Jeannette Walls spends most of her time digging up dirt on other people's lives. As the gossip columnist for MSNBC.com, Walls tracks down the latest rumors about Britney Spears' marriage, Michael Jackson's peccadilloes and the latest target on the PETA hit list.
But her road to celebrity gossip columnist was tougher than any angry call she'd ever received from an enraged publicist. In her autobiography, released this week by Scribner, Walls reveals a sad and sometimes tragic childhood that few but her closest friends knew about.
In the opening pages of “The Glass Castle,” Walls recalls watching someone else do a little digging — her mother, searching through a garbage dumpster in lower Manhattan. Walls wastes little time unveiling the dichotomy that is her life — a high-profile Park Avenue reporter with a unconventional and often tragic past that followed her from the hollows of West Virginia to Manhattan.
“The Glass Castle” is a no-holds barred tale of a nomadic, deprived childhood told with the hypnotic wonderment of a child who always wants to believe that Daddy will be a hero in the end and that Momma really does know best. You are enrapt reading about Walls and her siblings rifling through trash cans at school looking for food, doing the skedaddle in the middle of the night, or waiting for Dad to come home after another bender. It's a riveting story and a testament to Walls' indomitable desire to rise above a life that could have easily turned her into just another tragic headline.
“I started it before and every time I ended up throwing it away,” Walls said. With encouragement from her husband, writer John Taylor, she finally decided to tell the tale. “Writing this story was a little like diving off the high dive — once you’re up there you just have to do it," she says.
But even after completing the book, Walls still had some trepidation about how it would be received, by the public, her colleagues and most especially her family.
“I feel like ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’,” Walls said. “I found out that people are incredibly compassionate and kind. It really changed my view of the world.”
From her family, the reviews are mixed. Her brother Brian was very supportive. “He has a steel trap memory so he was good for bouncing things off of,” Walls said.
Walls' father is deceased now, but her mother has loved the publicity.
Walls tells the story from the point of view of herself as a child, recalling the events as she saw them at each respective age. Scavenger hunts in the desert and late-night escapes from the family's latest town are treated as adventures.
She jumps right in, opening Chapter 2 with a chilling quote: “I was on fire.” Just 3 years old Walls watched flames inch up from the hem of her favorite pink dress as she tried to make herself a hot dog.
When asked by the nurses at the hospital why a 3-year-old was cooking, the injured child responds, “Mom says I'm mature for my age and she lets me cook for myself a lot.” She passes no judgment on a mother who was so consumed with her latest painting she couldn't be bothered to cook for her child.
To say that Walls' parents were not Ozzie and Harriet would be putting it mildly. Rex Walls was an alcoholic who felt that a mundane life was too constraining for him, but whose big dreams never seemed to come to fruition. The title of the book refers to a great glass house that he was going to build once he made his fortune. Yet despite his all-too-human flaws, Walls never turns him into a monster, rather seeing him as a man she loved and admired while being profoundly disappointed by him.
Her mother, Rose Mary, is a woman who marches to a different drum. A frustrated artist who was not cut out to be the doting mother of four, she hoarded candy bars while her children starved and wouldn't dream of pulling herself away from her art to take a run-of-the-mill job. Later in life, after her children had left her, she was content to live as a squatter in New York, refusing the help of Walls and her siblings.
As the story progresses and an older Walls sees how the world views her and her family, her rose-colored glasses come off. After years of roaming around the desert Southwest, the family eventually moves to their father's family home in Welch, West Virginia. Unhappy about returning to a place he initially escaped, Rex sinks deeper into alcoholism as her Rose Mary retreats further into her own world. The children, now entering their teen years, suffer physical and sexual abuse at the hand of their paternal grandmother and ostracism from the folk of the town.
Longing for a better life, at just 17, Walls moves to New York to live with her older sister. She worked part-time jobs to support herself before being admitted to Barnard.
A fledgling journalist since her start on her high school paper in West Virginia, Walls took a gopher job at New York Magazine during college. From there she moved to the business section, before heading to USA Today as a news reporter. She was lured back to New York Magazine, however, to take over its gossip column.
“I was a little insulted at first,” Walls said. “I always wanted to be a serious journalist. But I just loved [gossip]. It was such a departure from just taking the news that was fed to you.”
She would go on to do a gossip column for Esquire magazine before leaving to write “Dish,” a book about the hard-scrabble world of gossip. While working on the book, she heard that MSNBC.com was looking for an online gossip columnist and, in 1999, took her talents to the World Wide Web. But although she's written hundreds of columns, telling her own story was different.
“I was in control of what people thought of me, but I had no control over what they thought of my mother,” Walls said. “When I asked my mother, ‘how do I tell people about you’ her answer was ‘tell the truth’. But of course, the truth is never simple.”
Denise Hazlick is MSNBC.com's Lead Entertainment Editor