In Praise of the Wild: Discussion of Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle”
Layla, guest speaker on the programme: In the Motherhood, hosted by Trixie Dumont
CKUT, 6pm Wednesday, 19th March, 2008
Click HERE (Routledge 2015) for an in-depth analysis of Narratives of Civilization and Wilderness.
(correction: Of course, I meant “winter” and NOT”summer” when I was talking on the show about the family who melted snow to get water and warmth in Quebec. It must have been my own impatience to get to the sunny time of the year that caused the slip. This year, particularly, the winter has been too generous in terms of cold and snow)
In her memoir, Jeannette Walls presents a fascinating ethnographic account of a family that chose to live differently than what the “civilised”, capitalist American norms dictated. Difference usually provokes a heated condemnation from the “mainstream” – and in this case even from the “alternative” – spectrum.
The Walls family’s example is yet another illustration of how the contemporary capitalist world has brought the privatisation of space to perfection – a process that was begun in feudal times in Europe. In this book, we see the Walls family striving to live outside the city, which the parents called oppressive, yet refuses to take possession of land or to farm. However, the dictates of contemporary American society leave no possibility for survival in this world without serving the capitalist (often referred to as humanist) purpose. These norms or regulations and the system of privatisation dictate that some people are allowed to use and own the bodies, effort, time, and space of other humans, animals, and plants. Those who have been designated as resources are forced to pay the owners/landlords to live or eat or drink in this world.
The Walls family attempted to flee the City and its rules of capitalist exploitation, even if, often, they were forced to work in mines and pay “rent” to the individuals who owned the mining business and whom these exploited workers, impoverished by the unjust appraisal of their time and effort, made rich. In other words, huge percentages of their paychecks were extorted for the permission to live in horrendous living conditions in shacks, sometimes without utilities, such as the toilet or bathroom.
Jeannette Walls comes forth with great courage to unveil her past and invite the judgmental, merciless, and civilised voyeurs into her life. She accomplished the task without denigrating the people, who, as long as - and in the best way - they could, protected her from the humiliations of a rapist and murderous culture, we call civilisation and its concocted “scientific” evidence called “Darwinism” that, supposedly, justifies the complete annihilation of any thing that might threaten the possibility to hoard more resources and power for the future of the powerful and the wealthy. The “civilised” “scientists” call it competition, or the survival of the fittest, and by grounding it in nature, justify it as natural and inevitable. The Walls family refused to participate.
While in an autobiographical narrative we still face the problems of distortion, memory, and the changes in perspectives over time that make any biographical account problematic material for drawing anthropological conclusions, there remain even more problems with “professional” ethnography. Therefore, memoirs continue to have a strong appeal in the study of both the author, the “reality” and the experience that the author depicts, and most of all the society that reads and reacts to that material in specific ways.
In this radio discussion, we mostly discussed the issues of child welfare, a concept that is politically chiseled to serve political and economic needs and which is therefore highly problematic, sensitive and a relative cultural concept.
For example, child labour is forbidden in the civilised world. We find this norm surfacing at a time when it has become more profitable to squeeze two working parents to pay for the paraphernalia of childhood, such as toys, text-books, tuition, etc. – all of which serve capitalist interests. Anthropological research on childhood shows how in the wealthy “north” the phase of childhood has been extending well into one’s 30s, but in the countries on whose labour the north has built its wealth, it is still what it has been for David Copperfield and although we hear the “sensitive” “humanitarians” emphatically express “horror” for and “disapproval” of poverty and abuse, their stores are still filled with customers hunting for “deals” on products made by the abused people of all ages in China or Mexico, or….
The Walls family opted to avoid the civilised system of relations and division of resources. Statistics Canada offers many insights to support the position that, in fact, the poor workers are in a worse situation in terms of health, length of life, and general well-being than someone who is “poor” but refuses to give her time and effort to an employer. (link: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/dca-dea/publications/healthy_dev_partb_1_e.html ). In other words, poverty, or the lack of access to resources, time, and space in the case of parents who do not work is, still, less neglectful than in the situation where both parents work on minimum wage and small children in impoverished neighbourhoods of the capitalist America walk home from daycare or school and play in the ghetto hungry and alone because their parents are cleaning up for someone else or caring for other people’s children and well being.
