I had wondered throughout the story about the writer’s ability to recall so much detail of early childhood and to tell the story evenly from that childhood point of view beginning at age three. I had also wondered why a friend had given the book to me, eager for a response, as if anything I had endured could compare. No way.
I recognized the characters Jeannette Walls drew; I had heard firsthand most of the snide, denigrating remarks spoken to or about someone; I did have a similar pillar-to-post, wild ride for about 16 years during the same era in the same three states of my early childhood—Arizona, Nevada and California. But the differences struck me too.
First, she had two parents and I had only my mom after my dad died when I was nine. Secondly, she had three siblings who united with her to make a family that stayed together until one by one, they figured out they could leave. And then the siblings remained close in the sense that their memories bound them to one another in ways that ennobled them, each of them seeking to demonstrate love for their parents despite parental neglect bordering on abuse.
And then, perhaps most important, her dad loved her; he made her feel special.
The things I suffered as a child, I suffered alone. And that made the suffering acute. No reassuring voice from the lower bunk after my sister died the December she turned seven and I turned nine, just three months before my dad was killed. And though Mom tried in fits and starts to make a life for us both, she kept falling deeper into pits of her own tragic and twisted upbringing, or falling off the wagon—another of those expressions all too familiar.
Jeanette Walls did not offer a defense of her parents so much as an explanation of her own survival. When I look back, I expend emotional energy trying to exonerate my mom. Like Jeanette, I know the same self-recrimination for being ashamed of my mother.
Okay, so why did I like this book? It was painful to read. What struck me though was how life prepared the writer to tell the story. Each of Rex and Rose Mary’s four children dealt with their sorrow in different ways. Jeannette did the hard work of remembering.
Writing it out from experience rather than from an unbounded imagination can prove excruciating. I felt her pain.
When I finished the book, I didn’t cry because the writing was so beautiful.
The writing eclipsed the pathos. Her story rose above the perfect metaphor: turbulence in chaos theory.
I believe God is here, there and everywhere.