While sitting in a limo in Manhattan wondering if she is overdressed for the party, Jeannette Walls looks out the window and spots her homeless mom rummaging through garbage in an alley.
Walls’ astonishing memoir, The Glass Castle, begins here and then chronicles a childhood in which alcohol, dysfunction and bad choices conspired to keep her whole family
destitute. After she and her siblings moved to New York City and clawed their way out, her well-educated parents continued to live in poverty. And when the pair moved to New York to join their children, ultimately the two of them were without a home.
The book contains one incredible episode after another of pain, hardship and disappointment. Yet one that struck me the most took place after Jeannette had scraped together enough funds to go to college. There she took a course from a professor she enjoyed who began teaching about the effects of economic and social forces on people.
> One day Professor Fuchs asked if homelessness was the result of drug abuse and misguided entitlement programs, as the conservatives claimed, or did it occur, as the liberals argued, because of cuts in social service programs and the failure to create economic opportunity for the poor? Professor Fuchs called on me.
> I hesitated. “Sometimes, I think, it’s neither.”
> “Can you explain yourself?”
> “I think sometimes people get the lives they want.”
> “Are you saying homeless people want to live on the street?” Professor Fuchs asked, “Are you saying they don’t want warm beds and roofs over their heads?”
> “Not exactly,” I said. I was fumbling for words. “They do. But if some of them were willing to work hard and make compromises, they might not have ideal lives, but they could make ends meet.”
> Professor Fuchs walked around from behind her lectern. “What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged?” she asked. She was practically trembling with agitation. “What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?”
> The other students were staring at me.
> “You have a point,” I said.
> (pp. 256-57)
We sympathize with Walls’ dilemma of how much to share the depths of her life story with those she meets. Here the author ends the chapter without comment and allows the massive irony to loom over the reader with much more effect than if she had gone on for pages. The student should have been instructing the teacher.
The point is not that everything is a matter of individual choice and that no larger forces thrust themselves unbidden into our lives. Rather, the point is that when we are talking to someone and think we know what we are talking about, we should think again. I don’t condemn Professor Fuchs because too often I have been Professor Fuchs. When we are lured by arrogance to make assured proclamations, we should consider what true humility and compassion would say, and how they would listen instead.
So when we are tempted to expound on the causes and effects of alcoholism, the troubles and triumphs of immigration, the needs and results of adoption, the hopes and dreams of prisoners, or the ways and means of the handicapped—we should stop and remember that we never know whom we may be talking to.