The subtitle for this astounding book should be “A Guidebook For How NOT To Raise Children”.
Jeanette Walls, one of the four children of Rex and Rosemary Walls, by all accounts, probably shouldn’t be alive today. By the grace of God (or the universe at large), she survived being raised by two of the most narcissistic and irresponsible parents known to mankind, and lived to tell about it in detail.
The story begins in the southwest where Jeannette’s dreamer, alcoholic father and would-be artist mother, eek out a living in the saddest, most depressed towns they could find. Neither parent is keen on work and their children are left to their own devices since Rosemary feels that children “learn best from their own mistakes”. That’s a euphemism for “I can’t be bothered to take care of my own kids.”
Take, for example, the time that Jeannette is severely burned at three years old when her dress catches on fire while making hot dogs on the stove. After suffering through skin grafts and a six week hospital stay, Jeannette is “rescued” by her father who claims that “hospitals will kill you.” (Never mind that he didn’t pay the bill either). She is then praised by her mother for preparing her own meals again, claiming that “you cannot allow fear to rule your life”.
Truly, the most important things that Jeannette and her siblings had to fear were their horrible parents.
The story unfolds with one sad incident after another (including poverty, violence and hunger), culminating in the family moving to Welch, West Virginia, the economically depressed hometown of Rex. One might think that a reunion with Jeannette’s grandparents would have been a joyful occasion, but no. Grandma was a hard-drinking, abusive, sour woman, which explained much of Rex’s behavior.
What wasn’t explained, however, was the reason behind Rosemary neglecting her children and responsibilities. I think that many people could be sympathetic toward a woman who was trying to deal with an alcoholic husband. Rex drained the family dry of cash and necessities on a regular basis.
However, Rosemary, a certified teacher, couldn’t be bothered to work herself. She believed that she was an artist and, as such, was not required to do anything beyond sitting in front of her easel.
At one point, she gets a teaching position in one of the many towns that the family lived, only to stay in bed in the morning, even after her children beg her to go to work. (They even helped her with her lesson plans and graded her papers). She whines, “I’m a grown woman. Why can’t I just do what I want to do?”
I think that question pretty much sums up this whole memoir. Grown adults cannot just do whatever they feel like and shrug their responsibilities because their children depend on them. Without giving their offspring the basics of food and shelter (or, at least a house that didn’t have huge holes in the roof, running water and heat), Rex and Rosemary Walls’ children suffered needlessly.
Amazingly, Jeannette Walls and her siblings live through their haphazard upbringing. Jeannette herself becomes a successful journalist after escaping to New York as a junior in high school to live with her eldest sister. Her experience brings new meaning to the expression, “pull yourself up by the bootstraps”. She is a true survivor.
Not only did I enjoy reading this incredible memoir, I also found that it confirmed something that I’ve believed for many years: not everyone is cut out to be a parent. I think that Rex and Rosemary both loved their children in their own dysfunctional ways but couldn’t see beyond their own selfishness to care for them.
It’s lucky for us that Jeannette Walls was not only able to rise above it all but write about it so eloquently as well.