March 15, 2005 — -- Jeannette Walls has reported for years on the movers and shakers in the most powerful city in the world. It's a world she knows from the inside. With her husband, John Taylor, a successful novelist, they have been called a New York power couple.
But for years, Walls hid the fact that she had a much humbler upbringing than many of the people she now associates with. Now her secret is out -- in her memoir, "The Glass Castle."
She answered questions about her new book and her life for the ABCNEWS.com audience.
1. Loye Smith, of Jefferson City, Tenn., writes:
How did you support yourself when you first went to New York? How did you get accepted to an Ivy League school, and how did you pay college expenses and support yourself? You have a wonderful, amazing and inspiring story. Thank you.
Why, thank you so much for your kind words. I got a job at a burger joint the day after I arrived in New York. My sister and I shared an apartment in a not terribly nice -- but very cheap -- section of the Bronx, and when my brother joined us a year later, he lived there too, so we split the rent three ways. I finished high school during the day, worked evenings and weekends, and our expenses weren't that high. While I was in high school, I got an internship at a local paper in Brooklyn, and they hired me after I graduated. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven, but eventually the editor of the paper took me aside and told me that I really should go to college. One of the things about my parents is that they always emphasized reading and learning, so I didn't have any trouble with the admissions tests. I covered tuition with grants and loans and scholarships; I arranged all my classes into three days and worked the other four days to support myself; I also moved into the maid's room of a big Upper West Side apartment and looked after a woman's two children in exchange for the room. I was able to piece together enough for each year, until my senior year, when I was $1,000 short. I thought I was going to have to drop out. But then my father somehow came up with the money. He and mom had moved to New York City while I was in college, and they were living on the street at the time. I told him I couldn't take his money, and he said there was no way that his daughter was going to drop out of college.
2. Virginia Carter, of Lexington, Ky., writes:
What has happened to your siblings? Did their lives turn out as well as yours? You are amazing!
My older sister achieved her dream of being an artist. She's an illustrator living in Manhattan. My brother Brian, who you saw in the segment, also achieved his dream of becoming a police officer. He actually retired a few years ago and he's enrolled in college and studying to become a teacher. My kid sister, who was the great beauty and the most sensitive of us kids, hit a rough patch. We're working on getting her back on track.
3. David Benway, of Kingston, Mass., writes:
I was wondering if you ever considered getting some of your mother's paintings into an art gallery or is she not open to that? Would she be open to selling any paintings? Also, I'm really glad that you're living out the life of your dreams. Venus is definitely yours!
What a lovely thing to say! Thanks so much. Mom has shown a couple of her paintings before, but she's never had her own gallery show before. It looks like all the attention that the book has generated might make that happen. That would be just too wonderful for words.
4. Pam Webb, of Lawrenceville, Ga., writes:
I teach in a middle school which is almost 80 percent poverty. We try to give our students the things needed to succeed … but many of them don't even plan on attending college. What is the one piece of advice that I can give my faculty to help these students achieve success in the future?
Hi Pam. My husband's sister teaches in Lawrenceville. First, I'd like to say how much I admire you and all teachers who care about their students. Honestly, I think that a good teacher can change a student's life. I know that there's only so much a teacher can do, but so often that something makes all the difference. I was named after one of my father's teachers -- he said she was the first person who really believed in him. And then when my family moved to Welch, W.Va., she was my teacher, too. My advice to anyone is to figure out what you're good at -- what it is that you love doing the most in life -- and figure out a way to make a living from it. It might be fixing things, caring for people, finding out information, cooking, whatever. Even if it's a field where there aren't a lot of job opportunities -- say fashion or sports -- you can have a career in a related field, perhaps as a clothing store owner or a gym teacher. I believe that everyone has some huge talent in them; the really lucky ones discover what it is. But the students have to believe in themselves. That's not always easy if they've got a tough situation at home -- I was lucky because, despite our circumstances, my parents believed in me -- but the human spirit can be very resilient.
5. Janice Scherman, of Welch, W.Va., writes:
I have to tell you, the hair on the back of my neck is standing up!!! I don't know when you left the area, but Welch used to be a great place when I was a kid. What is your favorite memory of growing up there?
Hi Janice! I wonder if we bumped into each other in Welch. I was a bit of a tomboy and my brother, his best friend, Jack Renko, and I used to go exploring up around Wilson farm. I also used to love to go swinging on wild grape vines on the hillside beneath our house. When I got a little older, I started writing for the high school newspaper, The Maroon Wave, and that's when I fell in love with journalism.
6. Joe Stimac, of Ellington, Conn., writes:
Your story is absolutely amazing and inspiring. Have you thought about turning it into a movie?
There definitely has been some movie interest, but no deal has been signed. The Hollywood Reporter did something alerting movie makers about my memoir, saying that it was "catnip for serious actors looking to play charismatic scoundrels." That really made me chuckle.
7. Venus Branson, of Bullhead City, Ariz., writes:
I was inspired by your story of rising up from such struggle. But more than that, I was more amazed at what your parents had given you in terms of love and self confidence. As a mother of two young girls, what where the most valuable lessons your parents taught you as a child and how did they go about doing so?
