Professor's Prologue

Peeling Away the Many Layers of Jeannette Walls

by Dr. Angela Corbo, Assistant Professor of Communications Studies at Widener University

Family interactions have the power to warm the heart or stir unresolved issues.  We share some of life’s greatest, most devastating, and even mundane experiences with our family.  If we are honest with ourselves, we may recall a “family drama” that left a crease on the heart or character-building scar on our flesh.  Family communication is an integral component of developing the interdependent concepts of self and others.  We learn how to make sense of our interpersonal relationships with one another in our formative years. 

Jeannette Walls masterfully shares family stories of fire-filled chaos and brilliantly touching vignettes in The Glass Castle.  Her skillful storytelling allows the reader to appreciate the range and universality of her experiences.  The Walls family’s adventures and anguish are metaphorically representative of the emotional journey so many of us face. 

Walls’ story resonates with those who struggle with a myriad of contemporary family issues:  alcoholism, death of a child, and unemployment, to name a few.  Her writing captures the evolving and complicated relationship one may have with parents:  the magical enchanted view from childhood, the embarrassment of a public association, and the powerlessness of not being able to “help” a parent.  The vulnerability of these fragile fears may propel one to shield the inner-self away from public’s purview.

We live in a culture where social comparison is one way in which we have grown to understand ourselves.  If we fear people are judging us, we may invest more energy in wearing our public masks so people can only see the parts of ourselves that we wish to display.  If we construct an unparalleled private self and public self, an internal identity clash occurs when those worlds collide.

Altman and Taylor’s social penetration theory identifies three layers of the self.  The outside, or peripheral, layer contains the recognizable traits such as gender, age, and ethnicity.  We readily share this layer with others, willingly or by default, by our presence in the world. If we peel away the exterior, we reach the intermediate layer that reveals one’s preferences for activities and ideologies.  People who know us moderately well recognize this dimension. The inner core, however, contains the most sensitive layer of the self.  Our values, fears, and sense of self are nestled underneath the more superficial layers of our personality.  Jeannette Walls spent the majority of her life shielding others away from these inner layers, fearing her associates in her socially polite world would dismiss the accomplished person they had come to know.

I applaud Walls for removing her public mask and sharing her inner core layer with her audience.  The authenticity of her work allows for readers to reflect on the deeper meaning of their lives.  Living life by our “outer-most layers” creates less depth in and limits our interpersonal relationships.  After all, part of what makes a family uniquely ours is the ability to go to our center core and share some of those guarded moments with those who mean the most to us.

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Dr. Angela Corbo

Dr. Angela Corbo is an assistant professor of communications studies at Widener University, where she teaches public relations, advertising, interpersonal communication, leadership, social media informatics, and other core courses. She has taught “Gender and Communication,” a cross-listed course with the Gender and Women’s Studies program, which complements her research focus on tokenism and in- group and out-group behaviors, and gendered cultures within the work environment.