The Glass Castle is the harrowing tale of Jeannette Wall’s life growing up in poverty with wayward parents. Following the Walls family through the desert to the coal-mining region of West Virginia to the fast-paced life of New York City, this memoir explores the nature of family, loyalty, and tragedy and what it takes to survive together and apart.
Rex Walls was a smart but unruly patriarch. He was a former Air Force pilot and had vast knowledge of science, physics, and engineering. He was known as a man who could fix everything and talk his way out of anything. These traits should have added up to success for Rex and his family, but his inability to settle down and follow the rules added up to the opposite.
During Jeannette’s early childhood, Rex moved the family around the desert like a traveling circus. They’d stop in one small cowpoke town after another, set up a life for a few weeks to months, then pack up and start again somewhere else. Rex said they had to keep moving to stay ahead of the law, which was always on his tail, or wealthy businessmen who wanted to steal his ideas. Rex fancied himself an inventor and always had some scheme or another that was sure to help him strike it rich. In reality, Rex was simply dodging bill collectors.
Striking it rich was Rex’s goal, as was being able to build the Glass Castle for his family, a sprawling home made completely of glass and powered by solar energy. He carried the blueprints everywhere the family went, and Jeannette and her siblings would help him design it.
Jeannette believed in her father and his plans for the future, but until those plans came to fruition, she and her family suffered.
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.
Jeannette and her siblings surmounted great adversity in their lives to become stable professionals. Not only were they always hungry, but they were also always too poor to afford clothes, shoes, and other necessities, like toothpaste, heat, and running water. The children were also victim to many close calls with their safety along the way.
For instance, when Rex and Rose Mary moved the family from Blythe, California to Battle Mountain, Nevada, the kids were forced to ride in the back of the U-Haul truck their parents had rented. On the trip, the doors...
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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, and her mother, Rose Mary, stood fifteen feet away.
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’s earliest memory is the day she caught on fire when she was three years old. Her family, which included Rose Mary; her father, Rex; older sister, Lori, and younger brother, Brian, lived in a trailer in southern Arizona. Jeannette was wearing a pink party dress and stirring hot dogs in boiling water. She had to stand on a chair to reach the pot.
Jeannette knew how to cook hot dogs. She did it often as the only means of having something to eat. Her mother was usually consumed with painting, as she was now in the next room. The only other person home was her little brother. The bottom edge of Jeannette’s dress brushed up against the flames and consumed one side of her body. Rose Mary put the flames out with a blanket and calmly asked their neighbor to drive them to the hospital. Rex was out with the car.
Life was so good at the hospital compared to home, Jeannette never wanted to leave. She loved having her own room and the cleanliness and quiet. She’d also never watched TV before and spent most of her time watching old sitcoms, like The Lucille Ball Show. Sometimes, she’d pass the time reading to the nurses. They were impressed with...
Rex had decided the fastest way to accumulate the money needed for the Prospector was to go to Las Vegas and win big. Jeannette was four years old.
On the way, they’d driven past a bar along a Nevada roadside. Rex and Rose Mary left the kids in the afternoon heat and went inside. The children tried to count the number of times they’d moved to a new home, differentiating between the places where’d they’d only stayed a week or shorter. They counted eleven before they lost count.
After a few hours, they were all on the road again. Rex was drinking a beer and smoking while driving, and he took a turn too sharply and hit some railroad tracks. The back door flew open, and Jeannette tumbled out of the car. The only one who noticed was Brian.
Jeannette rolled down an embankment and came to a stop bruised and bloody. She watched as the car vanished down the road. It was a hot and dusty day in the desert. When the car didn’t return, Jeannette started to wonder if she was somehow expendable. She cried and tried to decide what to do.
After a long time, the car finally came back into view. Rex got out to comfort Jeannette, but she pulled away. He explained that they didn’t...
Jeannette was around six years old when they arrived in Battle Mountain. The town didn’t seem like a mecca for gold. The community was pocket-sized, one street with a handful of buildings dwarfed by the expansive desert sky.
The Walls family moved into an old train depot in a part of town near the outskirts known as the Tracks. There was an old office upstairs that served as the parents’ room, and the kids slept in the old waiting area downstairs, benches still attached to the walls. Discarded items found in the desert were used as furniture. Old wooden cable spools became tables, crates became chairs, and cardboard boxes became beds. Rex and Rose Mary discussed trying to find beds for the kids, but they protested. Sleeping in the box was an adventure, the children said.
Rex found a job as a mine electrician, which regulated his time in a more positive way. He was up early, and when he came home in the afternoon, he played with the children. When he wasn’t around, Jeannette and Brian would go exploring in the desert. Jeannette became a collector of treasured rocks, such as turquoise and geodes.
With Rex working, they could afford to go out to eat...
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Jeannette was excited to go to Phoenix and see her maternal grandmother. But her excitement turned to disappointment when Rose Mary casually told her that her grandma had died. Rose Mary said she hadn’t told the children because she simply hadn’t seen the point.
Part of Rose Mary’s inheritance was an option between two houses in Phoenix: a big white house in the Phoenix suburbs or a smaller adobe near the business district downtown. Rose Mary chose the adobe so she could start an art studio. Her art career could really flourish in a place like Phoenix. She quit teaching and used the inheritance money to buy all the art supplies she wanted.
