Comparison of Three Memoirs
This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff, is a self-written memoir about Jack Wolff (a new name he gave himself) which focuses on his troubled boyhood, plagued by domestic abuse, his misbehavior and of the people surrounding him. Despite this, Jack remains hopeful and is convinced that he is capable of a better life. In elementary school, Jack changed his name from Toby to Jack, which his mother begrudgingly allows him to do.
Just like This Boy’s Life, The Liars’ Club is the story of a disorderly and turbulent childhood in small town America, this time a fictional town of Leechfield in east Texas and later in Colorado. Mary Karr, the author, is a tough, scrappy kid who also has a tremendous sensitivity and devotion to the people around her. Her joys and terrors make her such a rich and vivid character. From the memoir, it can be sensed that underneath these turbulences and chaos, this Karr’s family still loves each other.
Another dysfunctional childhood memoir, The Glass Castle, is a bit controversial, because the author is a successful journalist, Jeannette Walls. The story focuses on the author relating her the horrific childhood she experiences. She was raised by alcoholic, manipulative, and selfish parents. Her parents are extremely dysfunctional, irresponsible and yet very intelligent people. With these characteristics, her parents have forced their children, including Jeannette, to learn how to take care of themselves at such a very young age.
Plot Overview – This Boy’s Life
Toby Wolff and his mother went to Utah to make their fortune by mining uranium. There, Toby changed his name to Jack to remove himself from his father, who abandoned him and his mother shortly after he was born. Jack is very close to his mother who is often involved with violent men. The second husband is Roy, who followed Rosemary and Jack from Florida to Utah. Then once again, his step father left them which made them move to Seattle. In here, she met another man, Dwight, who seemed harmless until Jack moves to Chinook to live with him, it is where Jack discovered his stepfather’s true identity. Dwight criticized and berated Jack for real and imagined flaws, the only time Dwight expressed a genuine interest in Jack is when he taught Jack how to fight. Arthur Gayle, a notorious “sissy” who has a short-lived friendship with Jack.
With the constant abuses from his stepfather, Jack took refuge in his unusually vivid, imagination. Jack has longed to escape from Chinook so that he can recreate himself, but he can only live the life he wants in his own mind. In order to realize this dream, Jack created this into reality, he forged letters of praise for his application to private boarding schools. In school, he would always be involve in a dangerous crowd, often getting into trouble with the authorities. Jack had many attempts to escape and run away. Finally, he was able to leave Chinook and started anew when he was accepted to the elite Hill School. Mr. Howard, an alumnus of Hill, interviews Jack and serves as Jack’s mentor and to whom he felt warmed by their attention and affection, which he has experienced very little of at home.
Before Jack went to school, he went to California for a summer with his father in California. However, when Jack arrived, his father left for Las Vegas with his girlfriend. When Jack’s father returns, he was arrested and later committed to a sanitarium, where he stayed for the rest of the summer. Obviously, Jack did not make the grades that Hill demanded, and was expelled midway through his senior year. After he is expelled from school, Jack joined the army and served in the “Vietnam War”.
Plot Overview – The Liar’s Club
The story started in 1961 with a traumatic moment in Mary Karr’s life, when she was seven. There had been a disturbance at her home in the town of Leechfield, Texas, which resulted to her Mother having a nervous breakdown. Mary and her nine-year-old sister Lecia were taken away by the sheriff and stayed for a while elsewhere in the neighborhood. Karr related how her parents met and married and also tells of her father’s childhood, explaining that she learned about these things by listening to the stories of his Daddy.
In 1963, her mother inherited money from Mary’s Grandma Moore, the family lived moved to Colorado Springs, where her mother bought a stone lodge on the side of a mountain. Mary was eight-years-old then. From their bedroom window, she and Lecia enjoyed watching bears roaming around, they learned to ride a horse and went fishing with her Daddy. Her mother spent much of her time at the local bar. Soon Mary’s parents announced they are to divorce, and they gave the girls a choice as to with whom they wish to live.
In 1980, Mary’s Daddy suffered a stroke at the age of seventy and was incapacitated. Her Mother stopped drinking but has become addicted to prescription drugs and has remained depressed. Mary, having left home permanently at seventeen, lived in Boston. She and her father have grown apart and no longer have much to say to each other. After her Daddy’s stroke, he lost the ability to speak coherently. Mary returned and helped her mother care for him.
