In one of the first scenes of The Glass Castle, Rex Walls, played by Woody Harrelson, forcibly throws his daughter, who can't swim, into the deep end of a pool. On purpose. Not once. Not twice. But over and over and over again. Gasping for breath, Jeannette emerges from the final plunge in tears, pulls herself out of the public pool, and runs away from her father. It's "sink or swim" at its most extreme, but it worked: Jeannette is able to swim her way to safety.
It's a jarring scene, and an important one — one that perfectly encapsulates the emotional center of the forthcoming movie, out Aug. 11, and the memoir upon which it is based: Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle. It's the story of Walls' dysfunctional, poverty-stricken childhood being raised by two unstable parents: the fiercely intelligent, charismatic Rex, an alcoholic who likely struggled with undiagnosed mental disorders, and Rose Mary, a painter who often prioritized her passion for art and adventure over her children. With their four children in tow, Rex and Rose Mary move constantly – chasing their next adventure and the next paycheck. The family bounces throughout the Southwest and Texas, and eventually land in Rex's hometown, Welch, W.VA., where much of the book and movie take place.
In an interview with Bustle, Jeannette Walls says the heart of the book – and of the movie — has always been the tumultuous relationship between her and her troubled father, who died in 1994.
"He loves his children. He loves his daughter," Walls tells Bustle. "But he has demons, and he is not fully able to battle his demons. And so he gives his children the tools they need to battle their demons."
This "sink or swim" method of parenting — hotly debated in book clubs throughout the country for the last decade — arguably worked: all four children do eventually find their way, each making the move to New York City to pursue their careers. (Their parents later follow — living on the streets at first, then moving into a squat on the Lower East Side.) Though Walls eventually found success as a journalist — she worked for years as a renowned gossip columnist — she always kept her past a secret from her colleagues and friends. The truth didn't come out in its entirety until 2005, when the book was released.
"I thought it was so important to hide this thing in my life that I was so afraid of," Walls says. "It was such a mistake. You have to be ready to confront your past. I’m on a bit of a mission to help people confront their past if their comfortable. One of the many things I’ve learned since telling my story is how many people walk around hiding their past — thinking their damaged or inferior because they have this wacky past."
She adds: "People are kinder and more empathetic than we give them credit for. And if you’re in a position where you’re able to open up about your past and your story, and you let your defenses down, then other people will, too."
Though there are more than six million copies of the book in circulation worldwide, the movie is an opportunity for Walls to share her story even more widely. "The magic of storytelling is that it creates these connections," Walls says. "That’s why I’m so ecstatic that this is being turned into a movie, because there’s a lot of people who don’t read, and I think my book has helped a lot of people confront their stories."
Though it's been over a decade since the book was released, Walls is still very much in the process of confronting her own story, particularly her relationship with her father. While visiting the set of the movie, Walls experienced an intense emotional breakthrough. She says that she started crying as she watched Woody Harrelson, playing her father, and Brie Larson, playing her, act out one of the most gut-wrenching scenes of her life: a nasty feud between father and daughter that concludes with her leaving home for good.
"It was surreal. It was an out-of-body experience. They were on-script and then they went off-script. Woody was saying things that my father had said that I had never told him," she says. "[Harrelson] comes over and he gives me a big hug. And I was in such a state I started apologizing to him for what I had put him through."
"You had to do it, honey," Harrelson told her. "You had to do it, or we wouldn't be here."
"It was a magical moment," she says. "I was being absolved for this thing I had done to my father 40 years ago."
Walls speaks often of the emotional intelligence of the cast of the movie —particularly Harrelson and Larson. Harrelson, she explains, had a tape of her father that he watched to get the voice and gestures down, but after that, he stopped listening and stopped watching. He didn't want to mimic her father, he told Walls, he wanted to become him. She is equally impressed by the talents of the screenwriter and director, Destin Daniel Cretton, who was the driving force for the narrative of the movie.
"A lot of great books get made into mediocre movies," Walls says. "But some books get made into movies that help them reach a wider audience."
When Walls first wrote the book, she says she fantasized that a rich kid would read this book and be inspired to treat those less fortunate than themselves with more empathy. Now, she says, her dreams have become a little more ambitious: she hopes that her book gives hope to kids like her. That dream, she tells Bustle, has already been realized in so many ways.
Not long after the publication of the book, Walls attended an event where she was met with readers from both sides of the so-called tracks. On one side, there was a popular cheerleader — the rich kid — who told Walls the book helped her understand why she shouldn't tease one of her classmates, a girl with "out of date" clothing and funky hair. On the other side, there was a young man — the poor kid — who told Walls, much to the chagrin of the woman standing behind him in line, that her book was a "fine white trash story."
"What he was telling me was 'I didn't know there were books for people like me,'" Walls says.
These are just a few of the stories from the years since The Glass Castle hit shelves. In that time, the author has met countless readers who have come to some greater understanding of themselves and others through the book.
"I was so prepared to be met with contempt and ridicule, that I saw the world as a place filled with potential enemies and now I see it as a place filled with potential friends," she says. "Because people do understand. They get it. Sometimes they get it better than I do."
In a way, it seems that the book — her life story — has transcended her altogether. "I don’t think it’s even about me anymore," she says. "It’s just about getting out this complicated story for people who might need to see it."
The Glass Castle is out in theaters on August 11.