The adobe home was massive, with fourteen rooms total, all full of antiques and family heirlooms. There was a front yard and backyard, where trees stood tall, including orange trees. Although once an upscale neighborhood, most of the houses on their street had been converted to apartments.
Rose Mary turned two rooms downstairs into a studio and gallery and placed a sign in the front yard. She also purchased several typewriters and spent a lot of time working on her writing. Rex was hired as an electrician...
It took the Walls family a month to make it across the country when Jeannette was around eleven years old. The used car Rose Mary bought broke down frequently and wouldn’t go faster than twenty miles per hour. Finally, they rolled into the Appalachian Mountains.
The landscape was vastly different than anything Jeannette had ever seen. Instead of deserts and dry hills, they drove through rolling hills of thick forests. They pulled up to Rex’s childhood home and were greeted by their other grandma for the first time.
Grandma 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...
A year later, Jeannette was alone in the house when a knock came at the door. She cracked it open and saw an official-looking man on the porch with a folder under one arm. He said he was from child welfare, and they’d received a complaint from someone about child neglect in the home. He said it was his department’s job to investigate.
Jeannette was furious at whoever had called child welfare. If they deemed their family unfit, she and her siblings would be separated into different foster homes. She pulled the door almost shut so he couldn’t see inside. She told him that Rex worked all the time and was an entrepreneur developing a system for burning low-grade coal. She said Rose Mary was an artist and teacher and that everything was fine. The man gave her a business card and left.
When Rose Mary came home, Jeannette turned her anger toward her. Because neither of her parents would get jobs or accept charity, the government was going to split up the family. Rose Mary sat at her easel and began to paint. When she was finished, she said she’d get a job. The picture she painted was of a woman drowning in a lake.
**The child welfare man never came...
One day, two filmmakers from New York City arrived in Welch as part of a cultural appreciation tour. Lori showed them some of her drawings, and they said she had real talent. If she wanted to be a serious artist, she should move to New York and go to art school.
The description of New York City as a land of misfits appealed to Lori and Jeannette, who had never truly belonged anywhere. The girls made a plan. Lori would leave for New York as soon as she graduated and get settled. Jeannette would join her as soon as she could. They merged whatever money they could save to help Lori get an apartment.
Jeannette wasn’t working at the jewelry store anymore, but she was babysitting, tutoring kids, and doing their homework for a fee. Lori started commissioning personalized posters for students. She had a knack for artistic writing and design, and she sold them for $1.50 each. Word of mouth spread so fast, she had more orders than she could handle.
The girls told Brian about their plan, and even though he was younger and couldn’t be included, he donated his landscaping earnings to the plastic piggy bank they’d named Oz. They hid Oz in their...
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Jeannette woke up in the early morning hours her first night in New York and thought the city was on fire. She was staying with Lori at the women’s hostel. When she asked Lori about the fire the next morning, she learned it was just the city lights reflecting off the smog.
Jeannette found a job waitressing at a hamburger restaurant that paid her eighty dollars a week. She loved the crowds, the fast-paced activity of the staff, the discount on meals. Every day, she ate a cheeseburger with a milkshake.
The girls soon found an apartment in a less-expensive part of the Bronx. The whole of their Welch home could fit into the apartment, and for the first time, they had working appliances, like a refrigerator, gas stove, an indoor bathroom, and a bathtub. Although the apartment had nice furnishings, the neighborhood left a little to be desired. But rough neighborhoods were nothing new. Jeannette was mugged several times on her way home, but she always fought back.
To finish her last year of high school, Jeannette enrolled in a public school where the students worked at internships instead of attending classes. **Jeannette took an internship at a...
When Jeannette graduated from college, the only person in attendance was Brian. Her sisters had to work, and Rose Mary thought it sounded boring. Jeannette had asked Rex not to go. She said she couldn’t risk him showing up drunk and causing a scene. Rex complied, saying he didn’t need to see her get the diploma to be proud of her.
The magazine where she worked offered her a full-time position, and she finally moved out of the psychologist’s house and into an upscale apartment on Park Avenue belonging to her long-time boyfriend, Eric. Jeannette liked Eric for his obsessive organization and responsible nature. He was from a wealthy family, didn’t waste money, and was kind. Still, Jeannette remembered her parents’ joy at finding their place in the world within the squatter community. She wondered if she was where she was supposed to be.
Life on Park Avenue was more than Jeannette ever dreamed possible for her life, and she was thriving at the magazine. She made good money and wrote a weekly column, which was basically a gossip column about prominent figures in the New York social scene. She interviewed famous and influential people and was invited to fancy...
Five years after Rex’s death, the family gathered at Jeannette’s home for Thanksgiving. She was remarried and living in an old farmhouse Upstate. Her relationship with Rose Mary had dwindled over the years, and her mother had never met John, her new husband.
Jeannette and John picked Lori and Rose Mary up from the train station. Jeannette smiled at the ease with which John related to her family. He was also a writer and published a few books and magazine articles. He was warm and compassionate...
Jeannette Walls’ story of growing up poor and neglected is at times too fantastic to believe. At other times, her story hits at common family struggles that resonate beyond her own life.
How does Jeannette’s story relate to your life or remind you of something from your past?