Plot Overview – The Glass Castle
The memoir opened with Jeannette, sitting in a taxi, wondering if she has overdressed for the evening, she saw her mother rooting through a dumpster. It had been months since Jeannette had seen her mother, but she panicked that her mother will see her, she ducked down in the seat and then orders the taxi to take her home again. She listened to Vivaldi, hoping the music wiould settle her down. Jeannette called a friend of her mother’s and left a message for her mother to call, their usual way of making contact. When her mother calls, they made plans for lunch at the older woman’s favorite Chinese restaurant. She wanted to help her mother change her life, but Rose Mary Walls told her that it’s her values that are all confused. She feels she’s fine and that Jeannette is “way too easily embarrassed.”
Jeannette’s earliest memory was the time she sat herself on fire cooking hotdogs. She was three years old and boiling hotdogs on the stove while her mother worked on one of her paintings in the other room. Her dress catches on fire, but she was unable to scream until the fire singes her hair and her eyelashes. When her mother heard her cry, she grabbed an army surplus blanket and wrapped Jeannette in it to put out the flames. Her mother and younger brother hurried to the trailer next door to ask the woman there to take them to the hospital.
When they arrived in the hospital, a nurse told Jeannette that she’s going to be okay, to which Jeannette responds that she knows that, but if she’s not, that’s okay, too, a statement making her wise beyond her years. Then, the doctors and nurses began asking questions about how she got burned and where her parents were when it happened. They also asked her how she got all the bruises and cuts she has on her body and if her parents had ever hurt her. She replied very honestly that the cuts and bruises came from playing outside and the burns from cooking hotdogs. She explained how she does the cooking and that she’s allowed to do that, because her mom thinks she’s mature for her age. It’s obvious that the authorities are concerned with the care being provided by her parents. This was followed by an argument between her Dad and the doctor because her Dad believed Jeannette should be wearing bandages while the doctor tries to explain that the burned skin needs to breathe. Her Dad pulled back his fist to hit the doctor when a guard in a uniform appears and tells the Walls family they’ll have to leave. A few days later, after Jeannette has been in the hospital for six weeks, her Dad decided to break her out of there, obviously leaving without paying the bill. He picked Jeannette up and holds her against his chest. He ran out the emergency exit with her as nurses cry out for them to stop. Her mother was waiting in their car, the Blue Goose, with Lori and Brian, and her Dad placed her in the front seat with Mom saying, “You don’t have to worry anymore, baby. You’re safe now.”
Character List – Boy’s Life
Jack Wolff – The author and protagonist of the autobiography, Jack leads the reader through his troubled boyhood, which is plagued by domestic abuse and misbehavior. Despite his grim upbringing, Jack remains hopeful and is convinced that he is capable of a better life.
Rosemary Wolff – Jack’s mother struggles financially to support herself and her son, but though she is neglectful at times, she loves Jack very much. Rosemary was abused as a child and cannot bring herself to inflict violence or any sort of punishment on Jack, even though she has the habit of taking up with violent men who inflict that same abuse on both of them.
Dwight – A cruel and violent man who convinces Rosemary to marry him and move to Chinook to live with him. Dwight is especially resentful of Jack and treats him with the utmost brutality. Dwight drinks to excess, steals Jack’s and Rosemary’s money, and often instigates physical altercations with Jack.
Geoffrey Wolff – Jack’s kind older brother, who is a student at Princeton while Jack is still in high school. Geoffrey has grown up in his father’s custody and goes for years without seeing Jack. Six years after their last meeting, he and Jack begin corresponding by mail. When Jack tells Geoffrey of the abuse he endures in Chinook, Geoffrey encourages Jack to apply to private schools on the east coast and arranges for them to meet during the summer. When they do meet, Geoffrey cares for Jack like a father.
Arthur Wolff – Jack’s biological father is a compulsive liar, who makes promises to Jack that he cannot keep. When Jack goes to stay with Arthur for the summer, Arthur leaves for a vacation with his girlfriend on the day of Jack’s arrival. When Jack’s father returns, he is arrested and committed to a sanitarium, where he remains for the rest of Jack’s visit.
Arthur Gayle – The overweight, outcast boy who spends most of his time with his dog, Pepper, and eventually becomes Jack’s best friend. After Jack calls Arthur a sissy, they get into a fistfight. After the fight they become friends, although ultimately, because of Jack’s insensitivity, that friendship does not last.
