Award-winning author Jeannette Walls shared a story of optimism and triumph at the third annual Power of the Purse fundraising luncheon on March 24, organized and sponsored by Scotiabank.
Before a full ballroom at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, Ms. Walls told a tale of transformation from an often difficult childhood to an internationally acclaimed writing career.
Her New York Times best-selling memoir, “The Glass Castle,” is currently being adapted for film. Her other works include “Half Broke Horses” and “The Silver Star.”
Ms. Walls discussed her storytelling experience with the Cayman Compass and reflected on the importance of fundraising. Proceeds from the event benefited the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre.
Weekender: What is your message for the Power of the Purse luncheon?
Jeannette Walls: This organization does amazing work trying to help people who are disadvantaged and trying to change their lives. So much of that can be done through the power of the purse. In thinking about the whole concept of the power of the purse, money, like anything, is just a tool. So the question is using it wisely.
I think one of the reasons the folks here asked me to speak is because I had such a peculiar childhood myself. We were destitute, often homeless, being chased by the law. But there was always hope, always a belief in ourselves and a belief that we would get out one day. But all the belief in the world does not do anything until you have the tools. I think that was one of the things that this event is about, is bringing together the people who need the help, the tools, and people who can supply some of those tools. Together we can bring out the hope.
Weekender: Could you speak to the international significance of “The Glass Castle?”
Jeannette Walls: My story is not unique. It’s bizarre but it’s not unique …. When people read my story or hear my story, what I hope is that they’re not thinking about me, but that they’re thinking about themselves. We all face challenges. We all have obstacles in our lives. One of my messages is that we do have this choice, whether you come from a rich background or a poor background, to make the smart choices, to focus on the positive rather than the negative.
Some people who’ve read my story think it’s tragic and horrifying. Some people think it’s uplifting and inspirational …. [I’ve heard people say], this story could only happen in America, where you completely remake yourself. But that was not true. I believe we all have that choice.
The book has been a big hit in Brazil and Germany. I think it has a universal message to it. One of the lessons that I keep learning is that we have so much more in common than we realize. We come from different countries and have different backgrounds and different accents and dress differently. But once we get past those facades, we all have the same fears and desires. We all want to feel safe and loved.
Weekender: What would you like people to take away from your presentation?
Jeannette Walls: It is to face your challenges, to meet them head on, to not run from the things that scare you …. I’ve come to believe that these demons and fears we all have – thinking that we’re inadequate or that we’re weird – you confront those. I believe the worst experience in the world has a valuable gift inside. The things that we like the least about ourselves are often the best things we have going for us. If you run from these fears and these dark places, then you will always be on the run.
Weekender: I understand there is a “Glass Castle” movie in the works.
Jeannette Walls: Yes. They’re putting the finishing touches on it right now and it will probably be released later this year …. It has been nothing but wonderful. So many authors I know say it was the worst experience of their lives having their books turned into movies. It’s been one of the most beautiful for me. As a writer, I am so fascinated by emotions and storytelling. These actors and directors, that was what they do as well. It’s storytelling. The actors in particular, their understanding of emotion, just blows me away. As a former journalist, I really believe in the power of the written word. But wow, the power of visuals is just amazing.
Nothing is all good or all bad, and they were so smart about getting the nuances of character, of people who are good but damaged.
Weekender: You’ve had a real opportunity to present your story.
Jeannette Walls: Yeah, and to make people think differently about things. People have come up and told me that after having listened to my talk or read my book, they decided to speak to their mother who they had not spoken with in 20 years, or they have decided to go into social work.
One woman told me that after reading my book, she changed plans to kill herself. If storytelling can do that, then I am a very lucky person to be in this role.
Often we are our own worst critics. You berate yourself for all of these awful things that happened to you and then you read it and see it happened to someone else. You’re more able to forgive that person than you are yourself …. Storytelling has an incredible power to change the way people think about life.
Weekender: Did you feel any vulnerability putting your own story out there?
Jeannette Walls: Yes, I was terrified. I thought, people are going to think I’m weird. People are going to ostracize me. I was completely convinced it was going to be the end of my career, but I was just tired of living a lie. It’s been a real eye opener for me. Sometimes I’ll come to events like this one and some fabulous looking woman dressed to the nines will come and up and say, honey, you and I could have been sisters, I had the same childhood.
It’s a lesson I continue to learn, not to judge people based on appearances, not to jump to conclusions about anybody. We all have a story. If telling my story helps people come to terms with their stories, that was why I’m here.
Weekender: What was the transition like from journalism and telling other people’s stories to telling your own?
Jeannette Walls: It was the hypocrisy of hiding my own story while I was telling other people’s. It did not escape me.
The first version I wrote in six weeks when I finally did sit down and wrote “The Glass Castle.” Then it took me five years of rewriting to get it right. The first version I wrote was almost in journalese. It was very detached …. I had to get inside the characters, so I chose to write it as a child experiencing the events rather than looking back. It’s an entirely different kind of writing.
I do not talk about these things and I think that was very common for people who face challenges. They don’t talk about it. They just internalize it and don’t want people to know. Being forced to spell out how I survived, it was very shameful. The ironic thing is, once you write these things down, you’re not ashamed of them anymore. You own them. It’s a fascinating process.
A very wise person told me, secrets are like vampires. They suck the life out of you but they can exist only in the darkness. Once they are exposed to light, there is a moment of horror but then, poof, they lose their power over you …. That’s one of the reasons I encourage people to confront their demons because I think we all have demons. If you pretend they do not exist, it takes a lot of energy. If you can confront these things, it’s very emancipating.