There are families in this country who live without food, furniture, proper clothing, emotional or physical stability, heat and running hot water. Accountability is a question mark. We don’t like to talk about it because it means exploring our part in the story. These same families fight, have good and bad habits, create traditions, make promises to and ultimately love each other. I know them because they’re like my family and I love them. Thanks to faith, education and some unknown x-factor called resilience, we’ve now got food in our respective fridges, our own real beds and winter coats. We also have student loan debt. Sorry financial gurus; there was nothing left in the budget to roll over into a magic money making snowball. Also, I’m told I suffer from ‘poverty mentality’. Perhaps you could write a book about that?

The perfect family doesn’t exist. But there are lots of good ones. Families we tend to like best are often not our own, which I find funny. Something about the degree of separation from disappointed parental egos or heirloom expectations; maybe that’s the secret. Healthy detachment from inheritance. Personally I’ve found independence, recovery and living 3,000 miles away equates to immeasurable, relative appreciation and happiness. We’re white, mostly Irish, French and English mutts. There’s Abenaki blood on my mother’s side but since The People of the Dawn Land ran away from war and retreated to Canada the Abenaki were renamed The Invisible People and are not recognized as a once Native American tribe. Invisible People resonates. My extended family are hilarious and fantastic, from a distance. It’s hard to say that because I’m a recovering codependent, but it’s true. They’d tell you the same about me. My eating disorder gives everyone heartburn. 

Wealthy people have the luxury of hiding dysfunctions behind cashmere and square footage. I got to know and love these families too because I was very good at cleaning sprawling messes. One woman I worked for said I was gifted with closet organization. It’s like magic! I can open the doors and boom! Go! Boom! Go! Yes. And I can stay here and give your only child free therapy. Privilege doesn’t equate with happiness or even ensure health, it just makes it easier to consistently meet basic needs. You get to look like you know what you’re doing so people don’t question your behavior. When you’re poor all your stuff is out and you can’t afford to do anything about it. Motivation. When there’s enough physical comfort we tend to avoid the potential discomfort of confronting things we don’t like that might require our effort to change. We’re innately designed for growth but something has to light the fire. We all experience adversity or loss and it hurts. The distinguishing factor, as we see in the film The Glass Castle is that, when you’re poor and you get burned you can’t afford the things you need to heal; professional help, time and space. It’s the gift of this wound which propelled Jeanette to work herself up and out of what she’d known. For me it was wanting my very own bar of soap and an indoor shower. The last one we had was rotting into the frame and had a draft so I count it as outside too. I hate that my current landlord controls how much hot water we get to use, about 15 minutes worth. I’ve decided my marker for ultimate, worldly success will be the ability to take hours long hot showers. This would be terrible for the environment but I might build up enough sense of entitlement to blind me from the selfishness of my maybe someday ways.

Having read a handful of film reviews and spoken to a friend about it yesterday, I felt compelled to weigh in. The responses seem to range from ambivalence to curiously, detached applause. Some reviews reminded me of conversations with the public when we talk about historical trauma; verbal tip toeing around social shit, as if we’re trying to be polite about all the things that stink. Unless there’s a Hallmark card for it we have no common language for the multi-dimensional, human experience. Happy Birthday. Congratulations. Sorry Your Mom Emotionally Incested You and Now You’re Struggling with Sex Addiction, Sorry You Regret Having Kids; Who Doesn’t? I love you. Hallmark, call me. Others out-right condemned the glamorized portrayal of substance use and parental neglect. Why not follow the storytellers logic and embrace the truth, which lives between extreme assessments? Nope. We prefer to tell ourselves the feel-good version which involves two, oversimplified choices: Dragon. Princess. This logic is why half of all marriages fail. Most princesses are dragons before coffee.

I’d read the book when it first came out and appreciated the unfiltered portrait of dysfunctional, rural poverty and self-absorbed, parental neglect alongside dignity, humor, determination and love. Through telling her story Jeanette offers an experiential lesson in emotional intelligence and a depth of character we rarely see on such a large platform. It was transformational for me and yet I understand the resistance. We prefer definitive judgements with clear consequences because adaptive problem solving is harder to operationalize. Jesus figured it out. Apparently we’re just supposed to love people. Yeah but but but… I know. There are many events from my past that will never be ok. Sexual abuse, addiction, violence, explosions, attempted kidnapping (relax, we’re fine) and probably Spam (even though it’s also kind of great) are not ok. Many things in our world are horrific, evil, terrible, awful things. For example, there’s a wildly popular show about this one family where the mother sold her daughters into pornography, retail and modeling to pay for her plastic surgery. They all seem to need therapy but instead they just keep getting more famous. I wonder if anyone thought to call DHS for those kids? They’re really beautiful, have all the branded things and live in many lavish homes so, we probably assume they’re just fine.

