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Excruciating and beautiful: 'Glass Castle' author sees life on screen

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Brie Larson and author Jeannette Walls on the set
Brie Larson and author Jeannette Walls on the set of "The Glass Castle."
Jake Giles Netter

For years Jeannette Walls felt ashamed of her impoverished, dysfunctional childhood. Then she wrote a best-selling memoir about a family living on the edge. 

The book, "The Glass Castle," helped her accept her past. And when the film version of her story opens in theaters this weekend, Walls said she hopes it will help others deal with their troubled histories.

She came away from watching the movie adaptation of her own childhood a writhing mess of emotions.  

"It was ... excruciating and beautiful, and awful and lovely," she said.  

Published in 2005, "The Glass Castle" tells of Walls' life with a brilliant but alcoholic father, Rex, and an eccentric but accepting painter mother, Rose Mary.

Rex couldn't hold a job. Walls and her siblings were often hungry. And the family was often on the move, keeping one step ahead of creditors — and sometimes the law.

"We led a very chaotic life. Mine was the kind of family that people pointed at and said, 'Look at those crazy people. Why don't they take better care of their children?'" 

Cast members for "The Glass House" on set
From left to right, Naomi Watts as Rose Mary Walls, Woody Harrelson as Rex Walls, Charlie Shotwell as Young Brian and Sadie Sink as Young Lori.
Jake Giles Netter

Despite it all, she describes it as a loving family.

  "We moved from town to town before I was 10. We slept in cars sometimes. Slept on the beach. Sometimes we'd find a house, go to school, he'd take us out," she said of her father. 

"Through all of that chaos, dad promised us it was temporary, that one of these days he was going to build a great big mansion for us in the desert. And he called it the Glass Castle. And whenever things got difficult, he would pull out the blueprints for the Glass Castle and he would work on them."

  That story got modified slightly when circumstances forced them to move to a run-down house in the mining town where Rex had grown up. In the movie, as Rose Mary paints the front door yellow, Rex leads the children on a tour through the house that's filled with possibility: A trampoline, glass windows instead of walls, and that lovely yellow door, which stood for happiness and creativity, Rose Mary tells her children.

  "They gave us something to believe in," Walls remembered. "And I believed in my father's mythology about himself and me, as well. And when I couldn't believe in him anymore, I believe they, both him and my mother, gave me the tools to believe in myself." 

Walls eventually left her parent's home and moved to New York, where she became a magazine gossip columnist. Ashamed of the poverty of her upbringing, she covered up her past. Then, much to her horror, her parents moved to New York, too. Rex and Rose Mary became squatters in an abandoned building, scavenging on the streets. Jeannette tried reasoning with them.

"One time, when I saw my mom rooting through the garbage, I later asked, 'What the heck am I supposed to tell people about you?' And she said, 'Tell the truth,'" she said. "And it was such a simple and elegant challenge. I was working as a celebrity columnist, digging up other people's truths, but hiding my own. And the irony and, you can fairly say, the hypocrisy, did not escape me."

So she wrote "The Glass Castle." Now the film is coming out. Woody Harrelson plays her dad, Naomi Watts plays her mother and Brie Larson plays Walls herself. 

It was an extraordinary experience watching Larson, watching her, she said: "She saw these physical mannerisms that I have. One of the times that I was watching her on set, and she was doing this funny thing with her hands. And I was like, 'Oh, that's sort of funny the way she does that.' And I realized, 'Oh gosh, I do that too!'"

  Walls said she hopes seeing the film will get people to tell their own stories — and maybe come to terms with the difficult parts of their own histories. 

Even if we sometimes can't bring ourselves to forgive the past, she said, there is tremendous power in just accepting it.