Chuck Bolger – The son of a minister, Chuck Jack’s gentle, somewhat alcoholic friend who impregnates Tina Flood, an overweight and promiscuous fifteen-year-old girl at their high school. Chuck refuses to marry Tina, and is pardoned when his friend Huff agrees to marry her instead. Jack lives with Chuck for a short period.
Jerry Huff – A short but physically strong boy, Huff is popular with the girls at school and is exceptionally vain. Huff bullies even those who have beaten him in fistfights. He later marries the pregnant Tina to save himself from doing jail time as an accessory to statutory rape.
Roy – Rosemary’s alcoholic and abusive ex-husband who follows her and Jack from Sarasota to Salt Lake City after she has fled from him. Roy is extremely possessive of Rosemary and checks up on her obsessively. Roy has a fascination for guns, and gives Jack his Winchester
Norma – Dwight’s eldest daughter, for whom Jack harbors a secret infatuation. Norma is sweet and chipper in her youth, and loves Bobby Crow, a good-hearted boy from school whom she calls “Bobo.” Later, Norma decides that Bobby is not ambitious enough to marry and settles for Kenneth, a miserable man who turns her tired and morose.
Bobby Crow – Norma’s high school sweetheart, an Indian boy from Marblemount who is a star football quarterback at Concrete High. When Norma decides not to marry Bobby, he is heartbroken and turns angry and bitter.
Kenneth – The detestable, argumentative man Norma suddenly chooses to marry instead of Bobby. Kenneth is a strict Christian and attempts to impose his values upon everyone else.
Pearl – Dwight’s coddled youngest child, who is nearly the same age as Jack. Pearl and Jack despise one another, particularly when they are young, and do everything possible to get on each other’s nerves. Pearl especially enjoys seeing Jack bear the brunt of Dwight’s wrath.
Skipper – A few years older than Jack, Dwight’s second-eldest child, Skipper, is reserved and polite. He spends months transforming a beat-up 1949 Ford, only to have it destroyed in a sandstorm on his way to Mexico.
Mr. Howard – An alumnus of Hill Preparatory School who is sent to interview Jack before his acceptance. Mr. Howard is exceedingly happy when Jack is accepted at Hill, and generously takes him to his own tailor in Seattle to be fitted for a new school wardrobe.
Jack Welch – A simple, gentle boy with whom Jack is sometimes made to wrestle in gym class. The Welch boy’s father owns a farm from which Jack and Chuck are caught stealing.
Sister James – The honest and spunky nun at Jack’s elementary school in Salt Lake City who organizes after-school activities to keep her students out of trouble. Sister James shows a particular concern for Jack, and when he has trouble confessing his sins to the priest, she takes him to the kitchen, where shares her own stories of childhood delinquency.
Marian – The obnoxious, overweight housekeeper in the Seattle boarding-house. Marian and Jack have nothing but disdain for one another, principally because she is always urging Rosemary to discipline Jack with more force. Marian shares the ramshackle house with Kathy and Rosemary.
Kathy – A plain and shy secretary who tries to conceal her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Rosemary first meets Kathy while they both reside in the boarding-house in Seattle. Later, before Kathy gives birth to her son, Willy, she shares a ramshackle house with Rosemary and Marian.
Terry Taylor and Terry Silver – Jack’s delinquent friends from Salt Lake City. Together with Jack, Terry and Terry egg passersby from the roof of an apartment building and watch the Mickey Mouse Club while making vulgar remarks about one of the show’s stars.
Uncle Stephen – Rosemary’s brother and Jack’s uncle, who lives in Paris. After Jack writes to Stephen with an exaggerated tale of his grim family situation, Stephen invites Jack to live with him and his family in Paris, but only if Jack will agree to forfeit his name so that Stephen can officially adopt him.
Mr. Mitchell – The gym teacher at Concrete high who organizes the “smokers” and forces Jack and Arthur to battle one another in the ring.
Tina Flood – The fifteen-year-old girl who is impregnated by Chuck Bolger. Tina’s father charges Chuck with statutory rape and also holds Huff responsible. Huff marries Tina so that he will not have to do jail time.
Character List – The Liars Club
Charlie Marie Karr is Mary’s mother. She married seven times including twice to Pete Karr. Her fourth marriage, to an Italian sea captain named Paulo, was the one that first brought her to Leechfield, Texas, where she later met and married Pete Karr.
Unlike her husband, Charlie Marie is educated and intellectually curious. She spends a lot of her time reading widely in topics such as Russian history and French existentialism. She is also an artist, having studied art in New York’s Greenwich Village, and has her own studio in the family home. She also listens to opera.
