Celeb Writer Reconciles With Humble Past

March 10, 2005 — -- 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 Quiñones. "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.

They didn't even have enough money to buy coal in coal-rich Welch. They would heat their home with scavenged coal -- but it would only be enough for a few hours. Most of the time, they were cold.

And for food, the Walls siblings often looked to a cafeteria garbage can at their high school.

When Walls became an adolescent, she started yearning for the nice things the other people in the town had. But her mother condemned such trappings as matching curtains "middle class."

Walls thought to herself, "I want a little piece of that middle class," and started putting together her own plans to do so. The day after she finished 11th grade, she got on a bus for New York City.

The Family Reunited

Walls went to live with a sister who had left for the city before her. She started work immediately -- one of her first jobs was as a nanny -- and at 17 did something her parents had never managed to do: pay the bills.

She also finished her senior year and applied to college. She was accepted at Barnard, Columbia University's sister school. The girl from Appalachia joined the Ivy League.

She thought her past was far behind her, until her parents and youngest sister packed up the van and decided to join their three older children in the city.

They lived in their van until it got towed. And then they lived on the street. "They brought all of the craziness that I've always lived with," Walls recalled.

Finally, Rex and Rose Mary found a home of their own. They moved into an abandoned building.

Mutual Awe

As her parents became squatters, Walls' career kicked into high gear. Her work also brought her in touch with her future husband.

She was immediately impressed by him: born in Japan, son of a diplomat, educated in a boarding school. "He just seemed a little bit like going after one of the Kennedys," she said.

Walls was initially vague when they talked about her family. Only when their relationship developed did she reveal everything to him. His reaction was exactly the opposite of what she had always feared.

"I was in awe of this woman who had come from this incredible, you know, background and had overcome all of these obstacles and adversity and then pulled herself up," Taylor said. They married in 2002.

The little girl who was once so cold and hungry in Appalachia now lives on a well-groomed street on Manhattan's tony Upper West Side. She has finally found security, stability and true love.

Living True

Meanwhile, Rose Mary Walls still lives in poverty just a short subway ride away from her daughter. She is a widow now. Rex died 10 years ago. But she still lives in the squat they found when they first came to New York.

She lives in a room crammed with paints and frames, with no heat or running water or a working stove. She keeps electricity to a bare minimum. And she appears to be still living by the same philosophy she had when Walls was growing up.

If you have a nice house, "you put your whole energy and being into keeping that house up," she said. "You're not living for yourself, you're living for a house."

Walls says she still loves her mother and wishes she could help her more. But Rose Mary refuses -- and the younger Walls believes that unconditional love means letting her mother be who she wants to be.

"I accept her -- she's neat. I don't know if she's loopy or worse, but it works for her. She's happy and she leads the life she wants."

Looking back on her childhood today, Walls focuses not on the things she didn't have, but on what her parents gave her instead.

"For all the deprivation, they gave us an incredible wealth of love and inspiration, belief in the future and belief in ourselves," she said. "I really believe that if a parent gives you that, you can go through just about anything."

Her most indelible gift is from her father. When she was young, he promised her a glass castle to live in. "Dad was going to build it, the house to end all houses. It was going to be the best house ever ... It was made of nothing but glass, including the floors and the stairways."

Now that blueprint for that castle of glass has become the blueprint for Walls' new memoir: "The Glass Castle."