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Somewhere: The life and times of Jeannette Walls

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It’s not easy to pick up on a place and leave. It’s not easy to turn your back on your family and everything you’ve ever known to be reality. It’s not easy to leave your home, especially for a place you’ve only heard of, and opportunities only dreamed of; all for a crazy dream of there being a better tomorrow. Jeannette Walls did it. She left everything and everyone she knew, all for a shot at a better life. She was not the first Walls sibling to leave, nor was she the last; in fact, that’s why she is a hero. She picked up her family from the tiniest little nowhere, and put them in the biggest Somewhere. She encouraged her older sister, Lori, to go as soon as she finished high school. After Jeannette went, she bussed her younger brother, Brian, and little sister, Maureen, to New York. As much as she tried to get way form her parents, they followed her, and became another two homeless people in New York. 

Jeannette's family was an essential part of her life story. Her father, Rex Walls, was an obsessive alcoholic, and her mother, Rose Mary Walls, couldn’t be bothered with raising four kids. “She would rather paint a painting that would last forever than cook a family meal that would be gone in an hour,” writes Jeannette. She had three siblings, Lori, Brian, and Maureen. She didn’t know of any of her grandparents until later in her life, except for her Grandma Smith. The family might stay with her for a couple of weeks, then Rex would get into a shouting match with her, and they would be doing the skedaddle.

“We were always doing the skedaddle, usually in the middle of the night,” writes Jeannette as she describes her early years in The Glass Castle, a memoir about her life. The family would randomly pull up the stakes in one place, pack what would fit in the car at that time, and “skedaddle.” They would drive until they came across another desolate small town full of small-town people. It they liked it, they would stay. Perhaps for a week, a month, a couple months... Jeannette and Lori were trying to count all the places they has lived, got to fourteen, then lost track. None of the places meant anything special to anybody in the family; it was just another place. Another move.  

The Glass Castle was a symbol in Jeannette’s life of everything her father never did for her and his family. It was a real building, one that Jeannette’s dad planned to build once they “struck it rich”. In the early years, Rex Walls would carry the blueprints around for the Glass Castle, and the kids would work on the plans for their rooms, but it all eventually faded into a memory. The Glass Castle was named after the Glass Castle because it was such a huge symbol of disappointment in her life.

Something that I always found strange while I was reading her memoir, was how Jeannette never portrayed her father as a villain. She loved him all the way to the end, even when he did something really horrible. She might have been furious at him, but she always loved him, all the way to his deathbed, where he finally admitted that he had “Pickled himself.” When she urged her mom to leave her father, Rose Mary pointed out that Jeanette was Rex’s last supporter; he had disappointed everyone else too many times. 

The family always had next to no money, so the family invented many ways to deal with that. Jeannette’s first memory is being on fire. She was three years old, and he was boiling hot dogs. Three years old. Her neighbor took her to the emergency room with her mom and Brian, where she was treated for serious third-degree burns along the entire right side of her body. After six weeks, she and her dad checked out...Rex Walls Style. Long story short; basically a skedaddle out of the hospital to avoid the bill. That Christmas, the kids all got to pick a star for their present. They were never allowed to believe in Santa Clause, because the Walls parents didn’t want their kids to feel like they weren’t as important as all the other kids who woke up on Christmas morning with stockings full of presents.

Jeannette’s early school was handled by her parents, and throughout her public school experience, Rex was always there, enriching the grade curriculum with a lesson in aerodynamics, calculus, or advanced hydraulics. Her first public school experience was when the family moved to Blythe, California. They were “150 miles west of Phoenix, 250 miles east of Los Angeles, and smack dab in the middle of nowhere.” She was starting the first grade, and was the smartest in her class; always raising her hand, and being asked to read when the principle came into the classroom. Some of the other students didn’t really like Jeannette and all her smartness. A few weeks after she started school, a couple of other girls in her class cornered her and beat her up. The next day, her brother Brian helped her fight them off, and they never bothered her again.
The kid’s education was patchy after that, mostly because the family never stayed in a place for longer than a few months. After they left one place, they would try and get the kid’s school records, but sometimes that didn’t happen. School didn’t become a big issue until Jeannette and Lori decided to leave Welch, West Virginia, where they currently lived. It was an issue because nobody in Welch was being very cooperative with the girls’ plan to move to New York.