I'm so glad that came across! I originally wrote "The Glass Castle" as an homage to my parents -- even though there are some passages where they come across as rather flawed. It's been interesting to see how people react to them; some think they were wonderful, some see them as unfit parents. They did a lot to help me believe in myself, but there's one incident in particular that I wrote about that stands out. When I was very young and I thought I heard a monster under my bed, but instead of telling me there were no such thing as monsters -- which wouldn't have made me feel any safer -- Dad and I got weapons and went out looking for the monster. He called it Demon Hunting. He said that demons like to scare people but in face-to-face combat, they're big cowards. It was a metaphor, of course, for confronting your own fears. It breaks my heart that dad wasn't able to conquer all of his own demons, but he did raise some fairly fearless kids. Though it's ironic that it took me this long to face the truth -- which once I confronted it wasn't really scary at all. (P.S. I love your name.)
8. Cindy C., of Kelso, Wash., writes:
If I could change anything, it would be that I wish my parents could have taught me love the way yours did. I had to learn that on my own, mother to son. My question to you is this: If you could change but ONE thing in your former years, what would it be?
That my father didn't drink.
9. Debbie Teubert, of Irvine, Calif., writes:
First of all, I have to comment that your life-loving, positive attitude is absolutely refreshing. What worries me is that, I might not have recognized you (or your brother) as kids in need. You are probably sensitive to those signs. What are some of those signs? Would you have wanted any "outside" assistance? And if so, how would you TODAY approach a kid in the same situation? I wouldn't want to offend or interfere with the parents either.
That is such an interesting, intelligent, sensitive question -- and I'm not sure how to answer it. I'm not certain that some well-meaning person's interference would have helped. I honestly don't know. The times I was most insulted when I was growing up were when someone called us needy or poor or tried to help in a heavy-handed way. One time, a teacher announced in front of a class full of students that I needed to dress better and she handed me a bag full of clothes from a church drive. It was just awful. On the other hand, there was another teacher, the one I was named for (see question 4), who stepped in and made sure that I wasn't kicked off the high school newspaper when some people felt that someone like me shouldn't be allowed into the newspaper offices. I'll never forget that act of kindness. There's such a fine line between help that makes someone feel inferior and assistance that genuinely improves someone's life. Thank you so much for caring enough to ask.
10. Lexie Conner, of Pittsfield, Ill., writes:
Would you have told your story if your mother had not moved to New York? Do you think that when we tell our story, we embellish?
I absolutely would have told my story if my mother hadn't moved to New York. I hope I haven't embellished anything, but it's interesting -- I think we all interpret things differently. My brother Brian remembers the facts behind any given incident almost exactly as I do -- but sometimes his take on it is quite different. For example, there's a scene in my book that involves a cheetah. I remember it as a noble, gorgeous creature; Brian says it was sort of scrawny and mangy. I mentioned that to mom, and she said it was sort of both.
11. Curtis Graham, of Spokane, Wash., writes:
As a child, my parents were not always able to give us all the things we may have wanted or needed at times -- but we were rich with love and taught to reach for our dreams and to work for what we wanted. Do you feel you would be as successful as you are if you had more as a child?
I don't mean to pass judgment on anyone -- and as I'm childless, I'm hardly an expert on the subject -- but I do think it's possible that some children today are given too much. A very smart woman who was interviewing me about "The Glass Castle" said that there's a school of thought that the most common form of child abuse in America these days is overindulgence. I find that just fascinating. A friend of mine who actually grew up with great privilege, told me that when she first started reading my book, she felt really sorry for me. Halfway through, she said, she started getting jealous. She explained to me that I had a sense of independence and self-reliance and was able to prove that I could do things on my own -- something she never had. A couple of people have reacted that way. (Not all, of course. Some, however, merely think my childhood was awful and deprived.) Isn't life odd?
12. Deb Scesa, of Rockville, Md., writes:
Would you be willing to come and speak to my students about your life and how you were able to overcome its obstacles?
I hope this doesn't sound diva-like, but I'm sort of booked up for the next couple of months. Please contact my publicist, Lucy Kenyon at Scribners, and if I'm in the Rockville area, I'd be honored to speak to your students.
13. Sandy Richardson, of Fairmont, W.Va., writes:
What do you think was the turning point for you when you left home and moved to New York? Have you lost any friends since this story has come out?
There were a number of turning points: Getting into college, getting my job at New York magazine. But perhaps the biggest was meeting John Taylor, the man who I ended up marrying and who convinced me to write "The Glass Castle."
I thought I would lose friends as a result of the book, but the opposite has happened. People I knew from years ago have looked me up and we've reconnected, people I've known casually for years have opened up to me and we've bonded, and complete strangers have started telling me intimate details of their lives -- and I feel like I've known them for years. I don't know of anyone who has decided to drop me as a friend because the story is out, but if there are any -- they weren't really friends in the first place.
14. Janice Wadas, of Largo, Fla., writes:
I admire you. I too want to write, not about my past but about my struggle to raise my two kids and my failure. How did you write the book without feeling like you were turning on your mother? What do your other two sisters think of the book? Do they agree?
