Transcript for Jeannette Walls on Growing Up Lower Than Poor

Jim Fleming: But first Jeannette Walls. She worked as a journalist in New York City for 20 years. For much of that time she wrote a gossip column at MSNBC.com. Then, Walls published the best-selling memoir The Glass Castle, which recounted her life-long struggle to overcome her dis-functional and highly unusual childhood, as she told Steve Paulson one of the things she struggled with most was keeping her past a secret, from, well, just about everyone.

Jeannette Walls: There's a certain irony to the fact that all of these years I've been digging out the truth about other people and was hiding the truth about myself.  I, I sometimes wonder whether or not that that was somehow motivated me, but no, it's not at all what people expected it was, it was a secret for me, my past and it was something I hid, and there was no doubt in my mind, that if the truth got out about me that I would lose my job and that I would lose all of my friends and that people would basically run for the exits when I came into a room, but I've never been so wrong about anything in my life...

Steve Paulson: You were worried that people would find out that you had been really really poor...

Walls: Not just poor, we looked up at poor people when I was growing up, we, um, I mean there were, there were things that were very difficult for me to write because I had never told anybody about these things.  You know that I, went it, the garbage cans at school to fish for other kid's lunches, and you know went into the stalls of the ladies' rooms to eat the, the sandwiches that other people had thrown away.  I was ashamed, you know I underestimated people's capacity for compassion, but I think moreover I think I underestimated the degree to which everybody has something in their past that they think somehow makes them less of a person.  Maybe not quite as extreme as mine, but something...

Paulson: Were your parents just not able to hold down regular jobs, or did they just not want to?

Walls: My parents are both highly intelligent people, my father is [??] but they're both very intelligent, my mother has a couple of college degrees. But they both wanted their freedom. They ab hoard rules and structure and they just live life by their own rule...

Paulson: What kinds of places did you live in?

Walls: For the first ten years of my life, I lived in more towns that I could count. We lived in little mining towns in the southwest, or we lived in little gambling towns, or sometimes we slept in the car, or sometimes we slept in cardboard boxes.  Sometimes we went to places like Las Vegas and lived in hotels or San Francisco and slept on the beach. We just lived wherever dad decided to move us at the moment. He, he called it doing the scadadal, we were always running away from people, dad said it was the CIA or the Mafia, but mom said it was really just the bill collectors...

Paulson: So you became a really good student, a model student?

Walls: I, uh, first of all I love school because it was really warm and dry. But also, you know, to my parents credit, for everything that was wrong with them they always, they'd instilled in us from a very early age a love of reading and education. And I love school and I love the teachers, and for the most part the teachers were very very good to me, in fact I was named after a teacher.  She had been my father's teacher, and she was the first person who told him that he might actually amount to something someday. And that when we went back to West Virginia she was still teaching. And I became the editor of the school newspaper, and people tried to get me kicked off because I dressed so shabby and smelled pretty funky, and um, she went to bat for me. So, I love the teacher for a lot of reasons...

Paulson: Were you a pariah in school?

Walls: Oh I was worse than a Pariah haha. I had no friends at all. But it was through the newspaper, finding out I could write about people, I could actually go to the dances and go to the ball games for the first time, it was sort of my entree into becoming, not a big somebody, but just somebody at all. And I fell completely in love with journalism and I saw very quickly that it was not only my way to be accepted by my peers, but my way out...

Paulson: This was the makings of a gossip columnist way back then hahaha...

Walls: Oh yea, yea absolutely, I saw that, at least I felt that without that identity I was nothing, but once I had a camera around my neck and a pen and pad in my hand, that I might be accepted...

Paulson: When you say you were worse than a pariah, what do you mean?

Walls: Oh kids through things at us.  Other kids would dare each other to up around our house, it was just, really, it was pretty bad. And, and they teased up, I got beat up all the time. But my brothers, um, my brother my sisters, we all fought with each other and for each other so on the upside we really learned to be pretty tough scrappers...

Paulson: Well it's interesting, I mean this picture that you portray, is, I mean it's sort of this interesting mix of things, because on the one hand, this was a hard life that you have described, but I get the sense that there was no self pity in your family, I mean that-that was a-a value that was just alien to your parents, I mean they never went on welfare, I mean obviously they could have if they had chosen to and there was this ethic of, uh, stick up for yourself...

Walls: Not only stick up for yourself, and not only not feeling sorry for yourself, but mom always felt and-and to a large degree gave us the impression that we were better off than the other kids because we might not have running water, but they weren't reading Shakespeare. It is, my story is a bizarre contradiction of-of incredible deprivation in certain areas, but a lot of wealth in other areas, I mean mom and dad did not feed us and did not clothe us very well, but when it came to matters of the mind and soul, they gave us a lot...

Paulson: Umhm, Did you buy into, to their philosophy?

Walls: Certainly for the first part of my life I did, at what, when I was a kid I thought we had a great life, we could do anything, we could go catch horny toads, we could go out on adventures, I could shoot my dad's gun, we could do whatever we wanted. As I got a little bit older I think I started seeing through my father's lies.

