Saturday, February 12, 2011

Jeannette Walls-Surviving the Dumpster

Her Guilford College Lecture

By Lynne Brandon

Greensboro, NC - When the statuesque woman with a Julia Roberts-like figure strode across the stage it would be hard to believe that this glamorous, successful author ate out of trashcans as a child. Tall, dressed in black and wearing pearls, Jeanette Walls, lives an existence that is light years away from a childhood full of hard scrapple living, heartache and dumpster diving. A picture of success today, Walls delivered a message about following your dream. For her, the journey was propelled by perseverance and tenacity.

“I’m just a woman with a weird past,” said Walls, an optimist who downplays the tough times that she lived through. Appearing as part of Guilford College’s Bryan Series which has included recent experiences by Bill Clinton, Walls admitted to the packed-house audience the irony of talking about a past that once caused her shame. She came out of the closet, as she describes facing her past, when her husband, John Taylor, urged her to come clean about her life story, which by all accounts then was full of holes.

An unexpected event also prompted a look at the life she had carefully packed away. One night, dressed in designer duds in a taxi on her way to a celebrity function, the successful print and broadcast journalist, knew was living the “good life.” She noticed a homeless woman rooting around in a dumpster and as the taxi stopped at a light she noticed with horror that the woman was her own mother. Walls was so upset that she went back to her home on Park Avenue. She looked in the mirror knowing she couldn’t run anymore. “I thought I could divorce myself from the past, but you can’t” said Walls.

She stared her demons down by penning a memoir, “Glass Castles,” which perched for 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The book remains a favorite of book clubs where heated discussions ensue about the nomadic Walls family, and is a popular choice by educators in psychology and sociology classes. “I did not set out to write about the ‘glass castle’ which is what my father always promised us, but I had to be honest,” said Walls. “I wanted to write about the nice New York years but I was pushed to write about the days of eating out of trash cans,” The writing, she added, came fast and was completed in six weeks. The rewrites took five years.

Many life lessons were learned along the rocky road to normalcy. Everything in life can be both a blessing and a curse, the author said. It is how you look at it a situation that determines your life. “I have learned that difficulties don’t have to define you, and [know] the difference between a need and a want,” said Walls.

Today, Walls’ mother lives with her and the two enjoy a peaceful existence made possible by forgiving the past. Living up to reviewer’s observations about memoir mania when “dysfunctional families are packed with eccentrics,” Walls wrote a second memoir, “Half Broke Horses,” about her strong-willed, gun totting granny and her life on a farm.

Will there be a third book? Perhaps a novel? We don’t know yet. But the struggle to face her past with dignity she justly earned and her genuine need to share her stories suggests a motivation to do good through writing stories. That night before an enthusiastic crowd, the unspoken wish was for another book soon by Jeannette Walls. After all, great storytellers are in short supply

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