No spoiler alerts here. I’d hoped the film would inspire new awareness about life outside a mainstream ideal and what we could do as a society to come alongside those who may be struggling and empower them so we could live in harmony. I guess it’s not utopia time yet. I would’ve preferred a less chaotic childhood. Can’t help but wonder about the difference a secret fortune makes. At the same time I trust the process and find interesting things worth discovering through the healing work. What’s the alternative? We should never stop advocating for change or speaking out against injustice. We should continue to support each other, share our truths, thoughts and questions. And if we want to experience peace in this life, learn to embrace reality and find a way to love what is good. 

17 thoughts on “Thoughts on The Glass Castle

  1. Love this post! I can so relate to Jeannette Walls and she is the one who inspired me to write my memoir although I have a different story. I can really related to your remarks about hot showers too. I used to get one shower a week at the state park because we lived in a cabin without a shower or tub. Such stories of survival inspire us and make us grateful for what we have in our own lives. Blessings on you and your hot shower dreams! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wanted to comment on this when I first read it but I have this 2 step authentication and i couldn’t find my phone …oops!!!! Anyway I found it!!!
    I love this post. The cashmere part and how they hide oh I loved that so much!!!
    My husband was homeless and he talks about taking a shower in a hose behind someone’s house before school. I lived in my car while I worked at seaworld because I did not have money for an apartment.
    And yes there are those that lecture on budget. You cannot budget what you do not have. Our health care sucks so we have 8 grand on a credit card that is all health because what else is there to do?!! Not go to the ER when I had 5 seizures! I had to.
    So I got off on a tangent. Thank you for this post. It really hit home in many ways

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  3. “Wealthy people have the luxury of hiding dysfunctions behind cashmere and square footage… Privilege doesn’t equate with happiness or even ensure health, it just makes it easier to consistently meet basic needs. You get to look like you know what you’re doing so people don’t question your behavior. When you’re poor all your stuff is out and you can’t afford to do anything about it.”

    So true. My family was rich so they hid it successfully, and when I simply had to leave home at 16 because I could no longer bear it, I was way below the poverty line right through university (which I entered on a scholarship but still gave me a student debt for after graduation) until I finally ended up in paid work at age 22. And in that in-between time, there was nowhere to hide, and the damage that had been done was there for everyone to see, and I felt like a leper (yet somehow managed to graduate top of my degree). The job was my lucky break – independence is so important, as is stability and the feeling that someone actually thinks you can really contribute something. Because we live in an era of contract work, I found my ability to be well and to function uncomfortably dependent on whether I was holding down work at the time. If you didn’t you were just in the gutter, in terms of self-esteem, health, and the way others thought of you.

    And so I do think the things that dawned on me after turning 40 (in a secure relationship and without the burning necessity of having a fulltime income) would have dawned on me earlier if I had had real security before, and not had to live from contract to contract. Thanks a bundle, neoliberals – Screwtape is your name, don’t pretend otherwise. The older I get, the more I see the microcosm of the dysfunctional family reflected in the macrocosm of a lost and corrupt society – the same principles apply. Just look at our “leaders”.

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    • Thanks for sharing these truths Sophie. I agree 100% that dysfunctional families across the socioeconomic and trauma spectrum are a micro of the macro. I’m sorry for what you had to experience, being cast out into an unjust system with nowhere to hide. It sounds as though the experience, while painful, offered insights which you chose to embrace. I do love resilience.
      The stability you describe, love, safety and provision, are incredibly helpful for fostering healing; I wonder why some of us find our way while others struggle, but it offers clues about what we all need to heal and grow beyond the people or circumstances that attempt to dis-able us. Love, time, provision, a willing spirit; gifts that make life possible. Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts and understanding.

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  4. Thanks E., and so many people I think have such a hard time being trapped by the hamster wheel going around and around. I especially worry about people in America, where social safety networks are so nonexistent compared to our Australian basics, and Scandinavia’s better example.

    You might really enjoy this podcast:

    http://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/conversations-rutger-bregman/8883962

    Bregman discusses a social experiment – removing poverty and its consequences – that was a real eye-opener! It really surprised me that the evidence was in, it’s got so little coverage on mainstream media – I wonder why that is? 😉

    Love and best wishes to all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Sophie. Yes many other countries are presenting progressive solutions; America is akin to a collective young adult, reactive and full of fear. I will check out the podcast for sure. Having not heard the podcast yet I’ve done extensive research on poverty both globally and in westernized cultures and it seems that poverty is profitable. Those in power are either reluctant to share and/or lack the lived experience that would make their change efforts meaningful. My husband finished a book this morning called No More Heroes by Jordan Flaherty on the subject of the savior mentality with insights regarding paradigm shifts. He shared so much of the book with me I feel I’ve read it. Essentially we have written policies telling us to share and play fair but in order for society to truly change we need our hearts to see. The parallel is similar to the Old Testament vs the New Testament; one being the ABC’s of caring and the other being a change of heart; doing what is right because of compassionate awakening as opposed to ‘rules’. Don’t hit vs anger being replaced with understanding. It’s a long road but I’m hopeful one of these centuries we’ll get there 😉

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