Glass Castle Author Jeannette Walls reflects how she tried to help her homeless parents — and eventually persuading her mom to move onto her property

By Kim Hubbard and Sam Gillette
August 08, 2017 08:00 AM
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Author Jeannette Walls’ harrowing childhood inspired her bestselling 2005 memoir The Glass Castle and a new film version (out Aug. 11), but life with her mom as an adult proved to be almost as difficult.

In an interview in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, Walls looks back on their fraught relationship and how they reconciled, with her mother, Rose Mary, now living in a cottage on the Virginia horse farm where Walls and her husband settled after her literary success.

Walls, 57, moved in the 1980s to New York City, where she worked as New York magazine’s gossip columnist. Living on Park Avenue with her first husband, Eric Goldberg, she led a life far removed from a childhood in which she and her three siblings often went hungry, bouncing around the country with their loving but alcoholic father, Rex, and Rose Mary, who was often more entranced by painting than parenting. Years later, the couple followed their grown children to Manhattan and were alternately homeless or squatting.

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Credit: Courtesy Jeanettte Walls

Jeannette Walls (far left) with sister Lori, their parents and brother Brian in 1961.

Once, as Walls returned home in a taxi, she spotted her homeless mother rooting through the trash on a Manhattan street. Yet she told few friends or colleagues about how she grew up. “I didn’t want to be the daughter of the crazy people,” she says. “I was afraid they wouldn’t let me report on the rich and famous if they knew the truth.”

Despite her traumatic childhood, she loved her parents — and idolized her father, who once told his young children to pick their favorite star as their gift for Christmas. She offered them aid, but her parents refused to accept her help.

Eventually, Walls decided to reveal the secrets of her childhood in The Glass Castle after being encouraged by her current husband, writer John Taylor.

“When I first told John my story he thought I was exaggerating,” Walls remembers, “Then he met my mom!”

For more on Walls’ story, pick up the current issue of PEOPLE, on stands now.

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Credit: Eric Ogden

Walls and her mother, photographed by PEOPLE in July 2017.

When she wrote The Glass Castle she referenced experiences that were painful for her and embarrassing for her mother (by the time she started writing, her father was dead). When the memoir was published in 2005, her mother “said I made her the villain,” Walls said.

But a year later, in 2006, Rose Mary’s Manhattan home was destroyed in a fire. She finally accepted her daughter’s help — this time in the form of a cabin just a short walk away from Walls’ farmhouse in Orange, Va.

“Somebody once told me we become adults when we understand that our parents are human beings too,” Walls says. “It’s not even a matter of forgiveness, it’s more acceptance. My mom’s hilarious — I love having her here.”

The movie The Glass Castle stars Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts. It hits theaters on Aug. 11.