Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting Jeannette Walls, Author of the NY Times Best Seller, The Glass Castle. Her stirring memoir, detailing a childhood of poverty and trauma that would unravel most people, is among my all-time-favorite books. Once she was introduced, she said, “I was invited to speak because I had a weird childhood.”
We all laughed…until she shared some of her stories, including being severely burned at age 3 because to eat, she had to cook meals in a small trailer on a gas stove. After six weeks in the hospital, her father decided to “rescue her.” Hastily…prior to a medical discharge. She affectionately referred to his art of the quick-exit as the ‘skedaddle.’
Her presentation was about hope, strength and beauty. She beamed with enthusiasm sharing the many gifts she received from her experiences. Yes… she’s untangled value from the pain. She admitted, “…For most of my life, my story was a source of shame.” Although being open about painful aspects of her upbringing, felt threatening to her hard-fought stability, telling her story has enriched her life.
I want to share my favorite quotes and life lessons from Jeannette Walls’ speech. It’s a primer for anyone who has had to overcome (and reconcile) a life with significant obstacles. Also, after her talk, I asked how we can try to foster resilience and emotional strength in our children, without having them experience all of the pain.
See The Gifts in Adversity
“If you’ve faced challenges you have gifts. We are strong, but we are ashamed of our strengths. It’s one of the great ironies.”
“My parents gave me some great gifts. One was the love of education, the second, self-esteem and the third, was how to do the skedaddle (make a fast exit.)”
She mentioned someone approached her after a talk, who had a similar background saying, “I bought your book for someone who never understood how I could love somebody who did such terrible things.” Based on how Jeanette characterizes, and accepts, her parents’ shortcomings.
Own Your Story. You Have the Pen!
“Anyone who has compared stories from their childhood with siblings knows, the truth takes on many different shapes.”
“The power of storytelling. You realize how much we all have in common.”
“I was so focused on protecting myself, (yet) telling my story, transformed the world from a place of potential enemies into (one of) potential friends.”
“When I’m asked, ‘what got you out of poverty?’… It was hope.”
Recalling a story of seeing her brother’s friend punished harshly by his father, just for drawing, she said to her siblings, “We’re the lucky ones… We don’t have food or heat, but feel we have dreams. We have vision.”
“Kids are so good at finding a light in the darkness. If you have one adult who believes in you, giving that hope, you see the light.”
Be a Purveyor of Dignity
She described how she asked her mother who was homeless at the time, to move in with her. Her mother said ‘no’ until she asked her Mom for help with her horses. She described her mother as, “Someone who puts her sense of self-esteem before her own comfort. If you can help someone, do it while leaving their dignity in tact.”
“There’s no shame in falling. There’s also no shame in accepting a hand up. The truly lucky among us are sometimes in a position to give a hand up.”
Capital R for Resilience
“I believe in the power of optimism but I also believe in the power of pushing.”
Jeannette said her Mom, explaining why she was ecstatic after falling from a horse said, “…Any fool can ride, but knowing how to fall takes talent!”
Jeannette described trying to prepare her then boyfriend, now husband, for the fact that she had scars from skin grafts she received as a child. He said, “Don’t apologize for your scars, smooth is boring, you have texture. Texture is interesting.”
Nurturing Resilience in Our Kids (Minus The Trauma)
As someone who also grew up with a ‘weird’ (aka difficult) childhood, I asked her how we can teach kids to persevere, without earning it through dramatic circumstances the way we did. She said, “Put your kids in situations where they can succeed but also give them exposure. I speak with groups of kids as young as 8 and 9…kids get it!”
Many thanks to the remarkable Jeanette Walls for her uplifting speech at the annual Horizon’s for Homeless Children’s Women’s breakfast. It’s an amazing organization and I was fortunate to be in the room. Horizon’s is a Boston-based nonprofit, dedicated to helping homeless children and families break the cycle of poverty, by supplying free early-childhood education and family services.