Celeb Writer Reconciles With Humble Past

Jeannette Walls has been described as the entertainment reporter with her own movie star looks. She has been a writer for New York magazine and Esquire, and she and her husband, writer John Taylor, are regarded as one of New York's power couples.

Walls travels effortlessly among the glitterati and during her career has shared some of their secrets with the world. But for years she also held a dramatic secret of her own: that she grew up very different from the people she now works and socializes with.

Her mother once lived on the streets and in abandoned buildings, and Walls' childhood was nomadic and poverty-stricken.

"I really believed that if people knew the truth about me, that I would be a pariah," Walls told ABC News' John QuiƱones. "It's something that I just fought very hard to keep secret."

One night, Walls was in a taxi going to a fancy party. "I looked out the window and I saw my mother. She was rooting through a Dumpster, and I was so ashamed I ducked into the back of the taxi so that she wouldn't see me," she said.

Walls went home later that evening, hating what she had become. "I looked in the mirror and I thought, 'What has happened to me?'"

Like the Indians

Despite the shame she had, Walls says her early childhood was happy, and at the time, she didn't think of her family as homeless.

"We slept out in the desert. We slept in the mountains. We might have been called homeless because we didn't have a home, but I would have never thought of us that way. We lived in our car, we lived wherever we could," she said.

Walls' parents, Rex and Rose Mary, were both unconventional, somewhat eccentric souls who cherished freedom. Rose Mary, college-educated, had a passion for excitement and painting. Rex was a self-taught, "brilliant" man, Walls said -- who also had a penchant for the bottle.

There are times their family -- which eventually grew to six -- slept in cardboard boxes, but she thought it was "cool," Walls said. "My mother told me it was an adventure and I believed her," she said.

When they slept without pillows, her father would tell her she would have good posture, "like the Indians. ... All of our disadvantages were turned into advantages by them and I completely bought into it," Walls said. "It's what got me through."

They bounced through innumerable towns throughout the West -- from Las Vegas to Midland, Calif. -- usually moving when the bill collectors came for her parents, she said with a laugh. "We were nomads," Walls said.

"One time my sister and I tried to count them up but we lost track. I can't remember the names of all the towns."

A Tough Period

The family eventually returned to Rex Wall's hometown. Welch, W.Va., a down-at-the-heels Appalachian mining town. Walls was 10.

It was a tough period. "We were the poorest people in a very poor town. And I think that people who are down and out are always looking for somebody to look down on, and we were the ones," Walls said.

They lived in a little three-room house. It didn't have indoor plumbing. And although it was wired, the electricity was usually turned off because the bills hadn't been paid. Running water was also a rarity. The family used rainwater caught in a bucket.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...