5 Things You Need to Know About "The Glass Castle"

A Remarkable True Story That Reads Like Fiction

The Glass Castle Movie Poster
The Glass Castle Movie Poster.

Released August 11, 2017, the film adaptation of Jeanette Walls’ memoir, "The Glass Castle" took a circuitous road before reaching theaters. Published in 2005, the book was a runaway bestseller that's sold more than 5 million copies and was on The New York Times Bestseller List for more than five years.

While it seemed obvious that a movie version would hit screens shortly after the film rights sold in 2007, the project proved elusive. Early on, Claire Danes had been attached to star but dropped out. Later Jennifer Lawrence signed on to star and produce, but that project never made it to the finish line either. Finally, Brie Larson took on the role, reuniting with her Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton for an adaptation that also starred Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson.

Considering the story of her often hellish and always unusual childhood, it's no wonder there were challenges in adapting Walls’ memoir. Walls' father, Rex, was a charming, intelligent alcoholic who was also likely suffering from an undiagnosed bipolar disorder; her mother Mary Rose is a self-described “excitement addict” who often neglected her children to focus on her painting. The family moved constantly, fleeing bill collectors and landlords, their living conditions growing steadily worse until they eventually wound up in a rotting old house without electricity or running water.

All of the Walls children suffered various physical and mental problems as a result of an upbringing that could best be described as “awful,” and yet, Walls’ memoir isn’t bitter. The manner in which she portrays her father is often very affectionate, even when as an adult, she found herself denying the existence of her parents, who were living in New York City as homeless squatters.

Walls has openly mused that despite the pain and suffering that drove her to leave home when she was 17 to put herself through college, she likely developed the self-reliance and whip-smart brainpower to become a successful writer because of the way she was raised, rather than in spite of it. After all, Rex Walls always tried to represent their ramshackle, hardscrabble life as an “adventure,” and what kid didn’t spend a few childhood moments wishing that they might be carried off in the night to set off on a grand adventure?

Walls' unflinching self-awareness gives her book a complex tone that has captivated readers since its debut. More than a decade after its initial publication, the film version showed a new audience why the book has been hailed as one the most successful memoirs ever written. If you haven't read the book or seen the film, here are some things you might want to know.

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It’s One of the Most Disturbing True Stories You’ll Read

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.

One of the great achievements of "The Glass Castle" is the way Walls uses simple, beautiful language to describe a childhood so terrible you should finish the book shaking with anger—but instead, you’re moved. Although she seems to have turned out as a healthy, productive adult who has gained a certain acceptance about her parents and her childhood, as a reader you’ll be disturbed over and over again.

On the surface, there’s the simple horror of raising children the way the Walls did. Rex Walls, despite being an engineer and electrician who had the charisma and people skills to land a nonstop series of jobs, was an alcoholic who stole from his children, sapped every dollar from the house, and often disappeared on binges. The family moves nearly 30 times in an effort to evade bill collectors, and yet Rex kept up the fiction that someday soon he would build the titular “glass castle,” a dream home whose plans he carried with him everywhere they went.

Despite Walls’ even-toned reportage, there are many details that hint at something much darker beneath the calm surface. When his children ask Rex to stop drinking in lieu of a birthday gift, he actually ties himself to a bed in order to dry out. Gift or no, it must have been an excruciating nightmare for his children to witness. The mention of sexual abuse implies strongly that Rex himself was a victim of molestation as a child. At one point he exhibits a casual attitude toward sexualizing children, even hinting that a teenaged Jeanette might provide sexual favors to a man as part of a gift.

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Calling Rose Mary a Villain Is Too Easy

While Rex was a charming alcoholic who was the architect of much of the family’s misery, he's also depicted as a man who clearly loved his children—even if he was completed unqualified to raise them. Rose Mary, on the other hand, is a more complex figure. At one moment insightful, and the next, purposefully disinterested in everything around her, Rose Mary’s defining characteristic in the memoir is her narcissism.

