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NOW on the News
January 2, 2007

NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Jeannette Walls on Poverty and Homelessness
January 2, 2007

» More about this interview

HINOJOSA: Hello, everyone and welcome to the program, I'm Maria Hinojosa. This week we're speaking to Jeannette Walls, author of "The Glass Castle," a memoir chronicling her youth and conditions of extreme poverty and occasional homelessness that she endured. Her book has won numerous awards and spent over a year on the New York Times Best Seller list. You might also recognize Jeannette for her entertainment reporting for The Scoop on MSNBC. Welcome, Jeannette.

WALLS: Thank you.

HINOJOSA: You know, Jeannette, one of the things that fascinated me is how people can essentially dismiss other people if they don't seem "quote un quote" normal or right, you know, if they're the other, if they're homeless. And you wrote this incredible memoir because, in essence, you were one of those people. You were one of the people that people dismissed.

WALLS: Yeah, Maria, and it's very complicated. You know, one of the reasons that I wanted to write this book is to give a face to homelessness. As you—it's very easy to—to think of somebody who's on the street as different from us. "Oh, that's a—that—that would never happen to me. This—these people bring it on themselves." Or, there just sort of anonymous.

But, this is something that I lived with it—as—with a secret for a long time. I didn't tell anybody that—that my mother was living on the street, and in fact, that I had been homeless from time to time. And it—it was a source of shame, but also one of the reasons I didn't explain it is because I think it's so complex. But, I wanted to—to say, "You know, there's a story behind each of these people." Every time you see somebody on the street, there's a reason that this person is here. And the reasons are as varied as the people themselves. But, don't dismiss people as being different from you and—and that—I think that peo—one of the reasons that people can and try to distance themselves from people is to sort of anesthetize themselves to think, "Oh, that could never happen to me, I'm so unlike that person."

But, I think one of the things that I tried to do in my book is to say, "You know, we're not all that different," you know. One of the great shockers to me has been the number of people who've come up to me and read my story and said, "You know, the details of our lives are very different, but we have a lot in common." And it's actually been the great gift the readers have given me in exchange for coming clean about my story, is they've taken me out of isolation and made me see what we all have in common.

HINOJOSA: So, now, Jeannette when you're walking down the street and you see someone who's homeless, or you see a little kid who's, you know, the way you were—maybe not dressed alright, maybe not so clean—what do you do in those moments?

WALLS: Well, the thing that I do the most is—is I just try to smile at the person. I—I believe that the thing that people in those situations need more than anything is dignity and a sense of pride. And I think if you speak to just about any homeless person, one of the things that they'll tell you is people look right past them. They—try not to see them. And if you just smile and nod at the person, I think that just means the world to them.

HINOJOSA: You mean, making the invisible visible just with simple kind of eye recognition, a smile—

WALLS: Exactly.

HINOJOSA: I see you.

WALLS: Exactly—and—and just maybe a little nod, and the person is just invariably grateful that—that they haven't been, as you said, made invisible.

HINOJOSA: Talk to me about feeling powerless, because there were moments when I felt that you as a child growing up with—with your parents, who we'll talk about a little bit later on—but there were moments when, you know, I wanted to scream at the people who were treating you badly when you were growing up. Because, I felt bad that you were powerless as, you know, as a kid who was sometimes homeless and living in these, you know, very difficult situation.

WALLS: I suppose I was powerless in—in one way. You know, kids—and—and I think that that's—that's a whole problem with homelessness, again, it's easy to dismiss people who are homeless, or they ask for it, they brought it on themselves—but, the kids of the homeless, that's the real heartbreaker. They—they're not in a situation to change their lives. I personally feel that I was luckier than—than many people in our financial circumstances that my parents gave me hope, which I think a lot of kids in the same circumstances don't have.

But, one of the wonderful things that's happened—in talking to people about my story is—is, I think—a number of people have come up to me and said, "After having read your story, I will never look at the shabby kids in my class the same way."

