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Gossip Queen to Homeless Advocate: Memoirist Jeannette Walls Visits Charlotte

Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls Jeannette Walls was a famous celebrity gossip queen revealing the secrets of Hollywood elite when she decided to write her memoir, "The Glass Castle." Listen to the extended interview. Now she visits homeless shelters and community colleges around the country telling her own secrets. Walls spoke at a luncheon for the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte Thursday and sat down with WFAE's Julie Rose. They spoke about Walls' decision to write the memoir and how telling the story of her harrowing childhood has given Walls the chance to help others struggling with poverty. TRANSCRIPT: ROSE: There are moments in The Glass Castle where I just didn't believe these awful things could possibly have happened to Jeannette Walls. A toddler forced to fend for herself, boiling hot dogs and catching her dress on fire . . . or eating only butter for meals while her father drank away the family's money and her mother painted because "a meal is gone in an hour," but "a painting will last forever." Walls says the shocking chaos and deprivation of her childhood has led many people to ask, is this really true? WALLS: "Oh all the time. And that's sort of a bizarre reaction to me because it was so excruciating for me to tell this - I was so ashamed of it. And for someone to think I made it up? My gosh! If I were to make something up I'd make up something that made me look good. This is really embarrassing! I was convinced that if people knew the truth, the life I had worked so hard to carve for myself would be destroyed. "One day when I was going to a fabulous party I saw a homeless woman rooting through the garbage and realized it was my mom. "A couple of days later we got together and I said, 'Mom, what the heck am I supposed to tell people when they ask me about you?' And she said, 'Tell them the truth.'" Rose: "And the tricky thing about 'the truth' about your mother is that she didn't have to be homeless. This was a choice she and your father were making. I think that also is something that homeless advocates struggle with - there is a perception that all homeless people have chosen this lifestyle and therefore, 'I don't have an obligation to really do anything for them.' So how do you come to terms with the reality of your mother and what you see in the communities you visit?" Walls: "You know I've begun to even question the whole concept of choice. I always thought mom made the choice to be homeless, but if somebody just is not capable of fitting into society as we define it, is that really a choice? I really don't know anymore. Things are so much more gray than I used to believe." "Mom is highly educated, a brilliant woman and just has different values than other people. And she, she was living on the streets and I finally convinced her to come live with me and she resisted at first but I've never known her to be happier." "So my previous idea that she wanted this lifestyle was maybe a little bit off and you know these wonderful people who work with the homeless - especially a place like Urban Ministries, they say, 'We meet people where they are.' And they don't pass judgment, they see the value - the humanity - in everybody. And sometimes helping them get to a different place but sometimes just making sure they don't starve to death." Rose: "So, when communities look to "end homelessness" - as Charlotte is - Walls says we need to keep in mind some people define it differently." Walls: "There are people who put freedom and self-sufficiency even before they put comfort and their own safety. At one point my mother insisted - she said 'Well Jeannette I was never homeless.' And I said, 'Mom you lived under the Washington Bridge for six weeks.' And she said, 'Yeah, that was my home.'" "So there will always be a certain segment of society that is sort of on the fringe, or beyond the fringe. And that's sort of okay, but it doesn't mean we can ignore people like that, and just sort of reach out and remind - not only them, but ourselves of these people's humanities - and not to look past them and think, 'Oh, disgusting people who are ruining our beautiful city.'" "Everybody has something to offer and if we can remember that, then it not only benefits them, but it benefits us as well." Rose: "You have to wonder, though, how Walls ended up breaking the cycle of poverty and addiction that lands so many others in and out of homelessness. She says she was lucky that her parents always stressed the importance of education and self-esteem." Walls: "My father was all the time designing this wonderful glass house we were going to live in one day - The Glass Castle. And whenever times got really tough he would just pull out the blueprints and we would work on it." "I believe that just gave me a sense of hope - and a belief in myself that I deserved something better than sleeping in cars and sleeping in cardboard boxes and living in this little unheated shack in West Virginia. I believe if you get that sense of hope and belief in yourself, that that is the greatest gift a child can get."