Trigger warning: discussion of neglect, domestic violence and alcoholism
Film has the power to move you. It has an innate way to capture your dreams and fantasies, transporting you to a world beyond your own.
Sometimes, it is reflects your own life, mirroring a part of you and helping you rectify a pain within you. The Glass Castle, starring Academy Award winner Brie Larson, is based on the memoirs of journalist Jeanette Walls. In it, it denotes Walls’ life with her non-conformist parents who refuse to live a stable life. Bouncing from house to house, her father Rex drinks heavily and it impacts Jeanette’s life. Telling the story in flashbacks, it also deals with her adult self realising the impact this truly had on her.
Watching this film, an icy yet inflamed feeling circled inside me. It was one of familiarity, one that I had been grappling with a lot of my life. It reverberated within me, like a bullet, smashing into each one of my last nerves. I recognised similar emotions that flowed throughout the film.
I saw my own life in those cinematic moments: My own dealings with my mother and my stepfather’s alcoholism.
When I was around 10, my parents divorced. Amicably, but it was a hefty blow to myself and my sister. Especially because my mother had found a new partner Dave. Though we were all wrapped up in Dave’s charm and flashy behaviour, it became more and more obvious that he was a dickhead – a self-absorbed, whining, entitled, racist, moron who spent every waking second of his life suckling on an alcoholic drink. For some reason, however, my mother stuck by him.
Despite having a loving and brilliant father, life got considerably worse after Dave’s arrival into our lives. Due to a new job offer, we moved across the country to a council estate in Manchester. I’m going to lay some cards on the table: Moving was a choice that me and my older sister Sasha made. We could’ve stayed with my Dad but due to my mum’s pregnancy, we chose to keep close. This decision does offer me some comfort. The moment my little sister Lola returned from the hospital is one of my absolute favourite memories followed shortly by the arrival of my incredible little brother Theo.
Like the family in The Glass Castle our life consisted of bouncing around different places. Our household was a powder keg. Anger and rage had settled in the house like embers from a fire ready to explode. We’d get home from school, my parents would either start drinking or go to the pub, they’d get back late and fall out into an argument.
Everything became soured: A trip to Blackpool turned into a freezing abandonment on the beach front as our parents wailed at one another. My mother was hospitalised with a broken arm during her pregnancy with my brother. Birthdays turned into nightmares. Parties would end in police banging on the door. There were incidents just too pained in my mind for open up about now but they are there, ghosts constantly twisting in my gut.
It was unpredictable and awful, horrid moments such as these would fall into our lives like a crooked routine.
Through decades of my life, I’d always been able to excuse my mother’s drinking as a product of my stepfather’s. I gave excuses and smiled throughout the issues. “If only she left Dave,” became our go-to response to yet another argument that would be another shard to our world. These shattered pieces began to build to a puzzle not quite solved: Maybe my mum is also an alcoholic like my stepdad.
It was a half-lie that we lived: Everything was because of him and his issues. Yet as the years came, to me, my sisters, and my brother, we all started to realise that her behaviour wasn’t OK either. She, herself, went through a troubled upbringing that she never sought therapy or help for. Instead, she’d drown herself in gin and regal horrific details to her children about her life. She’d then expect comfort or become more enraged, taking her frustrations out on us in a verbal way. Sometimes physical. She’d begin to speak in venom as she tried to fashion us into ideal kids. Our weight, fashion, sexuality, and life choices were undermined, devalued, and we were bullied for it.
Yet still – “If only she left Dave” echoed over the emotional abuse that I don’t think any of us kids have really said aloud before. It wasn’t until The Glass Castle where I actually realised that spirits had been broken not just at the hands of my stepfather.
This mask began to crack in the up run to my older sister Sasha’s birthday. See, Dave wasn’t invited. At my sister’s wedding, my mother had gotten horrendously drunk too soon. She made a spectacle of herself: cackling through the speeches, making herself the center of the attention, then arguing with my brother enough to upset my niece and the wedding party. She then tried to call Dave to come to the wedding. It’s with that the mask slipped off and fragmented on the floor. I’ve never been able to put it back together.
That she couldn’t hold it together for one night and make it really special for her eldest daughter repulses me down to my core. That my sister will always look back on that day and have this note of sadness to it upsets us all. It’s something my mum has never truly addressed or apologised for. That was April last year and since, every meeting with my mum has been met with hesitation and fear and I’ve slowly distanced myself from her.
What upsets me most is that my little brother and sister still live in this ferocious world and that’s all they’ve known. Myself and Sasha have my father and memories of happier time. I just wish, every day, I could have taken them under my wing and kept them by my side, raising them my own way. I want this world to be better for them and I hope they can forgive me for leaving.
I’m writing this still reeling from a more recent incident where an assumed fun night with my mother and my sister turned sour when the latter got too drunk, again, too quickly, and it descended into an argument. See, the big thing is that me and my mum were never in conflict about her specific behaviour until recently and it’s like a constant stomach turn: A pit of despair.
What’s frustrating is that she tries desperately to make excuses or twist her actions into more positive ones, shirking that responsibility onto any one of my siblings, my “step-dad,” or a specific branding of alcohol (I hate to tell you guys, but alcohol is all the same). Herein lies a lot of the friction: Until my mother recognises that whilst she has a turbulent life (and always have), she has put her children through violent, painful, and sorrow-filled moments. She has confused them all as confidants and leaned on us to lift her up. She layers her guilt with more alcohol, and her relationships turn sourer. It’s a taste in my mouth that I hate.
Whilst my family aren’t as impoverished as the Watersons in The Glass Castle, the similarities are striking and hit me with their whole weight. Bouncing around different homes for different reasons, chaotic nights and physical fights, having to leave my little brother and sister to go off to university (and that absolute anguish that continues to this day), all appear in the movie so brilliantly acted by Brie Larson and Woody Harrelson.
What is strikingly real in The Glass Castle is love and respect. It’s that moment when you realise that you have none for someone you’ve been raised to adore whole-heartedly. Not love. And that’s the hardest part – I still love my mother. I still want to help her, spend time with her, and in the middle of the night when my anxiety grips me, I just want to call her up and have her coo me back to sleep. I still try so hard to make things right.
But it’s clear that our relationship is cracked. It’s been broken for a while but now I can see it and feel it down to my core. I may still love my mother, but I don’t like her at all. Day by day, it is harder to move past that.
Similarly to The Glass Castle, my biggest hope is that my mother would recognise her own issues and get help. Then we can rebuild our relationship. While it may not be the same, and constantly fragile like the film’s titular imaginary place, we could start anew and better. It is time for her to be honest and realise that she hasn’t been a good mother or person for a long time. She needs to start her own journey of recovery and healing then my siblings and I can truly start ours.
Though The Glass Castle may not be a perfect film (the film reconciles the issues way to quickly and schmaltzy), it has definitely offered a cinematic solace for me to reconcile my own emotions surrounding my mother and her alcoholism.
I hope it does for others in a similar position.
The Glass Castle starring Brie Larson and Woody Harrelson is out on DVD and BluRay now.