That's a really good question, Janice, and if you're considering writing about your life, I'm guessing that you've been grappling with those issues yourself. The toughest part of writing "The Glass Castle" was trying to be fair to everyone, not to condemn the people around me, but not whitewash the story either -- and to tell the truth without intruding too much on their lives. It's one thing to reveal my own secrets; it's another to reveal those of the people around me. For that reason, I decided cut a lot about my kid sister that was originally in the book. My mother has actually been great. She's taken issue with some of the things I wrote, but not many, and she's completely supportive of it. My older sister was very ambivalent about the book. She finds the past much more painful than I do, but ultimately, she felt that I should just go ahead and write it. She told me, however, that she wasn't going to read it because she didn't want to relive it. Finally, largely at mom's urging, she quite recently decided to read it. (Mom told her, "You'll like it. You come across as a hero.") She's only read about 100 pages, but she told me that so far she loves it.
15. Michele Redman, of Long Island, N.Y., writes:
Why now did you decide to share your story with the world? What did you hope to gain? What did you learn about yourself now that you've made a success out of your life? Now that you've disclosed your personal life do you feel liberated and/or more vulnerable?
Gosh, these are all really good questions. I'd tried to tell my story a number of times. I wrote the first version of this book when I was about 19. I hammered out more than 200 pages on a weekend, then threw it in the garbage. I made several other attempts, and never even read what I wrote before I trashed them all. Then, there was that conversation I had with my mother that was mentioned in the "Primetime Live" piece, when I asked her: What am I supposed to tell people when they ask about you? And she said: "Tell them the truth." It seemed so simple. Yet it was so incredibly complex. If there was one deciding factor that made me write "The Glass Castle," it was my husband, John Taylor. He thought it was a great story, that I would be more at peace with myself if I wrote it, and that -- contrary to what I thought -- people wouldn't be appalled by me if they learned the truth. He said they'd be impressed. He also kept me honest; sometimes when I'd gloss over something painful, he'd force me back to the word processor and made me get a little deeper.
I have to say, John was right. For the most part, people have been absolutely amazing. The people at "Primetime Live," for example, who worked on the piece (and no, they didn't put me up to this). I was just stunned by how deeply they understood the story and how interested they were in doing a smart, compassionate story. I feel a little like Alice who just stepped through the looking glass and the alternate world she enters isn't weird or unpleasant; instead, it's filled with kind, sympathetic, compassionate, smart people.
16. Rosemary Shively, of Terreton, Idaho, writes:
Do you ever wish for a domestic life? I can't seem to understand, how a woman can even exist, without the nurturing side of herself fulfilled. I am amazed at your tenacity in life. I was very touched by your truthfulness. Thank you for sharing yourself with me.
John has a daughter, and I'm quite close to her, though she's pretty grown up at this point. I believe I started discovering my domestic side only recently. For example, I loved animals when I was growing up, but I had completely let that side of me go numb. While I was writing "The Glass Castle," I was overcome with a yearning to own dogs. It was weird. I'd reward myself for finishing a chapter by visiting Web sites of animal shelters; I recently adopted two former racing greyhounds (you may remember seeing them in the show). I'm irrationally devoted to them. But I do find myself getting more interested in the domestic side of things. I'm a late bloomer in that department, I guess.
17. Shana Hunt, of Ottawa, OntarioMy true passion in life is information. I dream of a career in journalism. Jeannette, if you have any advice for an aspiring journalist, I would be grateful to hear from you.
Shana, if information is your passion, in my opinion, half your battle is already won. My advice is to get journalism experience -- however you can, even if it's unpaid. You don't say whether you're a student, but if you are, get an internship. If you're not a student, there are still plenty of ways to get your foot in the door. Offer to open mail and sharpen pencils. If you hear an interesting story, mention it to an editor. If you have an area of particular interest, start an online blog. One of my former assistants was a typesetter who kept dropping by my desk mentioning things she heard. I hired her and she was great and now she has a very high-profile column at the New York Daily News. Another former assistant came up to me, introduced herself and told me she would do whatever it took to work with me, even if she had to do it unpaid and in her free time. She worked her tail off for me and was just wonderful. She now lives in England, where she has her own column and appears regularly on television. Be tenacious, be creative. And good luck.
18. Shemena Campbell, of San Francisco, writes:
Do you think that keeping your situation a secret for as long as you did, until you'd "made it," made the difference, and how hard was it to keep that secret?
Keeping my past secret wasn't difficult at all. There were a few times when the story did almost get out -- my parents were becoming sort of high-profile squatters and kept on being interviewed in newspapers and on television -- but for a variety of reasons, it didn't.
I never set out to pass myself off as a Rockefeller or anything, and because I had gone to an Ivy League college and lived on Park Avenue, everyone just assumed I had a privileged background. I don't know if telling the truth would have hurt my career. I often wonder that myself. Some guy who was interviewing me for a New York City publication the other day said he completely understood why I did it and how the New York media is filled with a bunch of social snobs who are overly concerned with pedigree. But seeing the reaction now that the story is out, I'm not so sure. People are much wiser and kinder than I had realized.