Who is Erma in The Glass Castle? What is Erma’s role in the story and what influence does she have on Jeannette Walls?
In The Glass Castle, Erma is Jeannette’s grandmother and Rex’s mother. The family briefly lives with Erma when they first move to Welch.
Read more about The Glass Castle, Erma, and the rest of the Walls family.
The Glass Castle: Erma and Welch
In The Glass Castle, Erma was an obese woman who smoked and drank almost as much as Rex. She greeted her son warmly, but she was rude to Rose Mary and short with the children. She told them to call her Erma, not grandma. In contrast, Grandpa Ted was old and wiry. He didn’t mind being called grandpa. Another man stepped forward and introduced himself as Uncle Stanley. He was missing teeth and was overly affectionate with Jeannette.
That night, everyone gathered around the coal stove for warmth and ate green beans and biscuits for dinner. The beans were mushy and so salty, Jeannette held her nose as she ate, as Rose Mary had taught her to do when eating food that was slightly spoiled. In The Glass Castle, Erma smacked her hand away and told her beggars couldn’t be choosers.
The family wasn’t planning on staying with Rex’s parents for long. But until they could afford their own place, they all slept in the basement—Rex and Rose Mary on a pullout sofa and the children sharing Stanley’s b. The children giggled at being crammed in so tightly together, eliciting a stern warning from Erma that laughing got on her nerves.
Evils of the Past
On a cold winter’s morning, Rex and Rose Mary drove away from Erma’s house and headed back to Phoenix. They wanted to pick up the rest of their stuff and get the children’s school records. Jeannette could tell both her parents were excited to be leaving.
Jeannette wondered if her parents would come back. Now that the children were older, she feared they’d become too big a burden. A week past and her parents were still gone. In The Glass Castle, Erma was more critical and mean without Rex around and hit the kids with a wooden spoon. One day, she called Brian into her room to mend his pants. She’d been drinking all morning from a bottle she kept in her housecoat. After a minute, Jeannette heard Brian squirming and whining. She ran to the room and saw Brian crying and Erma on her knees molesting his privates.
Jeannette screamed for her to stop, and Lori came running in. Erma scolded Jeannette and reached back to slap her, but Lori stopped her arm and tried to calm things down. After Erma slapped Lori, the two got into a fist fight, and Lori punched Erma in the face.
After that, the children weren’t allowed to come out of the basement. They weren’t allowed to use the bathroom upstairs, so they had to go at school or outside. When a snowstorm hit, Erma wouldn’t give them coal for the basement stove. Whenever they weren’t at school, all four kids piled under the covers in their clothes and coats to stay warm.
When Rex and Rose Mary returned, Erma told them what had happened. Rex stomped down the stairs and went into a tirade about disrespecting their grandmother. He said Brian should stop being such a sissy. The children wondered if Erma had ever done something like that to Rex. None of them wanted to think about it, but they all agreed it would explain a lot.
A Fresh Start
Jeannette thought things would get better with her parents back, but The Glass Castle‘s Erma wouldn’t forgive the kids. She kicked all of them out. With no jobs, no money, and no car (it had broken down on the drive back from Phoenix), Rex set out to find something cheap in town. What they ended up finding was a ramshackle wooden house on the side of a steep hill. The front of the house sat on cinder blocks, and there was no indoor plumbing.
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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