Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, encourages Elkhart to 'tell your story'

Walls wrote her memoir, "The Glass Castle" after hiding from her past for most of her life. Now, she encourages others to tell their stories too.

Posted on May 10, 2014 at 11:03 a.m.

Oaklawn's mission is to chip away at the stigma of mental illness. 

To that end, staff of the nonprofit mental health treatment center asked Jeannette Walls, bestselling author of the memoir, "The Glass Castle," to speak at Oaklawn's Spring Spectacular fundraiser at The Lerner Theater on Friday, May 9.

Walls got to the point quickly.

"My main qualification for being here tonight is that I had a really weird childhood," she said.

She went on to point out that while her situation of growing up with parents who were brilliant but misguided is a little extreme, most people have things in their pasts they'd like to forget.

But telling those stories instead of hiding in shame can mean freedom.

"For so many years, my demon was myself — it was my own past," Walls said. "But you can put that demon to work for you. Most things in life are both a blessing and a curse. It's what you chose to focus on."

Walls recounted many of the childhood memories from her memoir, including a story of how she was badly burned as a toddler because she had to cook lunch for herself.

As an adult, Walls figured out that her parents were likely dealing with mental illness. She's accepted that their behavior is out of her control, and she's taken control of her own life by telling her story rather than hiding from it.

Through her book, she's met people from all walks of life who identify with her shame and embarrassment. Her dream for "The Glass Castle," Walls said, was that a rich person would read it and be nicer to people who are different. 

"Or, even better, I hoped that someone like me would read it, and see themselves and others differently because of it," she said. 

Both of those dreams have come true over and over, as Walls' story of an alcoholic but loving father and a negligent mother has resonated with thousands since its release in 2005.

Walls' message Friday to her audience was to find the courage to stop hiding.

"Often the things we like the least about ourselves are the best things we have going for us," she said. "Shame is a funny emotion — you think you are protecting yourself but you are just isolating yourself."

Laurie Nafziger, president and CEO of Oaklawn, also briefly spoke Friday, reminding those in attendance that Oaklawn tries to address mental health treatment with "state-of-the-art expertise...and heart."

Matt Lentsch, director of the Oaklawn Foundation, said Friday that the fundraiser had brought in about $80,000 — a little more than usual.

All proceeds from the Spring Spectacular go to help Oaklawn treat people struggling with mental health issues and addictions locally. 

Follow reporter Lydia Sheaks on Twitter at @LydiaSheaks

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