Jeannette Walls' first memory is of when she was 3, standing on a chair and cooking hot dogs on a stove because her mother, who considered herself an artist, was too busy painting. The tutu Jeannette was wearing caught fire, severely burning her torso. She ended up in a hospital for six weeks until her alcoholic father, Rex, sneaked her out without paying.
Jeannette Walls will be here Oct. 23 as part of IPFW's Omnibus Lecture Series. She is the author of "The Glass Castle," a harrowing memoir of her upbringing with two irresponsible yet loving parents and three siblings.
"It was very grim," Walls said in a phone interview of her childhood, particularly the years the family lived in Welch, W.Va., in a house with no heat or indoor plumbing. "I did tone (the memoir) down a bit. I was hungry a lot. I was filthy."
Although West Virginia is often singled out for its poverty, "it was not West Virginia's fault," Walls said. "We would have been white trash anywhere."
In fact the family spent several years going from place to place in the Southwest before they moved to Rex Wall's hometown of Welch.
Living conditions got worse there as Rex's alcoholism worsened; he would sometimes take the family's grocery money, leaving them with no food and no money to buy any. In one of Jeannette's recollections in the book, she writes about discovering her mother hiding a candy bar for herself while her children went hungry.
Yet as irresponsible as her parents were, they also were bright, and instilled in their children a love of reading and the idea that they could be whoever they wanted to be. Jeannette calls that "an astonishing gift. There were some tough times, but I never doubted I would make it. I never doubted I would go to school."
And she did. She followed her older sister to New York City, and through scholarships and loans managed to put herself through college. Jeannette become a renowned columnist for New York magazine and MSNBC.com. She lived on Park Avenue and covered celebrity news, often appearing on the red carpet at events.
Her life shifted the night she was in a taxi going to an event and spotted her mother, Rose Mary, rooting around in a trash bin. Her parents had followed their children to New York City and were living as squatters.
Terrified her mother would see her in the taxi and call to her, Jeannette scrunched down in the seat and asked the taxi driver to return her home. She had kept her upbringing a secret and was terrified her New York friends would find out the truth about her impoverished childhood.
A few days later Jeannette met her mother at a restaurant and admitted she was deeply ashamed of her parents, who wouldn't let her help them even though she had the money. When she asked her mother what she was supposed to tell her friends, Rose Mary told her to just tell the truth. And so she did.
The result was "The Glass Castle," which has sold 3.5 million copies. Writing the book freed her from the irony of exposing celebrities' secrets while harboring one of her own. "It completely defanged me," she said of writing the book. "I didn't want to write mean things about celebrities anymore."
Rex Walls died in 1994 of a heart attack, but Rose Mary, at 79, is living in a separate house on Jeannette and her husband's Virginia farm. Jeannette harbors no ill will toward her mother despite the fact she was "never a source of solace or protection to me," Jeannette said.
"Even to this day my mother is just not focused on me," she said. "I could be bitter and angry and resentful of it."
But she's not. "I'm a pragmatist," she said. "I realized early on this woman will not take care of me."
As for her father, "I wanted nothing more in the world than for him to stop drinking," she said, but she realized "I can only fix myself; I can't fix him."
She doesn't describe her feelings toward her parents as forgiveness, but rather acceptance. She says her mother is still "a complete slob." Jeannette gets frustrated with her mother's behavior sometimes, but says, "I've got to remember this is who she is."
She stops short of saying her mother is mentally ill, but said, "Certainly she has what we would call a disorder. She certainly doesn't fit into society's norms."
Rose Mary leaves her doors wide open, Jeannette said, and recently an opossum got into her house. "She loves all critters," Jeannette said of her mother. "I think she has great gifts to offer. She gave me a sense of optimism, a sense of joy in the world."
Jeannette said her mother is "strong as an ox," swims in the pond on the farm and rides horses. Jeannette and her husband look in on her twice a day.
Since "The Glass Castle," Jeannette has written two more books, "Half Broke Horses," a novel based loosely on her maternal grandmother, and "The Silver Star," a novel about two young sisters who fend for themselves after their mother takes off and leaves them alone and unsupervised.
Jeannette says she lives a "blessed life," and believes she's one of the luckiest people in the world.
"There's nothing about my childhood I regret," she said, "but you couldn't pay me to relive it."