Jeannette Walls Book Signing

Jeannette Walls

On January 5, 2010, Jeannette Walls was at the Borders Books & Music in Ann Arbor, Michigan to speak and sign books. She is the author of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses and is a former gossip columnist. In The Glass Castle, she tells her story of growing up in a family that was at times homeless because of eccentric, neglectful parents. Walls overcame her childhood and went to college, moved to New York, and became a successful journalist. Her parents eventually followed their children to New York, but chose to live on the streets (she has since talked her mother into living with her). Until she wrote The Glass Castle, Walls had kept her background a secret. She says:

I originally did not want to tell my story. I was ashamed of it. I used to be a gossip columnist – that is not the source of shame, perhaps it should be – but there was no doubt in my mind that once people knew the truth about me I was going to be ostracized and shunned. And the irony, some would say the hypocrisy, of pursing other people’s stories while I was hiding my own does not escape me.

Thankfully, this did not happen as the reaction to bestseller The Glass Castle has been incredibly positive. Walls was overwhelmed by the great response and says she was a “knucklehead” for underestimating people’s compassion. She says:

An attractive young woman came up to me at a signing… and said she had read The Glass Castle while her family was vacationing in the Caribbean… and she said “There’s this girl in my class who always wears these ugly out-of-date clothes and me and all the other cheerleaders always make fun of her.” And she said, “Now I understand and I will never make fun of her again.” And I thought the Lord can strike me down with lightning right now because I have done my job on this planet. I have made that one rich kid understand what it’s like and have a little bit of empathy.

Not long after that, my second and more ambitious hope came true. A teacher told me… that a young man who had never read a book cover-to-cover actually started carrying The Glass Castle around. And she said, “I thought you don’t like reading” and he said, “Oh no I don’t.” She said, “I thought you don’t like books” and he said, “Books are for nerds!” She said, “But you like this one. Why’s that?” This young man thinks for a second and he says, “This here’s a fine white trash story!” …I took it as a compliment and, in fact, I think it is the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.

Walls says that at book signings the question she gets asked the most is about her mother and why she would choose to lead the life she did, as opposed to a more normal one. Walls explains:

I would tell them something about my mother’s childhood. About how she was raised on a 180,000 acre ranch where freedom was the most important thing to her. She loved it. She not only knew you could survive without indoor plumbing and without electricity … but for her that was the ideal period in her life and, in my opinion, she’s lead much of her life trying to recreate that freedom.

She started interviewing her mother about her experiences growing up and ended up writing Half Broke Horses about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. She was a schoolteacher and lived on a ranch where she worked breaking horses. The book is written in Lily’s voice and is based on Wall’s mother’s stories. They call it fiction because it’s based on family stories and, like most family stories, they might be a bit embellished. Her goal in Half Broke Horses is to tell the story of her interesting grandmother, and to also explain why her mother is the way that she is.

While listening to Jeannette Walls speak, I was struck by how positive she is about her childhood. She called herself “lucky” to have a weird childhood and doesn’t seem to feel sorry for herself at all (which she has every right to if you ask me). She’s a resilient woman and it was pleasure to hear her speak. I’d like to pass on a great piece of advice she gave the crowd:

Secrets are like vampires. They suck the life out of you, but can exist only in the darkness. Once they are exposed to the light, there’s a moment of horror, but then, poof, they lose their power.

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