HINOJOSA: Oh, that must be amazing for you.

WALLS: It's—I—you know, I feel like I could get struck by lightning and it would be fine now that I've gone my job on this planet. Because, you know—my—my fondest hope for the book while I was writing it—which, I have to tell you, it was—it was not an easy decision to write it because I was so ashamed about the details of my life, and I think that that's—I think that that's the worst thing about homeless is the shame and the embarrassment and the humiliation. And it was just very difficult for me to come out and say, "This is who I am."

But, while I was writing it, I hoped that people who read it, who didn't know about—about people like me, would read it and say, "Hey, you know, she's not that different from me." And, then while I was writing it, I got an even fonder hope for the book, and that was that people who were like me would read it and say, "Hey, you know, she's not that different from me," and would understand, "This is what it takes to try to change your situation."

And, you know, the first—the first hope came—has come true numerous times when people tell me that they gave the book to a friend, who give it to a friend who gave it to a popular kid in the class who said, you know, "Oh, my gosh, there's a girl in my class who has greasy hair and always wears the same outfit and I always make fun of her. And now I understand." But, that second hope came true—a—a number of occasions where—kids have told me that, "Oh, my God, my life is just like yours and now I see there is a way for me to change it."

HINOJOSA: The interesting thing, though, is because even when you had power, you know, as—a columnist with New York Magazine, E! Entertainment Network, Esquire Magazine, now as—with MSNBC, you said that you thought that if you came clean and revealed your life, that you would lose everything.

WALLS: There was no doubt in my mind. There was no doubt in my mind that once people knew the truth about me that I was gonna be ostracized, that people would throw rocks at me. And, I realize now that part of that was taking these—these old fears and experiences from my childhood when—when people found out how poor we really were, they would throw rocks at me. And—and so, I think that you carry along some of those old—those residual feelings with you, some of those residual fears.

It's interesting because after I came clean about my story, I thought, "Oh, my gosh, everybody's treated me so well and has only greeted me with love and—and warmth, and embracement." But, then, it's interesting—somebody who I worked with at one of these magazines came up and she said, "I think you were right to keep it all sec—a secret because, you would have been stereotyped. If you'd revealed this early in your career, you—people would have thought of you differently."

So, I—I don't really know what the answer is right now. I—I'm—I'm embarrassed that I was as embarrassed as I was. But, at the same time, people do stereotype. And, I think it's very easy for people, first of all, to blame themselves the way that I did—to think that these bad things happen to you because you're somehow inferior.

But, I think that despite my wonderful experiences since having come clean about my life, I think that people also do tend to blame the victim and say, "Oh, something was wrong with you. You're this type of person." The fact that I revealed after I'd completely changed my life has made people say, "Oh, great, she's turned around her life." But, if I'd revealed it early on in my career—you know, when—when I was still, sort of trying to make a name for myself, I think it would have labeled me in—in a certain way. And I think that people are very quick to stereotype and to—and to say, "Oh, well this person belongs in this category."

HINOJOSA: Now we're gonna have a—a link to a little segment of your book so our—our pod cast listeners can look at that. But, you know, there—there is, of course, when I first started reading it and I—we should come clean, we went to school together at (NOISE) Barnard, though we didn't really know each other at Barnard. And—and I—I happen to think that you were the most extraordinary and sophisticated and best dressed, wealthiest woman in all of Barnard, and I was the one that was struggling to get the—the next meal. So, we had no idea about each other at—at the time in Barnard.

WALLS: Bless your heart, I was an impostor. I worked very hard at it too, honey.

HINOJOSA: Well, you worked—you worked it, girl, cause it was working. So, this part of your book that you start out—and when I started reading this I was like, "Oh, my God—" you say, you know, you're sitting in this taxi wondering if you had overdressed for this fabulous evening out when you looked out the—the window and you see your mom rooting through a dumpster. And—and for the people who haven't read the book, I'm gonna fast forward to when you were now eight or nine years old.