For me, to see how the Walls family stuck together in the desert, appeared to be a healthier alternative than the splintered childhoods in daycare, schools, after-school extensions or, even worse, the destitution of drug and prostitution driven neighbourhoods of the City.
The radio discussion of The Glass Castle
Time was short, and some important points remain untouched. Here, I elaborate some of them:
- Mental health and normalcy versus mental disability and illness:
The definition of mental health is the ability of the mind to process information about “reality” that would allow the person to successfully integrate in that reality.
But what if the understanding and the view of “reality” that one group of people imposes on others does not correspond to the “real” reality out there nor is representative of the possibilities for other realities?
A good illustration here is the “scandal” with the pastor Jeremiah Wright during the American presendtial elections in 2008. Everybody knows that black people did not arrive on a Baltic cruise-ship on a vacation in North America. African people had their own cultures and communities, prior to the Europeans inscribing them in the category of “human resources”, from which they were kidnapped, half of them killed, and the survivors shipped off in shackles and blood in horrendous conditions across the sea to build the privileges of the white people in America who have, by that time, dealt swiftly with the dispossession of the Native peoples of their rights to the American land. Shackles, death, and pain are the heritage of the American Black people. Yet, when they express anger and dismay, they are being called racist!
Everybody knows that symbolic, cultural and material capital influences health, happiness, and longevity and that these aspects of wealth are accumulated through generations and transmitted accordingly. Everybody knows that the black people who did not arrive on cruise-ships on a vacation – they were captured as slaves and raped in all the meanings of the word – were brought to North America by force to serve the wealthy. They were stripped not only ofcapital, but, until recently they weren’t even considered as part of the human race. And “science” ”proved” that “knowledge”.
Still, when black people express their indignation over the injustice that they are now told to enter a race that had begun centuries before they were invited to participate and which they had already lost (they did not come here on Baltic cruise-ships) and where they are still expected to work for the benefit of the wealthier others- they now get scorned and blamed for their inability to access the resources from which they have been and still are being denied by those who have legitimated greed. And so, these same impoverished and angry black and brown people are being called racist and are not allowed to point to historical facts that are common knowledge and which expose that the white people who have amassed during slavery, colonialism, etc. still enjoy the benefits inherited from their ancestors who collected their wealth through the abuse of blacks, aborigines, and wild life – that was the point of imperialism – and through the abuse of white people as well with feudalism and capitalism. What does such denial of reality tell us about the state of mental health of those who find it sane to accuse Jeremiah Wright of racism?
If we use the rhetoric of mental disability here, then the question is: Who is mentally ill? The one who fails to adapt to and to accept injustice or the one who imposes a falsehood as truth and announces the truth as illegal?
A semblance of a fair scenario, if such is possible in a capitalist setting, could have been for every single American to abandon their material and symbolic capital, redistribute it equally among everybody and then start afresh.
This is the concept underlying the reparations debate. Yet, when Barack Obama was asked on the CNN democratic debate what his plans were with regard to this problem of reparations, he relieved the rich people’s concern that they might be asked to give back what they owe (how could they even afford it? they must have asked): let’s give money to schools! Apparently, the black people need to be better educated and domesticated in this system of abuse.
The question of resources and their distribution is pertinent to the choices the Walls family made in their attempt to live outside of civilisation and to honour self sufficiency, dignity and independence, not only in their children, but in all life. The parents remained faithful to these ideals even after the children have grown up and left the “nest”. They chose to live on the streets, rummaging the garbage, refusing to accept their children’s willingness to share their consumerist and glamorous life-styles.
