The Glass Castle: Alcoholism Defines The Walls Family

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What is the connection between The Glass Castle and alcoholism? How does the Walls family deal with alcoholism in the book?

In The Glass Castle, alcoholism is an important theme. The Walls family suffers the effects of Rex Walls’ alcoholism, and as a result, the children go hungry, fend for themselves, and deal with abuse and neglect.

Read more about The Glass Castle, alcoholism, and Jeannette Walls.

Fend for Yourself: The Children of The Glass Castle’s Alcoholism

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. Their mother, Rose Mary, had a lifelong dream of being an artist and spent most of her time painting and what little money she had on art supplies. 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. 

Family Drama

The Glass Castle’s alcoholism issues caused 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. 

Rex’s drinking caused many problems for his family, but there were a few stints of sobriety along the way, such as when Jeannette told him her birthday wish was for him to stop drinking. He detoxed in an upstairs bedroom and stayed sober for a couple of months, but he always fell off the wagon. 

After the family moved to Rex’s hometown of Welch, West Virginia, his drinking became a full-time job. The town was small and blue collar, and the family lived in a dilapidated house on the side of the hill. The family would stay in that house until each child eventually packed up and moved to New York City as teenagers. But over the years, the house had fallen down around them. By the time Jeannette left for New York at seventeen, the only way in or out of the house was through the back window.  In The Glass Castle, alcoholism was a way of life and the cause of many of the family’s problems.

The Status Quo

Rex and Rose Mary bounced from one cheap room to another their first few months in New York. They either couldn’t pay the rent or caused too much trouble. Brian wouldn’t let them stay with him, believing they needed to figure things out on their own. But Lori, who by now lived in an apartment in Brian’s building, let them move in with her and Maureen. In The Glass Castle, alcoholism caused problems even for the children as adults.

The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, but after four months, Rex and Rose Mary were still at Lori’s, and the apartment was starting to look like their house in Welch. Rose Mary cluttered the apartment with artwork and treasures collected from the street. Despite turning her apartment into a junkyard, Lori’s annoyance was more at her father than her mother. 

Rex was still the same Rex he’d always been. He somehow always had money for alcohol, didn’t have a job, and came home late at night drunk and ready to fight. To help ease the burden on Lori, Brian finally took Rex in. Brian locked up all the alcohol in the house in a cabinet, but Rex broke in and consumed everything the first week he was there. When Brian told Rex he couldn’t live with him if he kept drinking, Rex decided to live in the van.

Things got worse in Lori’s apartment. Rose Mary failed to clean the junk out, despite Lori’s repeated requests, and Rex was over all the time. Rex and Rose Mary would argue so aggressively, the neighbors started to complain. Lori couldn’t bring herself to kick her mother out, but Jeannette told her it was for the best if Lori wanted to stay sane. When Lori offered to help Rose Mary get set up somewhere else, Rose Mary declined.

Rose Mary and Rex lived in the van for a few months, but it was not street legal. When it was towed from an unauthorized parking space, they weren’t able to get it back. That night, they found shelter on a park bench. It was their first night as a homeless couple in New York City. In The Glass Castle, alcoholism caused problems far beyond Rex.

The Glass Castle: Alcoholism Defines The Walls Family

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Jeannette Walls's "The Glass Castle" at Shortform.

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

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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