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BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE

Title: The Glass Castle
Author: Jeannette Walls

Summary: A celebrity reporter for MSNBC and once denizen of Park Avenue, Jeannette Walls stunned her colleagues and friends by writing a memoir that revealed her upbringing in an alcoholic family existing at the margins of society. Although it serves as a perfect primer of the emotions and challenges that all trauma survivors face, this elegantly written book is a testament to the resilience and courage that even addicted people possess. Her mother had always told Jeannette life was an adventure and had said, regarding the memoir, "Tell the truth." The Glass Castle shows us how poignant, multi-layered, and various the truths of a life can be.

Growing up with nonconformist parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls, was difficult for their four children. They spent the early years living like nomads, camping in the mountains of the Southwest. Rex, a brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, taught them physics, geology, and other things including how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, an artist, couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family. When money and the romance of a wandering life faded, the Walls moved to a West Virginia mining town. To escape, Rex drank, stole grocery money, or disappeared for days. As this behavior escalated, Jeannette and her siblings had to fend for themselves, supporting each other, as they weathered their parents’ betrayal. This is a story of deep and unconditional love for parents who despite their flaws enabled Walls to move from hiding her roots to finding the determination to carve out a successful life.

Questions:
1. Memoir vs. autobiography: How does Walls choose what details about her life to leave in / leave out? For instance, why is the first husband barely touched upon?

2. In memoir, as in fiction, the work has to be structured to best present main ideas. The arc of this memoir follows Jeannette's passage from idealization of father to growing disillusion and awareness of parents' inability to parent them, to transcending her old life and coming to a fuller appreciation of her parents.

3. Use of irony / dramatic irony: In the opening scene, the narrator is worrying whether she is overdressed while observing Mother-through a cab window-- rooting through a dumpster. There is dramatic irony in that the narrator presents details that make us react even though the narrator, as a character, is in denial.

4. The dynamics of alcoholic family: As in all traumatic situations, defense mechanisms used include denial, rationalization, projection, repeating / seeking a similar trauma to gain mastery (eg, Jeanette burning her doll), numbing, and dissociation. What are some other examples? As readers, we begin the memoir with horror, and then gradually become accustomed to the environment, much as a child in an alcoholic family does.

Related Information:
Roles in the alcoholic family: caretaker (Lori for Mom, Jeannette for Dad), hero, scapegoat (Brian? Truth teller), Mascot, Lost Child (Maureen). [See article below] Different children embody different aspects at different times. What makes this novel so wonderful is that it is real, and the people are real, not just textbook stereotypes. Adding to the psychological complexity of the book's truth telling are the episodes at each grandmother's house, in which the reader is shown where the parents came from and why they were as they were. When the family comes to West Virginia to stay with Rex's mother, their journey literally moves into the bowels of hell. But as in the literature of recovery, the book shows that hitting "bottom" gave the children the energy and courage to break free and begin a new life.

"Alcoholism in the Family” by Laurie Walker - Essortment

Questions and related information provided by Sue Oringel.

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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