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
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.
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.