The Glass Castle cover image summary

The Glass Castle Summary

Jeanette Walls tells the true story of her unconventional childhood. Her parents—the artistic, inattentive Rose Mary and the intelligent, alcoholic Rex—neglect their children and fail to provide for them adequately. Jeanette learns how to care for herself at an early age.

  • The first half of the memoir takes place in Phoenix, Arizona, where the Walls live in the house Rose Mary inherited. Rex's drinking problem escalates and results in him losing his job as an engineer. The family's financial situation continues to get worse.
  • Rose Mary forces Rex and the kids to move to Rex's hometown of Welch, West Virginia, where they take up residence in a small, leaky, fungus-ridden house. There, the Walls children pursue their education while Rex drinks and Rose Mary pursues her painting.
  • Jeanette does well in school and is accepted to Barnard College in New York City. She works as a live-in maid while earning her degree. Eventually, Jeannette finds success in publishing, marries well, and writes this memoir. Her parents meanwhile choose to live in poverty as squatters and artists.


Despite her fears that no one would speak to her after she wrote her memoir The Glass Castle (2005), Jeannette Walls has since learned that she is very popular. Her memoir is a huge success, selling millions of copies all over the world. People and critics are truly fascinated with her story.

Jeannette and her three siblings were raised by parents no fiction writer could have ever made up. They all but starved their children; told them leaky roofs and bitter cold would make them strong; and then otherwise ignored them. The family was often on the move, escaping from creditors in the middle of the night in cars that sputtered down the road at no better than 35 miles per hour.  Each time they moved, the children were told they had to leave everything behind except for one special thing. With this, Jeannette packed away her favorite rock. It was the only item she carried with her from Arizona house to desert cabin to West Virginia shack.

The author grew up skinny and neglected, painting her skin with ink markers to camouflage the holes in her clothes. She went to school hungry and at lunch sat with her brother and read books. After lunch, they would search trashcans for discarded food. Jeannette's maternal grandmother sometimes came to their rescue, putting them up in her home and feeding them. But Jeannette's father, Rex, was a stubborn man who had trouble holding down a job, and when his mother-in-law called him worthless, he uprooted his family again. When the older woman died, Jeannette's mother, Rose Mary, inherited the house, which was filled with expensive furnishings. But Rose Mary refused to sell any of the goods even when they went days unable to afford food.  What money they did have, Rex tended to whittle away at bars, where he spent many of his days and nights.

Enthusiastic readers have consistently kept Walls's memoir on the best-seller lists and critics have praised her writing.  Prior to completing her memoir, Walls wrote a gossip column, so she knew how to tell a good story. She told her own story, critics have concluded, without over-analyzing her parents and without falling into the trap of begging for pity. Reviewers have found that Walls tells her story objectively and even manages to keep her sense of humor.


Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle begins with Jeannette as an adult, living in New York City. As she rides in the back of a taxi, she notices what looks like a homeless woman on the sidewalk. When Jeannette turns to look back, she realizes that woman is her mother. Jeannette slips down lower in her seat, not wanting her mother to see her. She also admits that she does not want anyone else to know that that woman who is rummaging through the trash is her mother. Jeannette is ashamed of these feelings, and later she contacts her mother and plans a meeting. When she is face to face with her mother, Jeannette offers money, but her mother, Rose Mary, refuses it. Rose Mary insists that she is doing well and needs no assistance. It is at this point that Jeannette then relates the story of how she was raised, explaining her relationship with her mother and father, and how her mother ended up living on the street.

When she was three, Jeannette was burned seriously enough to require a skin graft. When doctors ask how the burn happened, Jeannette tells them that she was cooking a hot dog when her dress erupted in flames. Her mother was busy painting, this three-year-old child tells the doctors. Shortly afterward, Jeannette’s father, Rex, comes to the hospital and steals his child away. Rex does not believe his daughter needs any more medical help. She will be all right. She is strong and the experience will make her even stronger. Through this story of the hot dog and the burns, Jeannette sets the stage for a pattern of neglect and other poor parenting skills that would go on to shape her childhood.

Jeannette portrays her mother as a woman who felt her own career was devastated because she had had children. Rose Mary complains about having to take care of children even though she rarely appears to do much for them. Rose Mary’s attention is most often focused on herself. She has been trained as a teacher but seldom works. When she does land a job at a school desperate enough to hire her, she claims she is overwhelmed by the paperwork of grading and evaluating and turns much of this chore over to her two oldest daughters, Lori and Jeannette, who are not yet teens. Rose Mary only goes to work when the family is desperately hungry because Rex has either lost another job or has blown his salary on gambling and alcohol.

The family often leaves its last abode in the middle of the night, moving from California to Arizona and later to West Virginia. They travel in cars that break down in the middle of the desert, forcing them to walk. Once Rex stashed his children in the back of a moving van and nearly lost them when the back door opened and he did not know it. He never explains why they must leave their homes so abruptly, but Jeannette insinuates that her father seemed to always be in trouble, mostly...

(The entire section is 1154 words.)