Friday, September 5, 2008

An Evening with Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls, the author of the bestselling memoir The Glass Castle, spoke last night on the Appalachian State University campus, kicking off their Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series. I had read the book with my book group a year or two ago, and now we are using it with some of our English classes at the college this semester.

I have always been fascinated by memoirs that detail stark or horrendous childhoods. Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller come to mind. I am always amazed that someone can live through what seems unthinkable then survive to write about it with such sanity and clarity. Walls does just that. In person, she is refreshing, funny, and genuine.

In my Wednesday night class at church, we have been studying a book called How to Love Someone You Can't Stand. One of the most important messages it "Never, never take revenge." Each week, parts of this memoir come to mind. As Walls spoke, I was struck by how mentally healthy she appears, despite her horrendous childhood, primarily because of her ability to get beyond her experience and to grow from it. She told the audience that everything in life is a blessing or a curse, depending on how one chooses to respond. She also stated that one of her purposes in writing this book was to show that we are all more alike than different.

She encouraged her listeners to consider writing down our own stories, even if only for ourselves. In considering how much leeway one has with the truth in a memoir, she indicated that she believed telling the truth was terribly important. In fact, much of what she left in and even what she left out of the book was a result of her desire to avoid "inciting hatred by telling half-truths."

Telling some of her truths was quite difficult. In fact, after her husband convinced her she needed to tell about eating out of the school cafeteria garbage can, she said her face literally turned red from shame as she wrote that part. Then she cited someone in her audience earlier in the day who said that secrets are like vampires: They suck the life out of you, but they can only survive in the dark.

I regret that we were not able to work out an add-on visit to our campus down the mountain while she was in Boone. At the community college, so many of our students have their own incredible, painful stories. Her ability not to approve but to accept her parents inspired me and others in her audience as well.



susanv said...

I loved this book! How amazing that you got to see Ms. Walls in person. She truly did rise above a most heartbreaking childhood.

Gina said...

Wow! I've got to read her stuff. Lately I've been buying books a whole more than I've been reading them - but I'll this to my list of books to buy - AND read!