Children may be the only remaining legal human chattel. Their parents can do with them, within limits, as they please. They are fought over in divorces, shipped to a new place at a parent's will, pampered, ignored, or something in between.
In exchange for this complete control it is assumed that parents have the best interests of their children at heart. They nurture their children, discipline them, teach them what they themselves know and provide them with the teachers to perfect their talents. When a parent proves unequal to the job, relatives, teachers, ministers, neighbors and such are supposed to step in. Sometimes the government takes over. Of course it's never that simple.
Take the case of Jeannette Wall's family. Rex Walls married Rose Mary, he daughter of a prosperous Arizona rancher, in an elaborate ceremony in 1956. They had five children, lost one to what may or may not have been crib death. They raised the survivors with a combination of benign neglect of their bodies and careful tutoring of their minds. The guiding principle of the Walls seemed to have been that what the parents wanted, the parents got.
In her memoir "The Glass Castle," Jeannette Walls weaves a stomach-curdling story of emotional manipulation and physical neglect. In the process she also tells the tale of the best gift of childhood -- almost limitless resilience. Walls' earliest memory is of being horribly burned while cooking hot dogs on a gas stove. Mom believed that children should be self-sufficient, even three-year-olds in fluffy nylon dresses.
Little Jeannette spends six weeks in the hospital enjoying regular meals and clean sheets for the first time in her life. Her noisy parents visit occasionally to harass the doctors with their breathtakingly self-assured views on the benefits of infection in the healing process and the corrupting influence of "med-school quacks."
Before she is completely healed, Jeannette's father whips her out of bed and carries her back to the filthy family trailer. The family then "does the skedaddle" to avoid the hospital bills and social services questions.
The family beats around the west for ten years, skedaddling from a San Francisco flophouse to cheap shacks and trailers in the desert southwest. Dad is a self-educated dreamer, an inventor and a rebel. Mom fancies herself an artist and a writer. Neither parent puts much value on earning a living or keeping house.
When there is nothing to eat but pilfered lettuce, Mom celebrates the nourishing fiber. When the children's thrift store clothes become torn and threadbare, Mom praises their coolness. Among her many favorite sayings, are "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and "I'm an excitement addict."
Dad does research on the Mafia at the local bars. He has what Mom calls "a drinking issue."
The kids romp around the desert collecting pets, rocks and stories. They scrounge chocolate out of dumpsters, collect bottles, wash their clothes when they can, all the while reading incessantly.
Mom and Dad home teach the kids when there is no school nearby. When he's sober, Dad lectures them about geology, astronomy, biology and his own warped brand of history. Jeannette, in particular, adores him.
Mom has a teaching degree, but she hates working and won't sell her family's valuable land because, "My Dad always said, 'never sell the real estate.' "
It's almost fun when the kids are little. There is no money for Christmas presents so Dad takes each child out into the desert and gives them a star. Lori picks Betelgeuse, Brian picks Rigel, and Jeannette picks Venus. It's a planet, but Dad allows it because it's Christmas.
The Walls have two fairly stable periods. In Phoenix it takes them a year or so to run through an inheritance. When they must skedaddle again, Mom insists that the family move in with Dad's drunken parents in a dreadful place called Welch, West Virginia.
It is in Welch that the children grow old enough to realize just how warped their parents' view of the world is. Dad steals the kids' hard earned money to go on benders and Mom refuses to work.
When the outhouse becomes unusable, Jeanette faces down her mother. "Something has to be done," she says. Mom agrees. She buys a yellow plastic bucket.
Jeannette and her brother try to bring order to the chaos. They dig the foundation for the glass castle that Dad has promised to build. It ends up filled with garbage because no one ever pays the trash pick-up fees.
If the Walls children were normal, they would have dropped out of school, descended into lives of alcoholism or drug abuse. But they are not normal. Just as their mother predicted, their suffering has made them strong. They have learned to do what is necessary to get on in the world. In spite of their parents' thousand sins of neglect and selfishness, they have endowed their children with a love of learning and a sense of themselves as superior people.
The neighborhood kids bully them in school, calling them "garbage," but as long as their Mom and Dad think they're brilliant and beautiful, the Walls children are OK.
They finally escape, one after the other, to New York City, where they make good. Jeannette puts herself through Barnard and becomes a writer, specializing in celebrity gossip. Of course Mom and Dad follow the kids to the Big Apple. "We want to be a family again." They become street people. Mom calls it an adventure. The kids try to help, the parents won't accept it.
"I want to give you something," Jeannette tells her mother. "I could use an electrolysis treatment. When you look good you feel good."
Walls' story is thoroughly engaging. She remembers her upbringing without sentiment or passion. The book would not be nearly as good as it is if she had allowed self-pity to intrude. Neither does she feel sorry for her parents, in the end. They could have chosen any life they liked. This memoir shows clearly that they lived exactly the life they chose. There may be a bit of Stockholm Syndrome at work in Walls' attitude about her parents. She praises them in the acknowledgement as people of talent, creativity and "big dreams."
She bravely insists that her brother and sisters all had their own dreams come true, in part because of their parents' sometimes crack-brained lessons in independence and belief in self. It is even possible to see in the privations of the Walls children a lesson to the parents of over-pampered little poopsies who blunder their ways through childhood, their parents making excuses for their every error and worrying about damaging their egos with too much critisism.
It is the final irony of this memoir that Rex and Mary Rose Walls taught their children to "dream big" and that their children made those dreams come true.
Meanwhile, not one of the parents' big dreams evercome to fruition. Like the Glass Castle of the book's name, they could only build castles in the air.
By Jeannette Walls
304 pages, $25
Pat York is a novelist living in Western New York.