- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2017

As a young woman growing up poor in extremely rural Welch, West Virginia, all Jeannette Walls could think about was moving to New York to escape her alcoholic father and eccentric mother. The family had moved countless times before, running from town to town as soon as the creditors came knocking and the money had run out.

New York, the great Gotham, was calling, but her domineering father, Rex, would have none of it, requiring her to all but escape one day after high school.

Her first New York writing job was as a celebrity takedown artist — ironic for a young woman who had grown up without a television.

“I really don’t care about celebrities, [so] I don’t know how I ended up writing about them,” Ms. Walls told The Washington Times at a District stop on a recent press tour.

While nonplussed with her job, she knew that she absolutely had to write. But what?

“I love journalism, I love truth-telling, [but] I was doing something else,” she said of her life in the Big Apple. “And I was kind of ready to dig out of that.”

The story needing telling was staring her in the face.

In 2005 Ms. Walls published “The Glass Castle,” a memoir detailing the transient life she and her siblings led as her parents, Rex and Rose Mary, shuttled them about the country until they finally “settled” in West Virginia, where Rex would spend drink-fueled nights pouring over his plans to build the edifice of the title for his family to be completely off the grid.

“The irony, some would say hypocrisy, was that I’m chasing all the truths out there but not my own,” Ms. Walls said.

The book is now a film from Lionsgate, starring Oscar-winner Brie Larson as the on-screen adult Jeannette, Woody Harrelson as Rex and Naomi Watts as Rose Mary.

Ms. Walls didn’t spare the reader from her father’s drinking, his overbearing nature and refusal to relinquish control as his children grew into adulthood. Mr. Harrelson, in his best performance in years, brings a fearsomeness to Rex but also an undeniable love for his family despite his many flaws.

“Honestly, readers were a lot smarter than I am, and the readers kept saying ‘I think your father was mentally ill,’” Ms. Walls, who now lives about two hours from the District in rural Virginia with her author husband, said. “I’d read a couple of books on mental illness, and I think they were right: He was trying to self-mediate. A lot of alcoholics are trying to self-medicate.”

One of the reasons Ms. Walls said she left the celebrity business was not only a wish to be more authentic in her reporting, but also how sharing stories, she believes, “makes people feel safer.”

Even, it seems, some rather high-profile people. Ms. Walls requires asking an unnamed celeb an “insightful question” about her dress when the starlet asked the interrogator to switch off the mic.

“She said, ‘I wanted to thank you for writing about your father as candidly as you did. My father is also an alcoholic, and your book helped me come to terms’” with her own family situation, Ms. Walls recalls, adding the famous actress said she also handed “The Glass Castle” to several of her friends.

“That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about fame, it’s about sharing stories and making people feel safer,” Ms. Walls says now.

Despite her rather unusual upbringing and difficult young adulthood, Ms. Walls outwardly seems to bear few of the scars of those formative experiences. During this interview she laughs loudly and often, belaying an un-self-conscious manner and nary a trace of bitterness.

Her mother, Rose Mary, even now lives on a separate small home on the property Ms. Walls shares with her husband.

“Not ‘with’ me, because I’m not a saint. I built a place for her out back,” Ms. Walls said, laughing again so much that she nearly doubles sideways. “She makes me crazy sometimes.”

Rose Mary’s artworks are seen in “The Glass Castle,” and the artist even jested to her daughter that the works might “overshadow” everything else in the film.

“She was calling my older sister Lori and going, ‘Who is this Naomi Watts character anyway?’” Ms. Walls said when the Oscar-nominated Australian actress was cast to play her in the film. “Then she saw the trailer. She was elated.”

Mr. Harrelson also got so into character as Rex that Ms. Walls recalls hearing the “Cheers” actor saying things that her own father had — but which were not in the script.

“That’s the degree to which he got inside my father’s head,” she said. “It was astonishing.”

An early scene shows Rex not so much teaching his young daughter to swim as letting go of her in a pool, whether she is ready or not.

“I used to be afraid of water. I’m not anymore,” Ms. Walls said. “Did it work? Yes. Would I recommend it other people? No.”

While Rex is seen frequently drunk in “The Glass Castle,” Ms. Walls now believes that he likely was attempting to drown his demons.

“One of the things that I hope comes from this story is to continue this conversation” about mental health awareness, she said, adding that her father was one of a long line of so-called mad creative geniuses in the vein of Vincent Van Gosh, William Blake and countless others. “Can we harness these demons rather than trying to kill them?”

“The Glass Castle” was filmed in Welch, West Virginia, not far from the actual Walls family home. Ms. Walls recalls initial feelings of trepidation returning to the town — in an area ravaged by the decline of the coal industry — she escaped as a young woman.

“I was the lowest of the low,” she said, adding her family name was used as a punch line by their neighbors. “The more I go there [now], it’s just a place,” Ms. Walls said. “It’s just a place where there’s a lot of people who are down on their luck.”

Ms. Walls is quick to point out that in reportage such as her own book, truth and accuracy are not one and the same.

“The trouble with characters and stereotypes is they’re accurate but they’re not the whole story,” she said. “And that’s why I felt I had to tell a book-length explanation of who and what my parents were.”

Ms. Walls advices memoir-writers now to spare nothing in the name of truthfulness, and not to worry about what the people in the manuscript might think about it.

“I hope I was never cruel in my previous line of work, but by definition, when you write about celebrities, you’re either raising them up or pushing them down,” she said of her former career in New York. “I’m not interested in making fun of people anymore, I’m interested in compassion.”

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