As parents, we all want to raise good, strong kids — kids who are resilient, and can face life with courage and tenacity. That pressure can leave most of us feeling like we have to be the ideal role models for our children at all times, and somehow create picture-perfect lives for them.
But you don’t have to be a perfect parent in order to raise resilient kids; at least according to New York Times best-selling author Jeannette Walls.
Walls is the author of The Glass Castle, a memoir based on her unconventional and often harrowing childhood. The book resonated so deeply with readers when it was first released back in 2005, that it was recently adapted for the screen, starring Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, and Woody Harrelson, and opening nationwide August 11.
At a small press conference held for the movie earlier this week, Walls opened up about the making of the movie, as well as the deeply emotional subject matter at the heart of her story. Watching Larson, Harrelson, and Watts bring her family to life onscreen was as evocative as it was mesmerizing.
“They’re fearless about the way they surround somebody psychologically and then just own it,” she shared. “And it just is stunning to watch these people transform themselves into somebody else and it just took my breath away.”
Walls was born in Tucson, Arizona, though her nomadic and often chaotic childhood brought her to live in temporary homes across the U.S., as the family bounced from San Francisco to Nevada to West Virginia, with brief stints of homelessness scattered in between. Her father Rex, played by Woody Harrelson, was an alcoholic who would often use the family’s limited monetary resources to go out and get drunk instead of putting food on the table. And while it may be decades in the rear-view now, Walls doesn’t pull any punches when she describes the abuse, neglect, and dysfunction that she and her siblings endured.
“He’s this contradiction, and he nailed it,” Walls said of Harrelson’s nuanced portrayal of her father. “And you know, sometimes the fear and the bravado, but also the neediness in his face [just comes through], you know? And he was irresistible. He’d do these awful things and you still kind of forgave him.”
And yet, as painful as Walls’ childhood was, she never forgets to mention the joy she felt growing up, and the important life lessons her creative, free-spirited parents imparted onto her. She also praises the film’s writers and director for letting the complexity of her childhood come through.
“They didn’t gloss over the weird, ugly stuff, but they also didn’t ignore the joy,” said Walls. “I mean, it was just like, it was raw and there was pain and there was joy and there was agony and there was hurt and there was redemption and it’s all of those things.”
I will tell you after seeing it for myself, there are moments in the film that are dark. Rex’s violence, abuse, and emotional manipulation often feels so traumatizing that it’s hard to understand how Walls could forgive her father to the extent that she now appears to.
But when you hear Walls talk about her life, you really do get the sense that she’s able to embrace both the pain of it all (calling herself a “survivor”) as well as the vital lessons her difficult childhood taught her.
“A lot of people say, ‘How could you forgive your parents?'” she shared. “And the person I had to forgive was myself, because we who pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and have to make some tough choices to get by, I think of myself as selfish.”
Walls isn’t the only one who seems to have absorbed this truth. Brie Larson plays Walls as she comes of age and finally breaks free from her past, starting a new life for herself in New York as a writer. (Fun fact: Walls was a actually successful gossip columnist before she became a bestselling author!) Speaking with Babble, Larson had her own thought-provoking things to say about what the movie taught her about life and overcoming childhood trauma.
“What I keep coming back to when I watch the film is that we’re really resilient,” shared Larson. “We are all survivors in our own way and we need to grasp that and own that and know that we’re way stronger than we give ourselves credit for.”
It is this very message — “we are stronger than we think we are” — that Walls ultimately wants to impart on anyone who reads her book or sees that movie.
“We’re all a little dinged up,” said Walls. “We all have issues from our past, but I think the trick is not pretending that you don’t have those issues. It’s kind of owning them.”
Amen to that.
And Walls seems to be doing just that. When you meet her, she strength and wisdom, despite the very difficult cards she was dealt early in life. It’s no wonder that people from all walks of life come up to her on a regular basis to tell her just how deeply they can relate to her story, and its message.
“When one person tells a story, it opens up other people to tell stories,” she shares, “And that, to me, is why we tell our stories. There are so many people who come up to me and say, ‘The details of our lives are different, but you and I have a lot in common.'”
Let me just warn you now, though: The Glass Castle is a real tear-jerker. Whether or not your story is similar to Walls’, I’m pretty sure there’s no one on Earth who had a perfect childhood — and that is the very crux of why The Glass Castle seems to affect so many of us on such a deep, almost primal level.
But ultimately, it’s a story of hope. Witnessing the many ways in which Walls managed to find beauty in life, despite its moments of darkness — and come out the other side an actual heroine — is totally badass and absolutely inspiring.
And apparently, watching her story play out onscreen was just as inspiring for Walls, as well. In fact, it was downright transformative.
“I loved her,” Walls said of Larson’s portrayal, “and was rooting for her in a way that I never loved or rooted for myself.”