That is mostly how it went for the better part of Jeannette’s childhood and teenage years. Always moving around, never having any money, school being hard, but always getting straight A’s. It changed when the family moved to Welch, West Virginia. It seemed like every other move at first, same old drill. Mom and Dad setting up camp in some shack they found for the cheapest rent they could find, Dad going to bars, Mom painting... The thing was, Welch was the place Rex had left “full of vinegar at at age seventeen,” and swore he’d never return. Now here he was here, with his parents and brother. He got darker and drank more; Jeannette had to venture to bars to go and call him home more often, and the problem wasn’t just Dad. Both Brian and Jeannette were sexually harassed within the course of a year, Brian by his Grandmother, and Jeannette by her uncle Stanley.

The family stayed in Welch for the better part of five years, and the kids were realizing that they weren’t going to do the skedaddle. “I had always counted on Mom and Dad to get us out of here, but I realized now that I would have to get out myself,” writes Jeannette. Then, when Jeannette was in tenth grade, “Two filmmakers came up from New York City as part of a government program,” and they showed a movie one weekend in the school auditorium. Afterward, Lori showed them some of her drawings, and they said she had real talent. If she was serious about becoming and artist, they said, she should go to New York City. It was the best thing anyone had ever told Lori. Ever since she got her glasses, she had wanted to become and artist. Jeannette and Lori talked about it late into the night, and they decided that Lori would go to New York be herself after she graduated high school, and Jeannette would follow as soon as she could. Then they made a joint escape fund. Every night after school, Lori would paint posters in bright day-glow letters for kids who wanted their girlfriend/boyfriend’s name or their favorite rock band on their wall. Jeannette made money babysitting and doing other kid’s homework. They told Brian about their escape fund, and he did his part, even though he wasn’t included in their plans. He cleared brush for neighbors, and added his earnings to the clear plastic piggy bank which the girls named Oz. They couldn’t count the money, but they could see it slowly accumulating.

The family spent the weekends going to craft fairs all through out West Virginia, selling Rose Mary’s paintings. “We slept in the car on those trips, because a lot of times, we made only enough to pay for the gas , and sometimes not even that, but it felt good to be on the move again.”

By then, the girls and Brian had collected about $300.00, and things were looking up. then, Rex went and did the unthinkable. He stole all the money and went drinking,

This was the breaking point for me while I was reading her book. I felt like I had put up with everything Rex did, through the bad and the good; but when he took all the money, I was appalled and astounded. It seems to incredible to me that a father would steal his child’s chance for a better life for a few beers and a pack of smokes. I guess people will do anything to get what they want. 

The kids tried to start over, but Lori was too discouraged to paint as quickly as she had before, and the money only trickled in. Jeannette held it all in a sock under her clothes. At the end of the school year, one of the women Jeannette had been babysitting for told her “‘she and her family were moving back to their hometown in Iowa and asked if I wanted to come and spend the summer with them there.” Jeannette writes, “If I came along and helped look after her two toddlers, she said she’d pay me two hundred dollars at the end of the summer and buy me a bus ticket back to Welch.” Jeannette thought it over. She finally came to a resolution. She told Mrs. Sanders to take Lori instead of her, and buy her a bus ticket to New York City at the end of the sumer.

This was also the year Jeannette was made the news editor of the Maroon Wave, her school newspaper. She had started working for the Wave when she was in seventh grade, and it had made her interested in being a reporter. She started as a proofreader, then a text printer, then she finally got to be a reporter, and it made her an overnight celebrity among her peers. All the people who had made fun of her before started seeking her out. “As someone who could make them famous among their peers, I was no longer a person to be trifled with.” she writes. Jeannette loved the feeling of being someone who knew what was going on all the time. She got to interview Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier, and that was an exciting experience for her. She had done school articles before, occasionally interviewing someone around town, but this was the first person she had interviewed who was a Somebody; who had actually done something.

Later, when Jeannette asked her counselor for a list of colleges in New York City, Mrs. Katona wasn’t very helpful. She stated bluntly that leaving Welch would be like deserting her family. She gave a list of reasons to stay in Welch, none of which were compulsive reasons to stay for another year. Jeannette realized that she could leave Welch in under five months. She could finish high school in New York, then she would be considered in-state for colleges. When she told her parents her decision, her dad slammed down his pencil and left the house, and her mom started crying. When Jeannette asked her why, she said this: “‘ I’m not upset because I’ll miss you, I’m upset because you get to go to New York and I’m stuck here. It’s not fair!’”