In the book, we see the parents in their youth filled with dreams and ideals of art, nature, and freedom. They try to get by on various jobs, but the jobs never solve their financial problems and only drag them deeper into poverty with no access to natural resources and with even less time and energy left to pursue their artistic and intellectual aspirations. At one point they had to pay the mining company that was exploiting the father for living in deplorable housing. I wonder why nobody sees this as madness: workers make the mining company owners wealthy; they sacrifice their health and dreams, get exploited and at the same time are expected to pay for the right to live in poverty while being condemned for that poverty. With time, we see the parents develop symptoms of depression: apathy, alcoholism, and ultimately despair, and when they do get an inheritance, it is too late. Health, energy, and dreams with time burn up in smoke. Depression is a healthy reaction to the insanity of the work ethic: it is depressing that people are denied access to the world so as to be forced to work for the interests of the employer. Depression is a form of rebellion and is healthy even in its pain.
This point led the discussion to the realm of rape:
While most definitions of rape specify that in order for an assault to be considered as rape, the force of someone’s will over another person has to have been applied in a sexual context. I would like to challenge this definition because I believe that by stopping at the sexual boundary, this definition legitimates the massive rape of people’s will, self-assertion, dreams and thus protects the major culprit; because the pleasure that the sexual assault provides is not the sexual contact but the fact that the rapist could force his will onto someone who did not will the act. This breaking of the will is, of course, the main point of schooling and civilisation.
In the book, Jeannette notices that dependence on Erma changes her parents from vivacious dreamers to succumbed failures.
Both, her father and mother act like classic victims of rape: they give up their will and do what Erma, the father’s mother, and “society” want of them. They draw within themselves. This hiding within oneself is reminiscent of the behaviour that is attributed to autism, claimed to be a self-centred behaviour and is typical in victims of rape or violent attacks. In fact, they also describe depression, which is a natural reaction to the experience of aggression and violated will. When a person reacts with empathy, that person feels and comes to know great sadness, pain or even despair in face of the endless violence towards the earth with its peoples and creatures, a violence in which we are all implicated and trapped since civilisation has taken possession of the globe. We find ourselves in the age of the globalisation of violence.
Professionals, such as doctors, psychotherapists or psychiatrists, diagnose negative reactions to civilised society as depression. Thus, a normal reaction of despair – say for the abused Chinese or Indian child-labourers whose products fill up European and American stores, or the bombed Iraqis, whose oil we participate in regulating and extracting, the dispossessed Indians in North America, for example – points to the mental health of the person whose whole being rebels against the injustice and the pain of the world. Despair is empathy that drives the person to cease her participation in these domesticated relations. Yet, depression has become a stigma that is being ”cured” with drugs (both, legal and illegal). Medicalisation of this form of passive resistance strips people of their right to feel sad, to question their role in all this suffering, and to refuse it.
The Wall family did just that: they lived passionately and cherished life, even in despair.
Doctors, school teachers, activists for women’s rights in North America hammer constantly about the importance of thinking about one’s self, the virtues of wanting more for oneself, going after the dreams for oneself. This appears as a paradox when these same doctors, teachers, and women’s rights activists urge women to give up their time and energy to employers. If they get families, they are then urged to abandon their children in the hands of strangers in daycare and to neglect their children’s need for breastfeeding, protection by parents, and family togetherness. The symptoms of neglect, instead of being soothed by satisfying the children’s and family’s needs, are “cured” with plastics, medications, exploitation of nannies, house-helpers, etc. All of this is seen as good selfishness.
While the Walls family had a rough childhood, filled with pain, solitude, and shattered dreams, their strength and passion, togetherness and love fill the pages of their lives and give their children the dignity and the skills to succeed even in the culture that raped the land, killed most animal and plant species, destroyed the natives. They walked strong and passionate amidst the grey masses intolerant of difference, unforgiving of weakness, and judgmental of poverty, because they were feeling, they were dreaming of freedom, they were alive. If the aim of education is to forge strong, compassionate citizens of the world, capable of successfully finding their place in it, then we can judge the Walls family as having accomplished that mission. As for the pain, well, that seems to be the prerogative of a society that chose domestication we cherish now as civilisation, which so easily inflicts it on others, yet despises those who accept the suffering and call it happiness. But then again, what is sanity?
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