Jeannette Walls has to be careful with pronouns.
When talking about her former life as a gossip columnist for such venues as New York magazine and MSNBC, she uses the first person: “I was a ‘journalist,’ in air quotes,” she jokes. It’s the same when she’s speaking about her best-selling 2005 memoir “The Glass Castle,” whose child protagonist – Jeannette Walls – was the daughter of a nomadic, often jobless and homeless alcoholic and his painter wife.
The book, described by the New York Times as “an alternately wrenching and exhilarating yarn,” chronicles the harrowing childhood that Walls and her three siblings, Lori, Brian and Maureen, experienced with their father, Rex, and mother, Rose Mary, wandering from town to town before settling in Rex’s home town of Welch, West Virginia. Notable episodes of mistreatment by Rex include being thrown into water over her head so that she would learn to swim and being left alone, at the age of 13, with one of her father’s lecherous adult male co-workers. Then there’s the new movie version of the book, adapted by filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) and starring three different actresses as Walls at various ages. (Oscar winner Brie Larson plays the teenage and young-adult versions. Woody Harrelson plays Rex, who died in 1994, and Naomi Watts portrays Rose Mary, who now lives with her daughter on a horse farm in Orange, Virginia.) While visiting Washington, D.C., to talk about the movie’s portrayal of herself, Walls sometimes switches between “I,” “she” and “they.”
Does watching yourself on screen give you a lens through which you can view your story in a way that’s a closer to the way a reader might perceive you – almost like having an out-of-body experience?
The answer is yes. I didn’t feel that way watching the other actors. Seeing Woody was bizarre to me, because he captured Dad so much. Ditto, Naomi. Seeing Ella Anderson, the middle Jeannette, broke my heart. Here was this 10-year-old, 11-year-old, trying to get her dad to stop drinking. Seeing him throw her into in the pool, I just wanted to rush at the screen. That was a shocker. I was on the set when Brie, as me, was told by my older sister Lori (Sarah Snook) that she was leaving for New York. I burst into tears. It was the effect of seeing myself from a distance.
Was there a sense of detachment?
Exactly. I first tried writing the book from the perspective of an adult looking back. But it was too stilted. So I wrote it from the viewpoint of a child going through these things. Seeing them, these actors, playing me on screen – this is going to sound schmaltzy and hokey – but I think I was able to forgive myself a little bit more.
For the decisions I had to make. Anybody who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps, to some degree, has to cut off their family. You remake yourself.
Were you plagued by guilt?
That’s a harsh term, but it’s accurate. I was.
Why? Because you felt you owed something to your parents?
Not just my parents, but my kid sister, Maureen. Could I have done more for her? Did I leave for New York too soon? Did I leave too late? Should I have taken her with me? I’m a scrapper and a survivor, but I’ll never know if I did the right thing.
Didn’t you once call yourself pathologically independent?
I did. One time, I was carrying two pieces of luggage and my handbag, and my husband (novelist John Taylor) said, “Let me help you with all that.” I said, “I can do it on my own!” He said, “Of course you can, but you don’t have to.” That was such a revelation, because I was so afraid of depending on anybody else. And then you see the movie, and you’re like, “Ah, no wonder.” She – that would be me – had to make some tough decisions. One of them was my decision to follow Lori to New York City. I was 13. It was after that scene in the bar (in which Jeannette fights off the advances of her father’s friend). That was the moment when I said, “I’ve got to get out of here.” I loved him, and I believe he loved me, in his damaged way. But he was not going to protect me.
It’s like he was throwing you in the deep end all over again.
That’s exactly what it was. I love that analogy. But that kind of cuts him some slack. Some people think I should be so angry, and that I was abused. I was at a book event one time, and someone said, “As a survivor of child abuse …” I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t see it that way.”
Isn’t it abuse? Some viewers may have a hard time swallowing Brie Larson’s line, when she tells Rex, on his deathbed, that she turned out like him, and she’s glad she did.
In some ways, I wish I were more like him. He was so much more brilliant than I am, so much more of a performer, a much better writer. The things we have in common that I owe to him is a fearlessness, a demon-chasing quality that he actually didn’t have as much as I have. One pivotal moment in the movie is when the kids gang up on Irma (Rex’s mother, who sexually molested both Brian and Rex), to beat on her head. She was the personification of my father’s demons, but he couldn’t do that himself. It freaked him out that his kids could.