Rex saw his little girl off at the bus stop five months later, giving her the jackknife he had carried with them since she was a little kid. Jeannette was resolved not to look back, but she snuck a peek behind her. “Dad was lighting a cigarette. I waved, and he waved back, then he shoved his hands in his pockets, the cigarette dangling from his mouth, and stood there, slightly stoop-shouldered and distracted-looking. I wondered if he was remembering how he, too, had left Welch full of vinegar at age seventeen and just as convinced as I was now that he’d never return. I wondered if he was hoping that his favorite girl would come back, or if he was hoping that, unlike him, she would make it out for good.”

When Jeannette go to new York, she finished her high school year at a school that, instead of classes, gave internships to kids all over the city. Jeannette got one at a newspaper called The Phoenix. She got a job there after she graduated, and she didn’t see the point of going to college; she only agreed to it after Mike, her boss, told her she could come back to the Phoenix anytime she wanted. “But, he added, he didn’t think I would.” She applied to Barnard Collage and was accepted. After going through a few jobs for better ones, she ended up working at one of the biggest magazines in the city. “I felt I’d arrived.”

News reports from Welch only got worse. Every one held worse news than the one before it. The stairs had washed away, Maureen had fallen off the deck and gashed her head. The trio decided when they heard this piece of news that it was time for Maureen to move to New York. Rex accused Lori of stealing his children and said he was disowning her. Maureen arrived in early winter. She lived with Lori, and her school had Brian’s address on the paperwork.

Jeannette was listening to the radio three years after she moved to New York. The reporter was talking about a van that had popped a belt on the highway, spilling clothes and furniture all over the road. A dog was running loose with several police officers chasing after it. A few hours later, she got a phone call from her mother. They had moved to New York. They went through several boarding houses, Lori and Brian’s apartments, and their white van. When it got towed, they were officially homeless.

As time wore on, Jeannette felt increasingly more guilty about her parents being on the streets, and her attending a private collage. She considered dropping out, but her dad and Lori talked her out of it. Rex was so proud of his favorite girl going to an ivy-league collage. When she couldn’t come up with the two thousand dollars she needed to pay for her tuition not covered by grants, he won it for her playing poker. Jeannette kept asking is they needed anything, but “Dad would insist they were fine, and Mom would ask for something silly.”

Three years later, Maureen stabbed Rose Mary. She had become a chain-smoking drug addict, who couldn’t bear the thought of her own mother kicking her out onto the streets. Her mom had tried to get her to move out of the old abandoned house she and Rex were living in, called a squat. Maureen was arrested and sent to and upstate hospital. After she was released, she bought a one-way bus ticket to California.

After that, Jeannette hardly saw her parents. The three siblings had gone their separate ways, and they had all done different things with their lives. Brian had become a police officer as soon as he turned twenty-one, and now had a wife and a baby girl. Lori was working an painting at an art gallery, and Jeannette was living with her husband on Park Avenue. Then she got a call from her dad. He told her to come and see him as soon as she could. When she got there, Rex confessed he was dying. Two weeks later he had a heart attack. They turned the life support off and hour later.

Jeannette now lives in New York with her second husband, John Taylor. She works as a gossip columnist for MSNBC. She has a twenty-year old daughter named Jessica from her husband’s first marriage, and an old farmhouse she and John completely restored. Rose Mary Walls is still alive and well, still living as a squatter in her abandoned apartment, and has a large collection of stray cats. Brian is a decorated sergeant detective. He has an thirteen-year-old daughter named Veronica. Maureen still lives in California. Lori is a successful artist.

“That thanksgiving, we started talking about some of Dad’s greatest escapades: letting me pet the cheetah, taking us demon hunting, and giving us stars for christmas.

“‘We should drink a toast to Rex,’” John said.

Mom stared at the ceiling, miming perplexed thought. “‘I’ve got it.”’ She held up her glass. “‘Life with your father was never boring.”’

*Passages in “quotes” taken from The Glass Castle, ©2005 by Jeannette Walls.



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