Nov 29, 2011
“We all have demons. Don’t run from them. We have to put a harness on them. The trick is to get them to work for you. The worst experience in the world is a very great blessing.”
I met Jeannette Walls on a Thursday. My best friend Emily told me to try for an interview. I did. I threw a line out, and 30 minutes later I was trying to think of questions and brush the day out of my hair.
I was expecting a press conference. But as I walked in to the room in my jeans and tennis shoes, I quickly realized that it was just I.
“Do you want to sit over here?”
I set my stenopad on my knee and tried to quell my shaking as I asked the first question:
“Why did you decide to write a memoir?”
“I tried to write when I was younger,” Jeannette began. “Then in my teens, and my thirties. I am no good at making things up. When I ran into my mom digging through the trash, I asked her what I was supposed to tell people. She replied, ‘The truth.’ I knew that was what I had to write.”
She wrote the first version of her story in six weeks.
“It was badly written,” she says, laughing. “Journalism writing is my default. It lets me separate myself from the language.”
Five years were spent trying to rewrite the story without passing judgment on her parents. Five years were spent trying to show the readers what her life was like instead of telling them. Five years were spent trying to tell the truth.
I ask about her parents. Jeanette Walls talks fast, and I can’t write fast enough. She apologizes, but I don’t mind her fast-talking. I like it. She is clever and quotable and a journalist’s dream.
“I don’t feel abused or neglected. My father loved me, but he was an alcoholic. My mother, in her own wacky way, loved me. I don’t see it as abuse. This can be interpreted again. My parents can be seen as child neglectors or inspirers. I don’t have answers. I have my story.”
My pen is running out of ink. I’m holding it vertically and trying to milk it of any ink I can. My eyes catch pens on the table. I switch pens, trying to be smooth.
Jeannette doesn’t miss a beat.
“Your pen’s running out of ink?”
“Just about,” I reply. I’m embarrassed. Who makes that kind of mistake?
The interview moves forward without another hitch. I ask of honesty.
“Yes!” she replies. “Honesty is key! All journalists should wrestle with it. Accuracy is not necessarily truth. It’s hard to get the whole story in two stark paragraphs. If my siblings wrote this book, it would have been different. We shape our stories. I spent five years trying to be honest. Emotionally honest.”
She has articulated what I have never been able to. Accuracy isn’t honesty. You can write about what people say and include dates and times and dead-honest facts. But dead-honest facts are dead. We are not dates and times and “he said, she saids.” The way we feel. That is honesty. The kind of honesty that scraps our souls. The kind of honesty that we often spend our whole lives hiding from.
“A wise man once said that secrets are like vampires,” Walls tells me. “They are terrifying in the darkness, but they can’t survive in the light. The writing process has been cathartic and excruciating. It was horrible and emancipating. Writing my story was a very transformative experience. Shame is a very isolating emotion. Now, people come up to me and tell me that the details of our lives are different, but it’s the same.”
Walls told me that her world has changed from a world of potential enemies to a world of potential friends.
“People will tell me all their secrets,” she said. “They are ashamed, and initially I think, ‘Why would you be ashamed of that? It’s a great story.’ But then I remember that I was ashamed once, too. We’re not in this alone.”
“This is why we tell our stories, so that others can understand. It’s never been weird. I love talking to students. From people concerned and alarmed and passionate about what these kids went through. But it’s not about me. I’m very aware of kids in need. Kids need respect and dignity.”
Jeannette Walls emphasized the importance of seeing people and not poverty. She told me that kids need to be seen for who they are and not for what they are wearing or how they are living.
“I can only tell stories I know. The truth is always there. The answers are always there. I have helped to put a face on homeless people. And if you say that this person on the street corner has a story, too, that changes things. I want to humanize this part of the world.”
Walls will tell you she learned how to dream from her father. She will tell you she learned optimism from her mother. She will tell you she made it because of education and her self-esteem.
“I told my story to show that people don’t know anything unless they get behind the façade. Once you hear the story, things change. I want people to know that this is my life, and maybe they could learn something without having to go through it.”
I attended Jeannette’s speech that night. The next morning I attended her next speech, and the book signing. I was nervous, even though I had already met with her, sat beside her, had my knee slapped in laughter, and asked her questions that let me see a little further into her life.
She still knew who I was. She signed my book and told me that I had chosen a good career.
I am proud to be a writer.
And I hope that someday I will help to put a face to the faceless. That I will be able to help others peer behind facades that have been built around the soul of so many people who matter so much.