You're growing up in this small town and—and I love the way you say it. You said you were the poorest people in a very poor town. You caught water in a rain bucket, you had no bathroom. You had a roof with lots of holes in it. I found in your story that the strength that you had—and your brothers and sisters to just, (NOISE) I don't know, make it was phenomenal. Where did that come from?

WALLS: You know, I didn't have a whole lotta choice, you know, you—you just gotta survive. And—I honestly do believe that some of us kids who had tough childhoods are at—in some ways, an advantage over the more privileged kids in this world. I really do believe that. We're fighters, we know how to—how to make a situation work for us.

The—the trick is knowing when to stop fighting. And I think that that's something I'm just now starting to learn is—

HINOJOSA: What do you mean?

WALLS: —is that, you know, I mean I was—I went to great lengths to—to hide the extent of our poverty. Even when I was living down there I would—you know, wash my face—when we couldn't catch rain water, I'd wash my face in snow, or with ice cycles, cause I just didn't want people to know how poor we were. And, when I came to New York, I was just so determined to make it. I was not going to be looked down on for the rest of my life and having people make fun of me. And—I thought I'd escaped my past, but the past has a funny way of catching up with you and my parents ended up moving to New York as well and—and did end up homeless.

You know, and—and when I saw my mother on the street that day, you know, to my shame to this day I'm—I'm very ashamed that I—I didn't acknowledge her. I slid down in the back of the taxi and asked the driver to take me home. I got together with her a couple days later and I said, "What am I supposed to tell people when they ask me about you, Mom?" And she looked at me as though I'd just asked the silliest question in the world and she said, "Tell them the truth."

HINOJOSA: Love your mom. Your mom's amazing.

WALLS: The woman has a lot of wisdom to her. And—at the time it seemed impossible. "How could I possibly explain to people the truth?" But, it also seemed unavoidable.

You know, here I'm a journalist. I write about other people's lives and other people's secrets, and for so long I've been hiding my own truth. I've been running from my own truth and—and, you might call that ironic, you might call it hypocritical. Whatever it was, I had to confront my past.

I hugely underestimated people's capacity for understanding a story if you're willing to come clean and really be honest about it. And I think that that's one of the great challenges we really face right now is—is explaining the story completely. I think that people are good and kind if they understand. But, I think that the impulse is to not understand because it does—it shields you and anesthetizes you. And, if you're able to blame the people on the street, "Oh, they—they belong there for a reason because they're drug addicts or irresponsible," then that's easier to think that, "Oh, they're different from us, and that would never happen to me."

HINOJOSA: So, I want to know about your mom, right now. How's she doing? Is she still in New York? Is—is she homeless at this point? Is she—

WALLS: You know, one of the funny things about my mother is that, if you asked her—she would say—in fact, I did ask her this—and she said, "Oh, I was never homeless." I said, "Mom, you lived under the George Washington Bridge for three months." And she said, "Right, that was my home." And some people would—some people would say she's in denial, you know, she would deny that, but, that was her way of def—defining and coping with it.

HINOJOSA: Coping? Is that—I mean, is it coping or it that she's saying, "Jeanette, that was my home."

WALLS: "That was my home. That was my home." And, you know—but, even when she was homeless from time to time, she would acknowledge being homeless but—and she said while she was reading my book she said, "I'd forgotten some of these things when they happened at time. But, when I read them you were right."

But, my mother, you know—she's—many people have asked me if I think that she's mentally ill. I—I don't know, she's never been diagnosed as that. She certainly does not have the same values that most people do. She's a highly educated woman, she's very resourceful—and I hesitate to say that she chose to be homeless. Because, I don't know—you know, do drug addicts choose to be homeless? Whatever bent of her personality, she wasn't willing to make the compromises that many people are to have—I mean, to say to get her back into the system. She would resist that.

HINOJOSA: So, when people say they choose it, and you know that your mom, you know, has basically resisted your—your efforts to help and pay the bills or whatever—help our listeners figure that one out.