Mary Karr is the narrator of the memoir. She is a resourceful girl who has inherited her father’s aggressive temperament and her mother’s intelligence. She is dark-haired, unlike her blonde sister, and she looks vaguely Native American, like her father. As a young girl she adores her father and is enthralled by his storytelling at the Liars’ Club, which she is allowed to attend. As a child, she cannot help but be influenced by her parents’ quarrels, and she and Lecia fantasize about escaping and living somewhere else, such as a shack on the beach or the rest room of a convenience store.
Pete Karr is Mary’s father. A World War II veteran, he is a handsome, black-haired man with Native-American blood who works at the oil refinery. In forty-two years he never misses a day at work, even though he is a hard drinker. Pete is known for his storytelling abilities, and he holds his friends in the Liars’ Club spellbound with his vivid tales of his childhood, although few of his stories are true. He is also known as a quarrelsome personality who is quick to get into fights, which he always wins. He even gives Mary, whom he affectionately calls Pokey, tips on how to fight, urging her…
Ben Bederman is one of the members of the Liars’ Club. He always listens carefully to Pete Karr’s stories and is usually the first to ask a question. He visits Pete in the hospital after Pete has a stroke and is distressed at Pete’s condition. Almost every night he sits for hours outside Pete’s hospital room.
Cooter is one of the members of the Liars’ Club. He often picks on Shug and scolds him because he is bothered by the fact that Shug is black.
Character List – The Glass Castle
Jeannette Walls – She is the narrator and main character of the story. She tells the events of her life living with neglectful and yet loving parents.
Rex Walls – He is Jeannette’s alcoholic father who manipulates and uses his wife and his children for his own needs and yet never stops loving them and hoping they love him.
Rose Mary Walls – She is the selfish mother of the family who brings her own baggage with her and passes it on to her children. She also loves her family but only after her own needs are met.
Lori Walls – She is the oldest child of the family, but isn’t the one who dominates. She is smart and loving, but without Jeannette, hasn’t the courage to escape the life she hates.
Brian Walls – He is the boy of the Walls siblings and learns very young how to protect his sisters. He grows up to be a protector as well when he becomes a police officer.
Maureen Walls – She is the most fragile of the children and spends all her life looking for someone to take care of her.
Erma. Ted, and Stanley Walls – These characters are Rex Walls’ mother, father and brother. They are racists and have bad attitudes about nearly everything.
Theme – This Boy’s Life
Escapism Via Imagination
Throughout the novel, Jack uses his imagination as a place of refuge, which is otherwise absent from his unhappy domestic life. During his years in Chinook, Jack wants nothing more than to escape from Dwight’s authority and from the preconceived notions that people there have developed of him. Jack’s actual attempts to run away are unsuccessful, so he frequently retreats into figurative escapes, where imagines a better life for himself. For example, when Jack cannot go to Paris as he had hoped, he envisions himself among the city’s cobbled streets, green roofs, and cafés. Similarly, Jack imagines that the successful-looking men who pass him on the street are his father coming to greet him. Jack uses his imaginative fantasies as a vehicle to escape from the misery of his home life, and it is because of these fantasies that he is able to endure.
Desire and Desperation For Self-recreation
Often, the lies that Jack tells seem all too real to him, and he even goes so far as to adopt some of them as the actual truth. This staunch faith in his own lies can also be read as Jack’s belief in himself, for, despite his poor grades and record, Jack is convinced that he is actually a member of the elite. This belief is especially powerful when Jack forges letters of recommendation from his teachers, all of which are full of ebullient, exaggerated praise that Jack thinks of as true and honest. Jack studies a book called The Status Seekers that instructs him on how he can “betray his origins” and infiltrate the upper class. Jack wants to leave home not only because he is unhappy there, but also because he yearns for the opportunity to recreate in a place where he does not have a tarnished reputation. He does not believe that he is the thief and liar that Dwight claims he is, but that he is a good-hearted boy pushed by circumstances to do what he needs to escape.