Paulson: Now at a, at a fairly young age, you were still a teenager, you hopped on a bus and moved to New York City.

Walls: I was 17 years old and my sister and I hatched a plan to come to New York, she was going to be an artist and I was going to be a writer. And If would have had a lick of sense I would have realized it was a crazy thing to do, but I didn't know any better and came up and I-I enrolled in high school up here and I got an internship and got a um, a job at a newspaper and I had just died and gone to Heaven, I thought that I had made it. Uh, but then, the editor there suggested I should probably go to college and while I was in college I was listening to the, uh, news one day and there was a report about a van breaking down on the FDR drive and the contents had spilled out and the dog was playing keep away with the cops, and my heart sort of sank because this was exactly the same sort of thing that was happening to us all the time I was growing up. I didn't think a whole lot more about it. Later on in the day I got a call and it was my mother and she said 'Jeannettekens we've moved to New York!'...

Paulson: Hahahahaha...

Walls: And I thought, oh nooo, I ran away from my past and it's catching up with me, and I said 'Mom did your van break down on the FDR drive?'. And she said 'How did you know?'. And I said 'It was on the radio'. And she took that as a really good sign because they'd just come to New York and already they're famous. But I wanted nothing to do with them, in fact, I told them please don't tell anybody you're my parents because, for the first time in my life I could actually feel like I was sort of normal. And I didn't have to make excuses for my parents and my family and I didn't have a past as far as most people were concerned. And I just, I didn't want to be saddled with these weird parents again...

Paulson: Well, and part of th-this-this piece of the story is also really interesting because your parents were basically homeless, I mean they lived in abandoned buildings and, uh, they were squaders...

Walls: They were actually homeless for a while, they were living on the streets and what happened is they took over abandoned buildings on the lower east side of Manhattan and there was a squaders movement to take over these buildings. It was, you know, the, um, the early 80's and this was going on, the squaders were fighting with the city, and my parents and incredibly articulate people so they were always being interviewed on the news and in newspapers. And every time I turned on the T.V. I felt like there's my father being interviewed about British common-law or quoting John Steinbeck, and it was, it was just mortifying and I was terrified that this would get out about me. So I lived in this fear that people would find out who I really was...

Paulson: And meanwhile you had become this well-known gossip columnist, you were very plugged into, into the scene in New York, and going to the right parties and living in fancy places by this time. Making a lot of money I presume?

Walls: Yes and hobnobbing with these very well to do people who were complaining all the time about those filthy noisy squaders on the lower east side and what they're doing to property values.  And I was completely, you know, living between these two worlds, absolutely...

Paulson: And, wh-what's interesting is that your parents, I gather, were not proud of you at this point, I mean th-they didn't think that you had become this great success, I mean they they sort of thought you sold out...

Walls: My mother especially, she wanted to know where were the values she had raised me with, here I was, I was a yuppie, it was the worst thing in the World. And my brother had become a cop. It was, it was, their children had completely rebelled against them and they were completely mortified...

Paulson: Did you ever feel disloyal to your parents? Either in the act of telling this, or how you distanced yourself from them?

Walls: Oh absolutely, absolutely, but certainly in how I distanced myself from, I still, I sort of kick myself I feel like a knucklehead now like what was I thinking? On the other hand I've talked to some people who were, worked where I did and they said I completely understand why you didn't want anybody to know. It was a very snobbish place where your pedigree was very important and what school's you went to-

Paulson: And you'd gone to Barnard's so you-you had the pedigree-

Walls: Well people thought I did, but I never went to private schools or boarding schools.  People just assumed that because I went to Barnard's that I must have had a privileged background. But this is a place where, you know, what country clubs your parents belong to is important. So I thought that if they knew the truth about me, and it, and that there might have been some truth to that, but yea I am, I am pretty appalled that I was that cowardly. And I did feel that I was betraying them all while I was writing it too, and um, I really wondered how my mother would take it. There's some really tough scenes about her. It's interesting people's reactions to my mother. Some people think that she's a monster, should have never had children. Other people think she's a wonderful, unique, free spirit...

Paulson: So she's been very supportive?

Walls: She's been fabulous. She's helped promote it. She-she was interviewed by Vanity Fair. She was interviewed by a number of people and in fact at one point, I wanted to thank her for being so great, and I said um, 'mom i want to get your something to thank you, you think about something that you want'. And she said 'I don't need to think about it, I know what I want'. And she had her eye on an amber and silver bracelet, antique Russian bracelet. And my first reaction was 'Mom!'-

Paulson: Hahahaha-

Walls: Like I'd meant something practical, like a down payment on a house or a car or something, but I think one of the things that I came to realize from writing the book is that was makes me happy is that what makes my mother happy. And I have to accept if she wants the darn bracelet, let her have it, it's going to cost me a lot less than a car so-

Paulson: Hahaha-

Walls: And she wears the bracelet and shes very happy, she's just a very happy woman.

Fleming: Jeannette Walls is a writer and former journalist. Her 2009 novel Half-broke Horses was based on the life of her grandmother. Steve Paulson spoke with her about her best-selling memoir The Glass Castle.

 

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