Breaking down Walls Moravian Manor brings best-selling author to county
MELISSA HUNNEFIELD Record Express Staff
, Staff Writer
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
So begins “The Glass Castle,” Jeannette Walls’ memoir full of painful moments that make readers cringe, humor that has us nodding along in agreement, and tender recollections that tug at our hearts.
Walls and her three siblings were raised in poverty. They traveled the American southwest – and later to West Virginia – with their college educated but chronically disorganized mother and their alcoholic father with big dreams. Neither held a job with any regularity, and thus their homes were rarely heated or had electricity, nor were the children well-fed.
Through her own hard work and savings, Walls moved to New York at age 17 and graduated in 1984 with honors from Barnard College. Eventually, she became a well-known writer for New York Magazine and MSNBC.com, as well as a television personality.
The story of how Jeannette and her siblings came of age and rose above their challenging childhood has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for four years, having sold 2.5 million copies.
Walls visited Lancaster County on Sept. 23 as a guest of Moravian Manor Retirement Community. She spoke to a sell-out crowd in the Commonwealth Ballroom of the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square as part of Moravian Manor’s Engaging Community Program. Funds raised by the dinner went toward Moravian Manor’s Senior Care Ministry.
Recently lauded for bringing together gifted high schoolers and seniors to discuss everything from politics to philosophy in their Socrates Café sessions, Moravian Manor is no stranger to providing intellectual stimulation to the local population.
The series began three years ago with John Hofmeister, former vice president of Shell Oil, and followed up with Frank Abagnale of “Catch Me If You Can” fame, an expert on embezzlement and forgery who advised financial institutions, corporations, and government agencies for over 30 years.
One of Moravian Manor’s goals in holding Engaging Community is to build community focus with a program that provides education and inspiration as well as entertainment.
J. David Swartley, President and CEO of Moravian Manor, commented on the decision to have Walls be this year’s guest speaker.
“Jeannette Walls’ story is incredibly inspiring I personally have been profoundly affected by the stories of others . . . serving as the CEO of Moravian Manor, I have had the privilege to hear many life stories from our residents.” Swartley said. “There is richness and learning that comes from sharing our story. Initially, Jeannette’s story was one she chose to hide. Fortunately she made the decision to tell her story. Hopefully, this will encourage others to share from their life experiences as well so we can all learn and be encouraged by each other.”
Walls’ tale encouraged a capacity crowd at the event, the audience of which included all levels of dress from denim to corporate to pearls.
“It’s amazing how one woman’s story can resonate with so many different types of people,” said Bonnie Swarr, of Manheim, at the event, “and we’re all here because it resonates with all of us.”
Walls, 53, a statuesque redhead, spoke to the crowd of nearly 400 with the same confident voice in which she wrote her memoir. She admitted that it took her some time to come to terms with her childhood demon, but once she “put a harness on her demon and put it to work for her,” the story – and the healing – began.
Walls’ book has been used to teach a variety of classes focused on topics ranging from psychology to parenting, child development and poverty. It’s been utilized in high school and college classrooms in lieu of stuffier works by Charles Dickens.
“Dickens just isn’t reaching them,” Walls said of most students, but few readers have failed to find something to relate to in her story full of tragedy and humorous recollections. Mostly, Walls claims, her memoir helps to demystify poverty and break down the walls that separate social classes.
The book’s title comes from a story Jeannette’s father often told the Walls children when they were young.
“When Dad wasn’t telling us about all the amazing things he had already done, he was telling us about the wondrous things he was going to do. Like build the Glass Castle,” Walls recounts, “a great big house he was going to build for us in the desert. He carried around the blueprints for the Glass Castle wherever we went, and sometimes he’d pull them out and let us work on the design for our rooms. All we had to do was find gold, Dad said. Once we struck it rich, he’d start work on our Glass Castle.”
Since the publication of her memoir, Walls has endured hearing her parents criticized in countless ways. Yet, she defends them for one simple reason.
“My parents gave me my dream,” Walls said. “Learning to navigate life’s obstacles is a gift. You can’t change your past, but you can change your future.”
Her misguided but loving parents gave her the best gift they possibly could – hope.
Walls’ story will soon touch countless others on the big screen. Lionsgate bought the film rights to the book, and in March 2013 announced that actress Jennifer Lawrence would play Walls in the movie adaptation.
Walls’ father passed away in 1994, but her mother, by choice, continues to live an itinerant life. Endearing and maddening, Walls’ mom gave her some of the most practical advice she’d ever received:
“Things always work out in the end, Jeannette,” Rosemary Walls said. “If they don’t, it just means it’s not the end yet.”
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