This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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Who is Rose Mary Walls? What was her role in The Glass Castle, and how did Jeannette Walls feel about her?
In The Glass Castle, Rose Mary Walls was the mother of Jeannette Walls. Rose Mary Walls sometimes worked to provide for her children, but often let them go hungry and neglected.
Keep reading to find out more about The Glass Castle’s Rose Mary Walls.
Life With Rose Mary Walls: Fend for Yourself
Jeannette’s siblings—an older sister, Lori, a younger brother, Brian, and later, a baby sister, Maureen—were often left to their own devices for sustenance. Jeannette Walls’ mother, Rose Mary Walls, had a lifelong dream of being an artist and spent most of her time painting and what little money she had on art supplies. In The Glass Castle, Rose Mary’s art was her priority, even over feeding her children.
This priority is what led three-year-old Jeannette to cook hot dogs by herself if she was hungry. She’d stand on a stool and stir the hot dogs in boiling water on the gas stove. One day, while Rose Mary painted in the next room, Jeannette’s dress caught on fire. The flames consumed half of her little body, and she received skin grafts at the hospital. Her parents didn’t believe in western medicine, and after six weeks, Rex showed up and kidnapped her from the burn unit. He said they were checking out Rex Walls style.
Rex could never hold down a job for very long. He either quit or was fired for fighting with his superiors. He was an alcoholic and drank much of the family’s money away. With Rex drunk and unemployed most of the time and Rose Mary focused on her art, there was never much money or guidance in the Walls household.
All throughout her childhood, Jeannette and her siblings staved off starvation. She would rifle through garbage cans at school for discarded lunch items or forage for whatever she could find on the streets. On the rare occasions that there was food in the house, the family would gorge until it was gone. There was no sense of management or rationing when it came to food in her home, and by the end of every month, she’d be back to rummaging for garbage.
Rex and Rose Mary fought often. Once, Rex tried to run down a pregnant Rose Mary with his car in the desert after they’d argued about how far along she was. There was the time Rose Mary and Rex argued about money and whose responsibility it was to support the family. The fight was so loud, it brought out the entire neighborhood and ended with Rose Mary dangling from an upstairs window after she tried to jump out.
There were also times when the fights were started by Rex after stumbling home drunk. He’d scream at the kids and destroy the house, and often, he became violent and threatening to Rose Mary. For example, after the family had moved to a house in Phoenix that Rose Mary had inherited, Rex broke all of the family heirlooms and threw Rose Mary on the ground. They each grabbed a knife, but within minutes, they were laughing and back in love. Jeannette Walls’ mother would later say life with Rex was never boring.
Jeannette and Rose Mary Meet Again
Jeannette Walls saw the unmistakable image of her mother digging through trash one March night. Wind whipped down the streets of New York City. It had been months since Jeannette had seen her mother. She was in a taxi dressed up for a fancy party. Fifteen feet away stood Jeannette Walls’ mother, Rose Mary.
Rose Mary’s hair was worn, mussed, and gray, and she was thin with sunken features. For a second, Jeannette remembered other images of her mother—swan diving off cliffs, painting landscapes, reading Shakespeare to Jeannette and her siblings.
When Rose Mary glanced up, Jeannette ducked below the window. She didn’t want to be recognized and possibly outed as this homeless woman’s child. She was only blocks away from her party. Any of the other guests might see her and uncover the truth of who she was.
Jeannette asked the driver to take her home, instead of to the party. Inside her Park Avenue apartment, she took in the lavish furnishings. She’d created a space that would suit the kind of woman she wanted to be. But thoughts of her parents suffering on the streets were never far off. The shame of her luxuries and being embarrassed in the taxi weighed on her.
Jeannette and Rose Mary met for lunch a few days later, and the conversation was as random and ludicrous as ever. Her mother had cleaned up a bit, wearing a sweater with fewer stains and men’s shoes. Rose Mary launched into a discussion about the Picasso retrospective she’d seen. She didn’t think much of Picasso.
Jeannette tried to offer her parents assistance, but Rose Mary pushed the idea away. They didn’t need Jeannette’s money. Rose Mary said if Jeannette wanted to help her, she could buy her an electrolysis treatment because looking good raises your spirits. Though she was Jeannette Walls’ mother, Jeannette found it difficult to help Rose Mary.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Glass Castle summary :
- The author's unbelievable childhood as her absent parents went on alcoholic binges
- How Jeannette and her siblings escaped their parents to strike out on their own
- The complicated relationship Jeannette had with her parents before they died