Promises Made, Promises Broken
From Jack’s boyhood into his late adolescence, Jack is promised fantastic gifts that never actually materialize. Because of this, he feels overlooked and disappointed. From the very beginning of the book, disappointment lies around every corner for Jack. After driving across the country in search of fortune, he and his mother learn that there is no uranium left, and continue to live in poverty. Later, Dwight promises Jack that he will participate in the turkey shoot during his Thanksgiving visit, then rescinds this promise. After Jack and Rosemary begin living with Dwight, Jack wants desperately to escape, and is thrilled when he is offered trips to both Mexico and Paris. Neither trip, however, ever materializes. The ultimate disappointment comes when Jack arrives in California, excited to spend the summer with his father and with Geoffrey. Instead of spending time with Jack, however, Jack’s father leaves only one day after Jack arrives in California, and is arrested as soon as he returns.
Theme – The Glass Castle
The first and most important theme is: forgiveness. Jeannette spends her whole life forgiving her parents over and over for the choices they made that adversely impacted their children. In the face of no food in their stomachs, leaking roofs over their heads, no heat, and ratty clothes plus stealing their money and sometimes their souls, Rex and Rose Mary didn’t deserve forgiveness. However, Jeannette and her brother and sisters always find a way to welcome their parents back into their hearts.
Throughout This Boy’s Life, Jack is keenly aware that other people betray him, although he does not realize that he often betrays himself. From his childhood, Jack feels betrayed by his father, even though he makes excuses for his father, throughout his adolescence. It is only when Jack is an adult that he can truly admit to the painful feelings that he has suppressed for his father. Jack, however, is also capable of trickery, as becomes evident when he takes Geoffrey’s suggestion that he apply to private schools. Jack lies to his own brother that he is a star athlete and an A student, thereby betraying not only Geoffrey but himself as well. This betrayal of self and of one’s past seems “the most natural thing in the world” to Jack, as he has long harbored fantasies of self-recreation.
Guilt and Self-loathing
Jack’s feelings of guilt and unworthiness stem from his conflicting desire and incapability to be a hero. Jack adopts the responsibilities his father has abandoned and wants to provide for his mother by saving her from both Roy and Dwight, and also by bailing them out of their poverty and unhappiness. Jack is only a child, however, and the situation is beyond his grasp. Therefore, Jack ignores reality and fabricates his own heroics to find some degree of comfort. Jack also feels deeply guilty for his own existence, which he thinks hinders his mother from enjoying the independence she had before Jack was born.
Before Rosemary arrives in Chinook, Dwight recruits Jack to help him paint every wall, and item in the house a stark and glaring shade of white. Typically, white is symbolic of purity, or a new beginning. When Jack and Dwight paint the house white, it does indeed mark a new beginning, but is more symbolic as a mask for what Dwight does not want Rosemary to see. Jack notes that after they have painted the piano, only the black keys show through, a foreboding vision that is indicative of the misery Dwight will cause them. Later, Dwight coats an entire Christmas tree with white spray-paint, as if to cover up for the miserable holiday to come.
Jack’s Winchester .22 Rifle
The Winchester rifle Roy gives to Jack serves as a symbol of the power and control Jack so desperately craves. Because he is just a boy, Jack is powerless to protect himself and his mother from violence, poverty, and unhappiness, and it is only when he has the rifle in his hands that Jack feels that he is more of a man than a boy, and has at last acquired some small scrap of authority that might otherwise be impossible to attain. When Dwight takes Jack’s rifle to the turkey shoot, he is symbolically revoking and claiming for himself the power that Jack once had.
The dying salmon that Dwight points out to Rosemary and Jack, swimming from their home in salt water to fresh water so that they may spawn, are symbolic and darkly foreboding of the move that Jack and Rosemary will soon make from Seattle to Chinook. Having left their home, the salmon are dying, their bodies being stripped of their pink flesh as they reject their new environment. Like the salmon, parts of Jack and Rosemary will die once they move and are subjected to Dwight’s cruelty and pettiness.
The beaver that Dwight kills while driving Jack “home” to Chinook for the first time is symbolic of the future that awaits Jack, who is about to become like the beaver, helpless and at Dwight’s mercy. Two years later, Jack finds the beaver in the attic. It had been left in a basin to cure and was soon forgotten about, just as Jack feels he has been forgotten since his arrival in Chinook. Over time, the beaver has decomposed, sprouting two feet of mold that bear an eerie resemblance to its living form. Jack is comparable to this beaver in that he has has become a mere shell of himself while living under Dwight, even though he is physically the same.
Theme – The Liar’s Club
A major theme running through The Liars’ Club is the difference between Mary Karr’s parents. “With Mother,” Karr writes, “I always felt on the edge of something new, something never before seen or read about or bought, something that would change us…. With Daddy and his friends, I always knew what would happen and that left me feeling a sort of dreamy safety.” Karr’s mother is artistic and glamorous, while her father is down-to-earth. These contrasts lay the foundation for the Karr’s family life.
