FORT WAYNE – She lived a nomadic childhood under the eye of an alcoholic father and a mother who possibly suffers from a mental illness.
Her home never had running water and the family was so poor that Jeannette Walls frequently found herself rooting around in a garbage bin for food.
That upbringing – one that Walls kept quiet for years out of shame – turned out to be the basis for a best-selling memoir and soon-to-be movie.
And now Walls can look back on it as a blessing – one that taught her to be a fighter and tough.
“I think I’m the luckiest human being ever,” she said Wednesday. “With that said, there is no amount of money that would make me want to relive it.”
Walls came to Fort Wayne as part of IPFW’s Omnibus Lecture Series.
The established author spoke with the media and met with a small class of students before her main presentation, sharing much of her past life and how she’s changed in the process.
“I will answer absolutely any question I can,” she proudly told the students.
It wasn’t always that way, though.
Prior to her memoir, “The Glass Castle,” Walls rarely ever spoke of her childhood, especially after she became a celebrity journalist in New York City.
The 53-year-old was born in Phoenix, but her family moved from place to place over the years – with periods of homelessness in between – before settling in Welch, W.Va., where Walls’ father initially called home.
Frequently, the family hid from social service workers and Walls pulled no punches on their living conditions Wednesday.
“We were below white trash,” she said.
Walls said she escaped to New York at 17, went to college and eventually became a journalist, first working for a weekly before becoming entrenched in the world of celebrity gossip.
But writing snark-laced paragraph bits about the rich and fabulous, some of whom she grew to like, left much to be desired – despite the good money she was making.
“I thought I was on top of the world, but something was missing. Something was wrong,” she said.
During this time, she frequently talked around anything involving her past, choosing not to share where she came from.
She was embarrassed, she said, and thought that as a grown up she’d face the same chastisement from adults that she faced from kids about her family’s history. It wasn’t until her best friend sat her down and told her that things didn’t add up, and that if she couldn’t be honest with him about her past he no longer wanted to continue being friends.
Walls spilled her story to him, and that friend turned into her husband.
“One of the first things he said was, ‘This would make a good book,’ ” she said Tuesday.
Walls wrote that book, one of the most cathartic experiences of her life, and the reception was the complete opposite of what she feared.
People reacted strongly to her story and even opened up to her about their own stories. Some of the celebrities she covered said they saw their own alcoholic parent in the stories of her father.
Walls has since written other books, one a “true life novel” revolving around stories of her grandmother.
The main reason she came to speak to students was to get them to begin thinking of their own stories, in the belief that sharing stories with each other is a way to connect with others.
“If they leave thinking only of my story, I haven’t done my job,” Walls said.