Study Guide

Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle

By Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls

Girl on Fire

If you need a hot dog, ask Jeannette Walls. She's been cooking them since she was three-year-old, so she's an expert. The first line of her childhood memoir is "I was on fire" (2.1.1), and that line encapsulates her entire childhood. She was left to do things on her own. Sometimes she hurt herself. Sometimes she didn't. But everything she did helped make her stronger.

Quick, someone get Kelly Clarkson to do the music for the Glass Castle trailer.

The Great Hot Dog Inferno of 1963 left Jeannette with severe burn scars. Her general upbringing left her with emotional ones. But scars are cool, aren't they? Well, maybe they are after you heal, physically and spiritually. But in the middle of all her childhood trauma, Jeannette doesn't have time to recover. It's like she lives with a giant open wound.

Still, with age comes healing, and writing her memoir is like putting a soothing balm on her wounds.

Some people might be scared off by scars, but others find scars intriguing. Jeannette's second husband makes her realize that her scars make her an interesting person, not a damaged one. He sees her as "textured" and "interesting," and he suggests that the scars mean that Jeannette "was stronger than whatever it was that had tried to hurt [her]" (5.1.8).

Wonder Walls

If Jeannette were a superhero, her secret identity would be Dad Defender. And her superpower would be delusion. It runs in the family. Early on in life, Jeannette "told [Dad] that I would never lose faith in him. And I promised myself that I never would" (2.19.25). But should a girl need to have "faith" in her father?

A person needs to have faith in something that doesn't tangibly exist, like a deity or other invisible force. Jeannette's father exists. She can touch him. She can watch him waste all the family's money or physically abuse her mother. Her "faith" is that this chump will actually act like a father. That's an act he never quite lives up to.

But the Walls family survives by believing in things that will never happen, like Dad's repeated promises to build the Glass Castle. Jeannette's belief in her family, as hopeless as it may be, is the glue that holds the family together. It makes Jeannette Dad's favorite child, and the few times he acts responsibly—like when he quits drinking for about five minutes—happen for her sake. Were it not for Jeannette, Dad might never be responsible at all.

Building the Walls

Jeannette has a seemingly hopeless, damaged childhood. But the independence she cultivates out of necessity eventually helps her claw her way out of it.

First, she must become a parent, because her own parents are useless. This role reversal comes at a young age, when Jeannette is only thirteen. Because her own mom won't do it, Jeannette must be a mother, making a budget, managing resources, managing her own father, and saying things like, "I've got kids to feed" (3.20.33).

At about this time, Jeannette discovers writing. As a high-school journalist, she says, "I began to feel like I was getting the whole story for the first time, that I was being handed the missing pieces to the puzzle, and the world was making a little more sense" (3.19.7). If you think about it, this line explains why Jeannette wrote this memoir—to piece the puzzle of her own life together.

And her life is a puzzle. It's a conundrum, of sorts. If Jeannette's life weren't so tough, she may have had a happier childhood, but she would be a different and maybe weaker woman than she is today. Each thing that happened to her, good and bad, was a piece of her puzzle, and she wouldn't be the same if any of it were missing.

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