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Epilogue: Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

by Dr. Angela Corbo, Assistant Professor of Communications Studies

Mountain Goat can sure tell one gosh darn good story.

The enchanting tales as told by author Jeannette Walls (affectionately referred to as Mountain Goat by her father) filled the Kimmel Center with laughter, introspection, and a sense of social responsibility. Her intimately personal and previously guarded childhood experiences are public for all to read in her New York Times best-selling memoir, The Glass Castle

Embracing our Narratives

Some of her vignettes seem more imaginative than could ever be real until you begin to reflect on your own family life. If we allow ourselves to reminisce, we may find that we possess a few family tales that are deeply imbedded in our memories. If we are honest, we may realize that our stories share a common theme with the Walls’ family adventures. Perhaps we may not have fallen out of a moving car without parental recognition nor have we seen one parent dangle the other out of a window in a fit of rage, but most of us can relate to a bizarrely endearing family moment.  Each family member may have a different interpretation of the event but, as Walls said about her own family, the facts remain undisputed and the story remains part of the family history.

Walls emphatically stated that we all have a story to tell, even if we do not have the words to articulate the narrative. “You never know someone’s story,” she said, advising the audience to have compassion for those around them. It’s the tender and terror-filled anecdotes that give us character, wisdom, and insight into our evolving lives. Walls’ husband helped her gain this perspective through his unconditional acceptance of her skin-graphed scar caused by the infamous hot dog incident described in her book. “Life has texture,” he said. Walls agreed, noting that this “texture” is what makes us interesting.

Viewing Life through a Different Lens

Jeannette Walls exemplifies the visionary mind of her father and the eternal optimism of her mother.  She expressed her gratitude for the gifts her parents bestowed on her:  the love of reading, an opportunity to dream, and self-sufficiency. Walls nostalgically recalled transformational moments in her life. Her daddy’s special Christmas gift, the planet Venus, was a spectacular gesture of imagination and wonder. In contrast, the tough-love realization that managing the family budget with an alcoholic parent was a revealing and potentially reconciling moment with her mother. By sharing such hardships, she began to embrace the kindness of others. She learned that hiding her past only resulted in missed opportunities to connect with others who could add meaning to her life. Since the release of her memoir, she’s seen firsthand that viewing life through the lens of another person opens the heart and mind for understanding and compassion.  

Walls told the Kimmel Center audience that she fantasized that her story would enlighten the rich kids who seemed superior to those who were less fortunate. She hoped that readers from “the other side of the tracks” would become empowered, believing hope could bring change. Her dream was fulfilled as countless readers shared their connection to her stories. A pretty cheerleader promised that she would not join her friends when they harassed the “girl with ugly clothes.” A teacher experienced enlightenment when a troubled teen allowed her to see that life is not universally lived by a singular set of rules.  A mother gained the courage to tell her adult children about her once shameful upbringing.

Seeking Greater Understanding

It is indisputable; Walls grew up in dire conditions – hungry, cold, and in chaos.   In 2011, 15% of the population, or 46.2 million people, lived in poverty, according to the United States Census Bureau. Americans living in our neighborhoods and surrounding areas may struggle for material resources or emotional fortitude. The range of poverty and despair may vary, but the need to help others who find themselves in poor circumstances is a constant community responsibility.

Walls emboldens us to treat the homeless with dignity by making eye contact and talking with those in different life circumstances.  Responding to those in need can change a life. Recognizing that not everyone lives with the same set of experiences as you is one of her mantras. By both working to understand others and by revealing ourselves in the process, we just may find the secret to a more fulfilled life and a fuller heart.

 

 Widener University 1821

Building the proverbial glass castle requires an awareness of others, self-determination, and the ability to dream your wildest dreams. How have reading Walls' memoir and/or attending her lecture at the Kimmel Center motivated you to take steps toward building your own glass castle? Have Walls' insights motivated you to change the way you interact with others? 

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