Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Jeannette Walls grew up in extreme poverty with an alcoholic father and a co-dependent mother. Why is her story unique? Because Walls escaped from her toxic environment and against all odds got a Barnard education and a good job as a journalist in New York City. Her memoir recounts her childhood as her family moved like gypsies across the U.S., living in their car, finally settling down in a crumbling shack in Appalachia with no heat or indoor plumbing. Walls remembers having nothing to eat in the house for weeks at a time, stealing food from the garbage can in the school lunchroom, wearing threadbare clothing, and washing her face in snow for lack of a better alternative.
I put off reading this book for a while because I was afraid it would be too depressing, and it is a sad story. Yet Walls never resorts to self-pity or demonizes her parents; this is not a revenge book. In fact she writes about her parents with humor and affection, recalling the good times as well as the bad. Despite their obvious defects as parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls treated their children with love and respect, and encouraged their intelligence and creativity at every turn. Many affluent suburban children grow up in environments that are far less emotionally rich, and Jeannette Walls knows this. Walls’s parents eventually joined her and her siblings in New York City but ended up homeless and remained so for many years, despite their children’s efforts to help them find jobs and housing.
Toward the end of the book Walls talks about her fears of revealing her past to her New York crowd – she worries that she will be fired from her job and rejected by her friends and colleagues when they learn of her origins. Why this particular anxiety? She never directly addresses the underlying issue here, the twin stigmas of poverty and alcoholism in the U.S. I kept thinking that if someone with a similar background from a poor nation moved to the U.S. and achieved success through hard work (the same way Walls achieved success) would that person be as ashamed of her past? I don’t think so. What does this issue say about poverty in the U.S. and about that most American of myths: the rags-to-riches story?
(Book 14, 2009)