Survival of Love
The Liars’ Club is in many ways a grim story of the disruption of family life caused by a quarreling husband and wife, and a mother’s alcoholism and mental instability. Although the devastating effect of this behavior on the children is apparent everywhere, especially in the aggressive behavior of Mary, it is not the main theme of the memoir. The main theme is the endurance of familial love in the worst of circumstances. The bonds generated by blood ties, even when put under tremendous strain, exercise a continual hold on the emotions and loyalties.
Although Karr often uses vulgar expressions that are part and parcel of the way many of the local people speak, she also on many occasions uses highly poetic imagery. This creates quite a contrast for the reader. In one of the milder examples of local slang, for example, a girl emerging from a coma after contracting encephalitis is “half-a-bubble off plumb.’’ But on the next page, Karr uses a more literary form of expression, a simile, to describe the effect of her father’s voice on the neighborhood children.
Theme – The Glass Castle
Forgiveness is the most important theme. Throughout the unfolding of the memoir, each character must come to grips with the concept of forgiving each other. Mom and Dad neglected their children in so many ways and should be punished, but their children also need to understand that forgiveness is for themselves as well for their parents. As long as they harbor bitterness in their hearts for how they were raised, they will never find the contentment they deserve. Lori and Jeannette are the two who come to this realization first while Brian comes to it less quickly and Maureen never finds it. Lori was always the peacemaker, so she can accept and live with Mom and Dad’s peculiarities more easily. Jeannette had such a bond with her father that even when he stole from her and allowed another man to molest her, she couldn’t find it in her heart to stop loving him. She actually had the ability even as a young child to understand why her parents behaved the way they did and put their destructive habits behind her. Brian was fairly forgivable as a child but whenever, as an adult, he sees an abundance of food on a table, he seeks recrimination for his parents who could have provided the same food had they cared enough. Maureen is the one who can find no forgiveness in her heart for her parents. She was never able to deal with being left to raise herself and her search for someone to care for her ultimately led to her mental breakdown and distancing herself from her family.
Sometimes the most mature and responsible people in a family can be the children, not the parents
Another theme tells us that sometimes the most mature and responsible people in a family can be the children, not the parents. All of the Walls siblings must learn how to take care of themselves and as a result, they have a better grasp of how to love good, righteous lives. Jeannette, Brian and Lori quickly learn, not only how to take care of themselves and each other, but also how to make adult decisions. They mature and grow faster than the average child, but they also suffer the consequences by having to parent their mother and father who live in worlds of their own. Even after they leave these self-destructive individuals, they find themselves parenting again, when their parents follow them to New York. It is now a fact of life that youth is taking over for old age.
Fearlessness and Loyalty
Fearlessness and loyalty are two traits that the Walls children soon learn they must assimilate. They are children and should be protected and comforted, but they must take over for their neglectful parents, be fearless in the face of adversity, and at the same time, remain loyal to the ones they love. For example, Jeannette frequently must go from bar to bar to find her father. She has to face molesters to help her father win a pool game, and then she must be loyal enough to help him home and still love him. That is the unique quality of this family that allows them to want to be together even when the neglect continues.
The last theme involves lost dreams. The family, especially Rex, has always dreamed of the day when they have enough money to build a glass castle. It is symbolic of a dream that everyone knows will never come true, but to which they cling anyway. It’s only when Dad realizes he’s lost his children and that he’s dying that he can close up the blueprints for the last time and finally let it go. It is poignant and touching when the Glass Castle disappears from their minds, but it is also a sign that the children at least have accepted that their lives ate now going in different directions.
Fulfillment of Writing
Tobias Wolff – Interview
“That memoir came about from my attempt to understand how I could survive such a troubled childhood,” said Wolff. “This story had been trying to get out for quite a few years,” said Wolff. “It came from trying to understand the impulse that led to me becoming a writer.” The story takes place in a New England prep school during the early 1960’s. The narrator, like Wolff himself, was rooted in a working class background, but found himself trying to mimic the bearing and manners of his schoolmates.