When readers learn that at a point when the children were starving, Rose Mary secreted a Hershey Bar for herself, it's hard not to hate someone who that selfish. To make matters infinitely worse, she's also so absorbed in her own interests that she allows a small child to fend for herself with tragic results. (Walls suffered burns from a cooking fire leaving her with scars she carries to this day.)

When it's finally revealed—almost casually—that Rose Mary owns property in Texas valued at about $1 million that she's refused to sell to alleviate her family's suffering, it's almost impossible not to cast her as a villain. This detail is a devastating, nearly incomprehensible moment for the reader: A million-dollar fortune is available, and yet, Rose Mary refuses to take cash in on it, even as her children are sleeping in cardboard boxes and living in a home without heat.

While Rex's irresponsible behavior was certainly detrimental to his kids’ welfare, Rose Mary often comes off as the true villain of the piece. Yet those familiar with mental health issues can make a valid argument that Rose Mary suffers from an undiagnosed mental disorder, and the relationship she and Rex share is some kind of sick symbiosis. Still, the combination of neglect and jealousy towards her own children, her childish tantrums, and apparent disinterest in raising or even protecting her children can be tough to handle for anyone with their own parental issues to deal with—all of which makes the apparently sympathetic portrayal Naomi Watts offers in the film a fascinating artistic choice.

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In Spite of Everything, Walls Loved Her Parents

Walls was understandably angry with her parents for a long time. She freely admits to knowing they were homeless and then squatting in New York City while she was earning a good living as a gossip columnist and writer. After the memoir was published, Walls moved out of New York, leaving her mother behind—still squatting. When the squat burned down, however, Walls took her mother in—an act that seems remarkable after you’ve read the revelations regarding Walls’ childhood her memoir reveals.

Walls said that she cried when she first saw Woody Harrelson in costume and makeup as her father on the set of the film—but noted that her mother hadn’t seen the film yet, because, “It might be a little weird for her."

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Desperate Times

One of the most remarkable aspects of Walls’ childhood is her ability to solve problems creatively—a necessary skill when both of your parents are more or less useless in the role of, you know, parenting. Even so, these moments can be horrifying, such as when Jeanette, denied real dental care, fashions her own braces out of rubber bands and wire hangers, or when she nonchalantly dumpster dives at school when she notices other kids throwing away their unwanted lunches.

One of the most angering moments in the tale is when Walls, determined she needs to get away from her parents, takes a job to save up money in order to escape—only to have her father promptly steal it.

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It’s Not the Only Walls Family Book

Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls
Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls.

Walls' other book titles include 2013’s "The Silver Star," a work of fiction, and "Dish: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Show," released in 2001. She also wrote a second book about her family, "Half Broke Horses." This examination of the life of her maternal grandmother is a quest to answer the burning questions readers have when they reach the end of "The Glass Castle." How did Mary Rose and Rex Walls come to be? What led them to think having a family was a good idea, or to believe that raising their children in the manner they did was a sound parenting?

Walls goes back a generation searching for the roots of her family’s dysfunction, describing the book as an “oral history” with all the imperfect detail and half-remembered uncertainty that the term implies. Still, if you found "The Glass Castle" to be as infuriatingly fascinating as most readers do, there are tantalizing clues in the followup that clarify the events of Walls’ childhood even as they simultaneously deepen the heartbreak. While the sins of prior generations don’t always seem like sins at the time, they’re handed down just the same.

Out of Horror, Hope

"The Glass Castle" is a magnificent testament to a remarkable set of lives, one that ultimately ends with hope. If Jeanette Walls could endure what she did and mature into a writer of skill and heart, then there’s hope for all of us—even those raised in conventional ways, without remarkable talents. If you’re planning to see the film version, read (or re-read) the book first. It’s a brutal journey, but Walls’ skills as a writer—a talent she might have inherited from her father—make it all seem like a magical adventure.