was 13. It was af­ter that scene in the bar [in which Jean­nette fights off the ad­vances of her fa­ther’s friend]. That was the mo­ment when I said, “I’ve got to get out of here.” I loved him, and I be­lieve he loved me,

in his dam­aged way. But he was not go­ing to pro­tect me. Q: It’s like he was throw­ing you in the deep end all over again. A: That’s ex­actly what it was. I love that anal­ogy. But that kind of cuts him some slack. Some peo­ple think I should be so an­gry, and that I was abused. I was at a book event one time, and some­one said, “As a sur­vivor of child abuse . . .” I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t see it that way.” Q: Isn’t it abuse? Some view­ers may have a hard time swal­low­ing Brie Lar­son’s line, when she tells Rex, on his deathbed, that she turned out like him, and she’s glad she did. A: In some ways, I wish I were more like him. He was so much more bril­liant than I am, so much more of a per­former, a much bet­ter writer. The things we have in com­mon that I owe to him is a fear­less­ness, a de­mon­chas­ing qual­ity that he ac­tu­ally didn’t have as much as I have. One piv­otal mo­ment in the movie is when the kids gang up on Irma, [Rex’s mother, who sex­u­ally mo­lested both Brian and Rex] to beat on her head. She was the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of my fa­ther’s demons, but he couldn’t do that him­self. It freaked him out that his kids could. Q: Mau­reen has been di­ag­nosed with schizophre­nia. Do you ever blame her con­di­tion on her child­hood? A: One of the few things I un­der­stand about schizophre­nia is that we re­ally don’t un­der­stand much about it. It seems both bi­o­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal. You in­herit a propen­sity for it, and it’s trig­gered by en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors. I’ve talked to Mau­reen about it a num­ber of times, and she’s said that she had imag­i­nary friends back when she was 5 or 6 years old. Q: Has it oc­curred to you that your par­ents may also have been men­tally ill? A: Read­ers who are smarter than I kept say­ing, “Your fa­ther was bipo­lar.” At first, I re­sisted that idea, be­cause I thought he was just a drunk. He’d be great when he was sober. I re­al­ize now they were prob­a­bly right. He was never di­ag­nosed. Many al­co­holics are try­ing to self­med­i­cate. Q: Have you your­self ever seen a ther­a­pist? A: I haven’t. I be­lieve that ther­apy is sto­ry­telling. My hus­band, who urged me to write the book in the first place, likes to say that the process of writ­ing is the process of think­ing. Q: Is it weird to jug­gle mul­ti­ple Jean­nettes: the one in the book, the ones in the movie, the one that you see when you look in the mir­ror? A: It’s very weird. I, she, her, they. Q: What did you leave out of your story? A: Not much. Some Rex drunk scenes. One thing is a scene at Barnard, where I ul­ti­mately went to col­lege. A very skinny woman be­friended me be­cause she thought I was anorexic. Q: You do have a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with food, or so I’ve read. A: I’ve never re­ally got­ten the fetishiza­tion of food in the big cities, where they make it into ar­chi­tec­ture. It’s just food. Where I come from, you’re eat­ing fancy if you don’t serve it out of the can. Q: The movie opens, in 1989, with Jean­nette at an ex­pen­sive res­tau­rant. She asks if she can have her din­ing com­pan­ion’s leftovers. A: I still do that, to this day. Just now, I was walk­ing down the ho­tel hall­way and I was like, “Huh, some­body left some food. That looks good.” I don’t need to do that any­more. Q: Your child­hood sounds hor­rific, yet you seem to have turned out okay. Are you the poster child for al­ter­na­tive par­ent­ing? A: I think I am. I would not rec­om­mend it, how­ever. I am one of the hap­pi­est and health­i­est peo­ple I know. The last time I got sick was 1987. One of the big­gest dif­fer­ences be­tween my­self and my hus­band is that he gets re­ally em­bar­rassed when he has to buy toi­let pa­per. I’m so happy to buy toi­let pa­per. I read some­where that the se­cret to hap­pi­ness is low ex­pec­ta­tions. Q: The film ends with Jean­nette es­cap­ing West Vir­ginia for fame and for­tune in New York City. Yet here you are, back in the boon­docks of Or­ange, Vir­ginia. A: It’s the boomerang ef­fect. I was liv­ing on Park Av­enue, but that wasn’t who I am. I’m a hick at heart. It may not be Welch, but I’ve got green, rolling hills, horses and chick­ens. Q: And toi­let pa­per. A: What more could a girl ask for? The Glass Cas­tle (PG-13, 127 min­utes). At area the­aters.

JAKE GILES NETTER/LI­ON­S­GATE

JOHN GOLDEN BRITT/LI­ON­S­GATE

Ac­tress Brie Lar­son, left, and au­thor Jean­nette Walls, cen­ter, talk on the set of “The Glass Cas­tle.” Lar­son plays the old­est ver­sions of Walls in the film adap­ta­tion of her best-sell­ing mem­oir.

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