Wolff once believed that to be a successful writer you needed to live a life rich with experience. “I came of age with writers who embodied that,” he said. “People like Hemingway, Mailer, James Jones and Jack London. I joined up to go to Vietnam so I’d have an experience I could later write about. I no longer believe you need to be shot at to be a writer. All you need to do is keep your eyes open. Be alert. Experience is all around us. Flannery O’Connor spent all but one year of her life on her farm in Georgia, but she wrote so well because she knew what life was about. She paid attention.”
At the Alumni House this spring, Tobias Wolff, Stanford creative writing professor and award-winning author of This Boy’s Life, engaged alumni and students in a wide-ranging discussion of family, writing, and memory—including fond recollections of attending Salt Lake City’s Lowell Elementary School at age 10. Following are excerpts from the informal conversation which took place upon the memoirist’s return to Utah, an opportunity made possible by the Department of English and the Salt Lake City Arts Council.
Wolff said that , “that’s why we write.” It isn’t just for the product of the story or the novel, but it’s actually for the experience of that bliss that you sometimes do have when you write, as you’re somehow transported or elevated. So that’s what keeps you going back. It comes to you free, at first, and then you have to work for it. There’s a famous paragraph in one of Chekov’s letters to his brother Nikolai in which he talks about writing description. In it he says, ‘When describing a starry night, don’t just talk about the beauty of the heavens, and the beautiful pinpricks of stars all over the inky sky.’ He says, ‘describe a piece of broken glass and the moonlight shining in that, and all of a sudden a wolf runs past you like a black ball in the night.’
It’s that kind of odd angle of vision that really captures those unexpected things that you would find in a good story, that broken glass. That’s something very distinctive with Chekov. I translate that into the description of character as well. You can illuminate character by a similar kind of sidelong glance that you can use to illuminate that moonlit night. There’s a kind of stock repertoire that comes out of drama, mainly of gestures and actions that people perform in stories. You know: the mixing-of-drinks, the-crossing-of-rooms, the-lighting-of-cigarettes. What’s wrong with them is they’re essentially anonymous. They don’t tell us that much. What you want is a gesture that tells you something particular. Our memories tell us who we are and they cannot be achieved through committee work, by consulting other people about what happened. That doesn’t mean that at all times memories are telling us the absolute truth, but that the main source of who we are is that memory, flawed or not. A writer is responsible to that story that the memory tells you about yourself. That is what the memoir does. It’s not a documentary, it’s not a work of history. It is something else; it’s the story that memory tells you about yourself and who you are and it is going to be different than the story that someone else’s memory tells them and that doesn’t meant that theirs is right either.
Mary Karr – Interview
If dysfunction means that a family doesn’t work, then every family ambles into some arena in which that happens, where relationships get strained or even break down entirely. We fail each other or disappoint each other. That goes for parents, siblings, kids, marriage partners —the whole enchilada. Obviously, these failures cover a spectrum. The parent who beats a kid insensibly on a regular basis registers differently on the disappointment-meter from the one who doesn’t deliver a pony for Christmas. Probably the vast majority of families fall between these two poles. Nevertheless, I believe that every tribe has to accommodate a wide range of behavior from its members. Illness and death, which we’re taught in this country to view as aberrant, actually afflict us all. Depression hits everybody from time to time. The current figures on alcoholism vary, but I heard a lecture once where someone claimed that five percent of the population consumes ninety percent of the liquor sold. You can bet that segment of the population causes considerable strain on those near and dear. When people suffer their relationships usually suffer as well. Period. And we all suffer because, as the Buddha says, that’s the nature of being human and wanting stuff we don’t always get. Probably readers’ intense interest in scaldingly tough family lives is an American phenomenon, but I’m no expert. The only other country I’ve ever lived in is England, where I encountered much sneering about our narcissistic interest in therapies, self-help, twelve-step recovery, etcet. Still, their rates of divorce and alcoholism are up like ours. Their families have probably endured the same upheavals in structure. The Liars’ Club has done well over there, and my British publisher described the same boom in memoir over there that we’ve seen here.
Poetry started as an oral art. So I always listened to stories, and my work as a poet makes me migrate to metaphor, trying to learn the truth about one thing by looking at something like it. As a poet, I’ve also tried to cultivate a precision of language that would probably help anybody write anything better. In Ezra Pound’s Cantos there’s a Chinese idiom that he favors —a single ray of sunlight coming like a lance to rest at an exact place in an honest man’s heart. Pound likened this to Dante’s notion of verbum perfecium, the word made perfect. That’s a lofty goal, but poetry urges you toward it.
