Thursday, February 13, 2014

'The Glass Castle" (and Downton Abbey): Pick your Poison

I just finished reading Jeannette Walls' book 'The Glass Castle', and I can't stop thinking about it. Walls pulls her reader through a deep and dark saga that left me feeling melancholy, yet amazed, incredibly blessed, and with a new outlook on humanity. I'm not exaggerating, I promise.


The book made me think about lots of things. About my childhood, about my children's childhood, about how lucky I am, and about the choices people make.

When my friend Ann gave me the book to read, she said that it was depressing. Trying to figure out if it was worth my time, I asked if it were also redemptive. This has been my gauge on depressing books since freshman year of high school, when we had to read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I discussed the book with my Dad, probably just complaining about how awful it was, and Dad taught me that Ethan Frome wasn't just awful, it lacked redemption.

...and then they made a movie out of it?!
photo source (+me)

What I didn't know then (thanks to my blessedly lucky and wonderfully naive childhood, and my loving parents...!), but for sure and certain know now, is that life isn't always a chair of bowl-ies.


But what of this "redemptive" business? Cannot there be suffering without painting it pink and calling in the clowns? Back to Ann giving me the book. To answer my question, she told me about how the author's parents *chose* to live as homeless people. Ann told me that the book showed how sometimes people make surprising choices in life.

I devoured the book in two days (which is significant, considering the amount of trouble Leo and Daniel can get into...or maybe they got into extra trouble because I was reading? Shhhhh!)

There were multiple instances in the book that started to make my skin crawl. Nearly every page recounts experiences that would land the best of us in counseling for decades, and Walls' parents in prison for child endangerment and neglect. And yet, Jeannette Walls does not have a tone of regret or complaint in her narrative. She relates the stories as just what happened to her and her family. She tells them as someone who has lived through quite a lot, has learned and grown from it, but has not let it embitter her or harm her in the long term. Now, these conclusions on my part are entirely speculative. For all I know Ms. Walls has spent decades in therapy to come to this point. However, she does not leave the reader feeling this way.

The reader of 'The Glass Castle' is left in a sort of awe at the maturity of the Walls children, and baffled at the choices of the Walls parents. And yet, with Walls' talented authorship, you aren't allowed to feel sorry for any of them. The choices that Rex and Mary Walls make are dangerous to their family, but Jeannette leaves them there, they are just choices. She describes vividly the consequences of the choices, but she doesn't seek to tie you to them, to make you sick with the unfairness or the ugliness in any of it.

So, what's the verdict? Is the book redemptive? Does it pass the Ethan Frome test? (EF Test: tie the book to a sled, push it down a hill...). Yes, I believe it does. And stay with me, because I don't think I'm trying to gloss over anything, or to see everything through rose-colored glasses (read: I'm alright with having a book fail the EF test...).

Let me digress to illustrate...since watching the first few episodes of Downton Abbey's Season 4, I have been reflecting a lot lately on suffering, especially suffering that is inflicted on us by another. Episode 2 had me antsy for days. If you know me, or have read some of my thoughts before, you know that some suffering scares me. I've decided (because it's flattering) that this is partly because I am empathetic to people, even if they are *just* TV characters. But I think the deeper issue is my need to see the redemption in any suffering. Suffering for its own sake, or inflicted at the cruel and twisted whim of an evil heart, makes my blood boil.

you're killin' me smalls...
photo source (+me)
I have learned recently through reading some posts by Anne over @ModernMrsDarcy, that the dramatic reactions I have to mere fictional stories could be that I am perhaps a "Highly Sensitive Person" (think you are too? Take the quiz here. Just like taking quizzes? Click here instead.)

I can take this information that I may be a HSP (as ModernMrs.Darcy puts it), and decide never to read or view content that sets me off. This may seem like over-kill, but I think that some moderation, in light of the emotional train wreck that my brain goes through for several days following such stuff, is not dramatic. I need to find the balance between hiding from the dark, and letting it make me cower.  Avoiding books or TV shows with such content, to leave room in my emotional bank for real-life situations is probably something I need to consider seriously.

Beyond finding out more about myself, I am becoming more and more aware that ultimately, there is a lot of choice in life. I don't seek to erase this part of myself, for there are benefits to draw from being sensitive. I am an empathetic person, who can often sense a solution to a problem or the particular help a person might need. This is good. But part of my sensitivity can be balm-ed by the knowledge that much of life's pain an suffering is caused by mere people's mere choices. And this is what I have learned most concretely from The Glass Castle. People can choose to be cruel, vindictive, twisted, malicious and even evil, but I can choose how I react. I can choose to love. I can choose to be respectful in the face of callousness. I can choose healing over hurt.

How can this be?
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord" (Romans 12:19)
Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly. (Deuteronomy 32:35) 
When I "cast all my anxiety" (1 Peter 5:7) on God, I am free to let go and let be. I do not have to let the cares of the world weigh me down. This does not mean that I go through life as an uncaring block of ice, no. I can still empathize and care for people, but my care does not have to shake my core. My dismay does not need to detract from my duties and desires.

I can take a page from Jeannette Walls' book, (quite literally !), and find myself at peace amidst the turmoil I witness.


  1. That looks like a great book to read, a few months after I have the baby and life is summer-y and sunshiny again. I'm like you: too much suffering, with too little redemption only fuels the hopelessness the devil so badly wants me to succumb to. I think you're wise to be choosy in your reading material. My mom says that we are as much of what we read as we are of what we eat.

    1. Yes! Totally agree on the "you are what you read" philosophy. I heard a Matthew Kelly talk on the radio yesterday, and he said "tell me the 10 books you are going to read in the next 12 months, and I will tell you how your life is going to change". That's a challenge to be a better person, isn't it? ...maybe I should make a reading list! ;)

  2. I've been looking for a good book, so this is perfect! And I feel the same way- especially since becoming a mother, I have to be incredibly careful what I watch, read, listen to, etc. The things I allow into my mind and my heart affect me so deeply these days. I didn't read the part about Downton because I'm not caught up yet, and the end of season 3 was just. too. much, so I'm afraid to start season 4! :)

    1. You're right, being a mom changes one's outlook on so many things!

      I don't know whether to tell you to watch season 4 or not...the first few episodes were kind of traumatic, but then it got tamer, and had some interesting things to say (I think). If you've got other options though...;)

  3. I've totally given up on Downton. I feel like that's blasphemous but I just had no connection to the characters... it all just became such a charade.

    1. They certainly do know how to pull a fast one on their viewers, don't they? I think if we had watched Downton all stretched out I would feel similarly, but we didn't jump on the bandwagon until this past Christmas when Steve bought me seasons 1&2, and then it was one of those watch-so-many-episodes-as-fast-as-you-can-buy-them we're through season 4 now. I think I'm over it for a while--I just want to see Sherlock #3!!

  4. Such good thoughts here. I haven't read The Glass Castle, and one of the reasons is that the content scares me--I'm not sure if I can handle it. But I'm sitting here nodding vigorously at my laptop thinking about what you said about suffering and redemption. I resonate with that so much. Sad for sad's sake? No way. But a tragic beginning has the makings of a good redemption story, and I love a good redemption story.

    1. Thank you for your kind words! I was hesitant about The Glass Castle too, but I tried it because a good friend recommended it to definitely takes you to the edge, but doesn't go all the way over, although that edge can certainly be different topics and degrees for each person.

      I think a lot of my anger/distress over *sensitive* topics comes from the inclusion of them at all (the "WHY?!" factor), but when I can glean valuable lessons, I can stomach the inclusion better.


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