WALLS: It's—it's just—it's very tough, but I—I think that there are no simple answers with somebody like my mother. My mother enjoys the struggle. But, I will tell you also, her building—you know, she moved into an abandoned building and she just loved the fight. She loved the struggle. But it—the building caught on fire not that long ago and she got displaced again. And—the woman is 72 years old and—I—my husband and I twisted her arm and she's actually now living with me and my husband.

HINOJOSA: You're kidding?

WALLS: And she says it's a temporary situation, she's—she's—every time we go through, you know, a town with abandoned buildings, she always eyes them very, "Oh, that's a nice one, maybe I'll move there." But—

HINOJOSA: The reality is that, you know, that at any moment your mom could just walk out and say, "Okay, Jeannette it was nice being in your home—my home for three months, but it's time to go."

WALLS: She could any moment. Right now, I've never seen her happier. So, we'll see what happens. I mean—she's—she's living here. I think it's quite wonderful, I think it's a wonderful situation. She doesn't live in our house, but we have a little outbuilding that she stays in and it—and it's worked very, very well.

I think one of the great tragedies of modern life is that they're aren't more extended families, that you can't take in, you know, that—so many people—when I was living in New York City, there was no way I could take her in. But, I think that, you know, with my living situation now it's—it's very easy. But, I think with—with life today, we don't have the extended families that we used to of, you know, the nineteenth century where we could just take in somebody who doesn't quite fit into the system.

HINOJOSA: You know, there were times, of course, when I was reading the book—and in—and in processing the book—where I really, you know—as—as erratic as your mom is, and—and it was hard, you know, when she'd be—hoarding her chocolate bars, although I'm the one that hoards the chocolate bars in my home, but anyway—you know, I—I felt like your mom was really, like, the sanest of us all. She has no trappings. She doesn't fight for status. She's not, you know, she's not a consumer. She lives her life fully. She trusts her gut. She's—

WALLS: Well, bless your heart for saying that, because I—you know, it's very interesting to me how people react very differently to my mother when they read the book. Some people thought she was a criminal and should have been thrown—locked up and thrown away, really, and—and should have been committed. Other people think that she's an unique American character of free spirit and an artist who certainly had her flaws, but who doesn't? But, I—you know, I—I think it's been fascinating to hear people's reactions to her.

And, you know, when I—when I confronted her about being homeless, she confronted me back in saying, "Whose values are screwed up? You're the one who won't acknowledge your mother in public," and it gave me a lot to think about.

HINOJOSA: And at the same time, at the end—how do I—I don't wanta reveal this for those who don't—who haven't yet read the book, but, you know, if—if you're gonna read the book, then, you know, pause on this part and move on the next question—because your mom reveals that, in fact, she had a plot of land worth lots and lots of money. And that the point where, actually, for me as a reader, that's when I got mad at her.

WALLS: Well, you know, it's interesting because—readers are very smart. I—I—you know, one of the things that has shocked me is—is how sometimes readers are smarter than—than I am about my own life. And my initial reaction to finding out, "Oh, my gosh, you mean all of this deprivation that we went through was—was caprice on your part? You could have just sold that," and one reader was—was arguing that point, and then another reader at an event that I attended said, "No, if she would have sold that, her husband, your father, would have just got them—his hands on the money and it would have all been gone in one drunker bender, and she'd have nothing to pass on to her children." So, you know, it's just made me think, "You know, nothing in life is simple and just don't point the finger and blame other people."

HINOJOSA: How do you make that—that idea—that notion, that possibility of humanity—how do you translate that into public policy? I mean, I'm sure you've thought about this, you're, you know, super-smart. But, how do you make it into something that works in terms of public policy?

WALLS: You know, I think that ignorance is—is our biggest enemy and—and just trying to understand people's situations—understand what we can do, what we can't do. As far as I'm concerned, the best public policies are the ones that help people help themselves—that have the resources out there. You know, you give somebody a fish and you give 'em a meal. But, you give him a—you teach him how to fish, and—and you feed them for life and so I'm—I'm a big advocate of—of education, of opportunities.

