This was supposed to be a review of Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. I’ll save you the review – both are excellent books, absolute must-reads, and if you haven’t read them, what are you waiting for? If you’re wondering which one to read first, The Liar’s Club is my favorite, but I’d just read both of them at once. You know how it is.
What do both memoirs have in common?
Well, for starters, they’re memoirs, not novels, both written from the perspective of a child. And both feature some really f*cked up families, who like are all families, and have their good and not-so good moments.
In Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club we’re taken to East Texas, and working poor in a small town in on the Gulf coast, and the mother in question is a brilliant artist from New York (but originally from Texas); she ends up marrying an oil rig worker and raising two small children in a tiny town where nobody talks to her.
Just in reading this summary you get this mother, and her frustrations. You can understand her. And although her husband built shelves for all her books, and made her an artist’s studio out back; she just couldn’t be the devoted, caring mother she wanted to be to her children; a huge part of her is still singing the blues back in New York night clubs and painting away ‘til all hours. Partway through the book she has a psychotic breakdown, and is institutionalized.
The Liar’s Club is written from Mary Karr’s perspective, as she is the child in this situation. As her mother’s behaviour becomes more drunkenly dangerous and out of control, we see Mary and her sister grow up far too fast (trying to talk down their mother from shooting a boyfriend) and finally giving up and fleeing.
These children crave normalcy, and find themselves flourishing in the routines of school, and often take shelter in the houses of neighbours by scavenging meals and avoiding their parents’ drunken fights.
The Glass Castle follows a similar path through a disordered childhood dragged across the United States and through abject poverty. Homeless vagabonds, fleeing small towns whenever the ‘gestapo’ (debt collectors) were after them, this family travelled from trailer parks to rundown rental shacks across the country.
Originally Jeannette enjoys her unconventional childhood, and as she grows older, she wants the things she sees others have – regular meals on the table and a warm bed without drafts tarpapered over. Her mother, an unsuccessful artist, spends her days painting, never cooking or cleaning, and the children eventually force her to go to work outside the home; which the mother fights vehemently.
Jeannette’s desire for normalcy, and financial stability shines through; the father is depicted as an alcoholic freely spending the family’s meagre income, while the mother passively stands by. Her parents end up homeless, living on the streets while she and her siblings flourish.
Neither situation shows sexual abuse or extreme physical abuse – children are ‘given the belt’ as was usual in the time, but most of the time they have an affectionate relationship with their parents. They are simply neglected in tragic ways.
What do the children want?
Throughout both memoirs, the children crave order and structure, and a sense of safety in their worlds. They want parents who act as such. The children are pragmatic survivors, willing to sacrifice themselves for gain – financial stability, and affection.
But, if you read it from the adult’s perspective, you begin to feel for the parents, the mothers especially. Both are written about a time when few women worked outside the home, and a place where children ran freely (and poorly supervised) on the streets until it was time to come inside at night. And if you view the parents through the lens of mental health (and the failure to recognize and treat illnesses such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and schizotypal behaviour) you become sympathetic – these parents are not truly bad, but are victims of their own circumstances, which, unfortunately they remain stuck in at the expense of the children
In both memoirs, the powerlessness of the mothers comes through. Any independent income is soon lost, and financial decisions are subject to their husbands’ whims. The only place these women wield power is at home, over their children (as far as children can be controlled). Although Mary Karr’s mother is far more assertive, both mothers seek independent lives as artists and intellectuals, and are thwarted by the demands of homemaking, raising children and dealing with demons of their own.
What do the mothers want?
Independence, freedom to pursue their dreams and passions; as well as take care of their children. And that’s the real tragedy. In this light, give The Liars Club and The Glass Castle a read, or re-read them again.
Mary Karr — The Liar’s Club
Jeannette Walls — The Glass Castle
Liz McAdams is a short (again, we’re talking height, not word count), sharp writer living in the wilds of Canada. Her work appears on Yellow Mama, Spelk, Near to the Knuckle, Shotgun Honey and other places around the web. You can check her out at https://lizmcadams.wordpress.com/