The mystery I set up at the start of the book had that shape by my measure: Why did my mother have the psychotic episode that started the book? What fueled her on the wild tear I described in those first two sections? I hoped the reader wanted to know the answer to that question, so I didn’t want to drag him or her kicking and screaming through every meal I ate my entire life to reach the point where her secret was unearthed. While I was writing, I worried my editor about how I’d pole vault through history for seventeen years. Then I hit on it: “Seventeen years later…” We do that all the time telling stories to each other and permit the loss of time, so why not in print. Plus that loss of seventeen years gave me another passel of books to write, I hope.
What advice would you give to someone who would like to write a memoir?
Tobias Wolff wrote me a brilliant letter while I was at Radcliffe College trying to start this book. “Take no care for your dignity,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else.” He also warned me against the kind of stultifying, moralizing didacticism that plagues all bad writing. “Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruits. Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed.” I kept that taped above my computer while I worked along with the poem by Zbigniew Herbert translated from the Polish that I quote at the start of the book’s third section. They were the mojos I held up against the literary bullshit to which I’m prone.
What are you working on now?
I initially sold The Liars’ Club as a Stop-time for girls, but I never got past that one childhood drama into the drama of puberty, which is the swamp into which I’ve currently waded. So I’m working on a sequel that details my somewhat itinerant adolescence.
Jeanette Walls – Interview
Jeanette Walls tells all during her interview. I thought about writing it for close to 20 years. I tried to write it fictionalized, but I couldn’t even make fake names of people. Periodically, I’d write about 200 pages in a weekend and throw it all away without even reading it. What happened is, the opening scene in the book pushed me into thinking, “I should really write this.” I hadn’t told people about my past, when people asked, I’d demur or lie a little bit. John was my best friend before we were romantically involved, we worked together at New York magazine.
The child, that would be me, the protagonist, the perspective changes as I got older. I was defending dad much longer than everybody else was. In a way it was stupid, and in a way, it was my salvation. He was all I had. He really believed in me when I thought that nobody else did. If I were to believe that dad was a complete fraud, what would I have left? We have these defense mechanisms. I sometimes wonder about seeing things too clearly or being too smart; that’s one of the reasons I was worried about my mom reading it. I saw no value in tearing down her defense mechanisms. Mom has so many really good qualities; I’m sure if you met her, you would really like her. She’s a funny person, she’s upbeat, she sees beauty in many things. I didn’t write it for revenge or to get back at her or anything. It’s not bitter. That might be slightly woven in, but it’s not from a “let me get back at them” perspective. Did you have to tone that down or do you really not have bitterness? One of the reasons I could write it now is because I am happy with where I am. 10 or 15 years ago, I was very confused about my feelings toward my mother and my father, and myself, where did I belong in this whole spectrum of things? When I left home and got married to my first husband, I was overcompensating to get the absolute opposite of what my father had been. There was no way I was gonna hook up with a handsome, manipulative SOB. I got this man who was so risk averse, he never got a driver’s license. I married somebody the opposite of my father. There was no doubt in my mind when I wrote this book, that I would lose everything by writing it, whatever status I had, my friends. I had to get to a place where I didn’t mind losing it. Of course it was foolish of me to think that because that hasn’t happened. It’s been an incredible lesson to me that I thought I would lose it all.
“The Liars’ Club: Author Biography.” Nonfiction Classics for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 29 October 2007. <http://www.enotes.com/liars-club/author-biography>.
Atlas, James, “The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now,” in New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996, pp. 25-27
Ermelino, Louis, Review of The Liars’ Club, in People Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 3, July 17, 1995, p. 28.
Gardner, John, The Art of Fiction, Knopf, 1984, reprint, Vintage Books, 1985.
Innes, Charlotte, “In The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr Uses Humor to Tell about Her Fractured Family,” in Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1996, p. 5.
Ivins, Molly, Review of The Liars’ Club, in the Nation, Vol. 261, No. 1, July 3, 1995, p. 21.
Karr, Mary, “Dysfunctional Nation,” in New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996, p. 70.
Lyons, Bonnie and Bill Oliver. “An Interview with Tobias Wolff,” in Contemporary Literarure, Vol. 31, No.1, Spring 1990, pp. 1-16. Skow,
An Interview with Tobias Wolff . Bonnie Lyons, Bill Oliver, Tobias Wolff. Contemporary Literature, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), pp. 1-16
Walls, Jeanette, “The Glass Castle,” Scribner (January 9, 2006)