You know, I'm speaking at this one organization that—that helps homeless people, and one of the things that try to do is get them back into the work force. And this lawyer was telling me that she hired a woman who'd been homeless and she thought she would be taking on a burden. She said she thought she was gonna be taking on this basket case, this woman who was constantly be in need of help. And this woman told me, she said, "I end up asking this woman for advice, for help. She has been a pillar in my life."

But, this woman, because she's such a scrapper and a street fighter and a survivor—I used to think and mea culpa—I was very guilty of this—I used to think that in helping in other people, you pull yourself down. But, I—I only recently begin to understand the extent to which, you know, you really put everybody up. You really elevate everybody when you pull somebody else up.

HINOJOSA: And you could at this point in your career, Jeannette, you could walk away from going into homeless shelters and addressing homeless groups. You don't have to be doing that.

WALLS: Oh, these are the kindest, most wonderful, interesting people that I have ever met. I mean, I think that, you know, anybody who hasn't done this, should. And it's not giving of yourself, like I said, you get so much more back than you ever give—kind, funny, smart people who have so much to offer, and we are ignoring a huge resource if we—if we think—if we try to cut these people off because they're—they're for the most part, good and strong and kind people. And you lose so much more—I mean, the idea that, you know, we can't afford to help them, we can't afford not to help them because we'll—it's an investment that you get many returns on.

HINOJOSA: Okay, Jeannette, so the reality is that right now you make your—your living as an entertainment reporter, you know, you're into gossip. You're dealing with people who have wealth beyond means. I mean, so, you've been asked this a lot, and—and I think it was interesting that you said, "Look, yeah I deal with a lot of people who've got everything except that sometimes they're not really happy."
WALLS: Well, you know, I am questioned many times why on earth I went into this—this particular field, because there—there is such—it's a little insane, to tell you the truth, that I'm sitting here reporting on (NOISE) celebrities and all that. And I do wonder the extent to which it was my saying, you know, "Oh, my goodness—everybody has something." It's easy to think that people who look poor are poor. But, you know, everybody has problems.

If you wanta put this in a less flattering light it might be, you know, I still might be the unpopular, little, shabby kid in class saying, "Nicole Kidman's got her problems too." So, you—you know, to what degree was I just trying to expose that everybody has problems and to what degree am I trying to get back at the haves?

So, I—I don't—I don't really know, but I think that one of the things that this—that this whole experience has taught me is that—poor people have not cornered the market on unhappiness. And—that some of the—some wealthy people are the most miserable people in the world that—that I know. And I—I would—I would include myself in that category.

When I was living on Park Avenue and had kept my past a secret, I—I think I was very ha—unhappy. I think I—I was convinced, among other things that I was a fraud and a phony. I think that maybe I had some survivors guilt, but I also was convinced that I was inferior to all these people I was hanging around.

HINOJOSA: When you see that homeless kid who looks like you, maybe different race, but you can just tell, what do you say to him or her? Do you take him? Do you hold him? Do you look at them? What do you say?

WALLS: What I would say to anybody who was in the situation that I was is, "It will work out in the end if you believe in yourself." And I think that that's what these kids need more than anything in the world is a belief in themselves and a belief in the future, and that they can change things. I mean, I think that that's why I was so much luckier than so many kids in similar circumstances is that my—my parents put a very high emphasis on education which I'm a big, big fan of—education is a great equalizer—but also, hope and belief in yourself. And then you can get through just about anything.

HINOJOSA: Jeannette Walls, thank you so much for speaking with us on the Now On the News pod cast.

WALLS: Thank you.

HINOJOSA: To read an excerpt of Jeannette's memoir, The Glass Castle, visit Now's website at www.pbs.org/now. Thanks again, Jeannette, it's been wonderful to reconnect and thank you so much for your book.

WALLS: It's my pleasure.

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