A memoir about a girl growing up with her three siblings and her alcoholic father and a mother who is unstable in her own ways. They are very poor, and are always on the move, up until the narrator, Jeanette, is about ten. She and her siblings are able to get out of their dysfunctional home, only to have their parents eventually follow them into the city.
The memoir talks mostly of the events in Jeanette’s childhood, and just the last quarter is about her adulthood after she moves out.
I love reading books about addicts and alcoholics, and this one is unique because the tenderness which she talks about her dad at times. While also showing the reality of the suffering his addiction caused. While also showing why a woman like her mom would stay in such a relationship.
I wish the last third was longer because I would have loved to hear how Walls childhood affected her adulthood and how she learned to heal from her childhood experiences. Nonetheless, it was still an incredible book and one I would recommend.
The first chunk of the book is when they are living in different parts of the southwest. I grew up in Arizona, and my family was poor (though not as poor as Jeanette’s) and so there were a number of things I could relate to in this section. Even when she talked about playing in the dirt, catching lizards, going exploring in the empty desert and how she and her siblings would have fun. She also talks about finding the rocks with quartz inside and I remember finding rocks like that and I had a sister who would collect different rocks that we found. The Walls family were also big readers and growing up we read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies so I could relate to that as well.
There was plenty bad that happened for Jeanette and her family while living in the desert, but because she was young, she was still in the phase of thinking of things as more of an adventure and was still naïve enough to believe her dad’s promises.
One part that is left out of the movie, is that when Rose Mary’s mom dies, she leaves them her house in Phoenix. They move into it and live there for a while but eventually have to “skedaddle”. They don’t sell the house, but simply abandon it.
The movie doesn’t spend too much time showing their time in the southwest, but there is a scene where the dad, Rex, pulls the car off the road and starts driving bumpily through the desert. This is shown as fun and exciting. In the book, Rose Mary and Rex got in an argument at night and Rose Mary gets out of the car and walks into the desert. The dad then starts driving through the desert to find her. This isn’t fun and the kids are holding on to each other in the back, asking him to stop or slow down.
Rex’s sober streak
In the book, this happens when they are still in Arizona. He stops drinking for a few months, and over the summer they decide to drive to the Grand Canyon. On the way up, the car breaks down and they start walking the 80 miles back home. Rex tries to act like this is an adventure, but Jeanette is the only one that goes along with his.
A car sees them and gives them a lift. Things are fine at first, but the lady keeps calling them, “poor people” like, “I just had to stop when I saw you poor people out walking!” Jeanette tells her they aren’t poor, and the lady is awkward and says how she didn’t mean it like that. However, from there it is an uncomfortable ride home and after this Rex starts drinking again.
In the movie, he is sober for two months and things seems to be going to much better-Rose Mary and Rex are more affectionate, they have food to eat, he has a steady job. He and Rose Mary go to Texas for a week because Rose Mary’s mom died. While they are gone, they have the kids stay with Erma (this happens when they are already in Welch, unlike the book where his sobriety was in Arizona). While the kids are staying with Rex’s mom, Erma, Jeanette walks by a door and sees Erma messing with the front of her brother’s pants and Brian is crying, telling her to stop. Jeanette stops her and Lori even hits Erma. When Rex and Rose Mary come back, they don’t want to hear about it and Rex is so distraught he ends up drinking again.
The movie shows how ugly Rex could get, but overall it softens him up a lot more. Even with his reason for drinking again, in the book his pride was hurt over the fact that he doesn’t adequately provide for his family. In the movie it is almost more understandable because of the events with Brian cause events of his own childhood to rise to the surface. The movie does show him yanking Jeannette out of the car though so he can go drink.
Erma and Stanley
This scene with Erma is in the book as well. Though in the book, the parents leave Welch to go back to Phoenix to get some stuff they left behind. In book and movie, Jeanette thinks Erma sexually abused Rex, the way she was trying to with Brian. Which is why when he left Welch he never wanted to return and had to be coerced into returning when they were in a corner and had to leave Phoenix.
This isn’t the only incestuous event, because later, Jeanette is watching tv with her uncle Stanley when she is around 11 or 12. He tries to touch her, and when she pushes his hand away, she sees that he is touching himself with his other hand. She tells her mom about it and Rose Mary says to not make a big deal of it and that woman these days are always making a bigger deal of those things then they really are and basically telling Jeanette that Jeanette can just decide that she isn’t bothered about it and it therefore doesn’t have to be an issue. From then on, Jeannette avoids Stanley.
When Erma dies in the book, the kids are still fairly young and Lori is still at home. At the funeral Rose Mary tells them to say something about Erma and Lori says, “ding dong the witch is dead”. Rex turns on her and snaps, “She was my mother, have some respect.” The book really shows the complicated feelings that abuse can have on a parent/child relationship.
In the movie, Erma dies when they are older and Lori has already moved out. After the funeral, Rex goes to a bar and Jeanette joins him and tries to connect with him. He avoids talking and instead gets her help hustling a guy.
Rex and Jeanette pool hustle
In the movie, they make Jeannette wanting to move to New York a big deal and he tries to stop Lori from going when she leaves. When they are at the bar, she tells the guy they are hustling that she is going to go to New York and the guy later brings it up around Rex, not realizing it is a touchy subject.
Rex had wanted to Jeannette to flirt with the guy, while Rex beat him at pool, and after they have played a few games, he asks Jeanette to come up to his place upstairs. Jeannette tries to get Rex to say she can’t, but he is upset about her wanting to go to the city, so he tells her she can go.
The guy tries to have sex with her, and Jeanette is able to get him off of her and then shows him her scar from being burned. Then goes downstairs and goes home with her dad.
In the book, Jeanette is only 13 when Rex tells her he wants her to join him at the bar and Jeanette is forced into helping him hustle the guy. She and Rex aren’t having a disagreement about New York, but when the guy wants to take her upstairs, Rex doesn’t seem to care. The same thing happens as in the movie, and when she goes back downstairs, he tells her that he knew she could handle herself and doesn’t care that she was almost raped. In both book and movie, he compares it to when he threw her in the water as a way to teach her to swim.
The hypocrisy of this is shown clearly in the book, when she is dating a guy and Rex makes a big deal about how if the guy isn’t treating her right, he will beat him up. And yet he was fine putting her in danger when she was only 13 years old!
Rex and Jeannette in book
In the book, Jeanette talks about how she loved reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn which is novel based on the real lifeo f the author, a woman who grew up with an alcoholic but well-meaning father.
“Francie Nolan’s father sure reminded me of Dad. If Francie saw the good in her father, even though most people considered him a shiftless drunk, maybe I wasn’t a complete fool for believing in mine. Or trying to believe in him. It was getting harder.”
Jeanette is her dad’s number one champion, and as she gets older, she thinks her mom should be doing more to control Rex and his drinking. When Lori says something about, poor mom for being married to him, Jeannette replies,
“That was her choice,” I said. “She needs to be firmer, lay down the law for Dad instead of getting hysterical all the time. What Dad needs is a strong woman.” “A caryatid wouldn’t be strong enough for Dad.” “What’s that?” “Pillars shaped like women,” Lori said. “The ones holding up those Greek temples with their heads. I was looking at a picture of some the other day, thinking, Those women have the second toughest job in the world.” I disagreed with Lori. I thought a strong woman would be able to manage Dad. What he needed was someone who was focused and determined, someone who would set ultimatums and stick to them. I figured I was strong enough to keep Dad in line. When Mom told me I was so focused it was scary, I know she didn’t mean it as a compliment, but I took it that way.”
However, when the mom leaves for a month to renew her teachers training, Jeannette is manipulated by Rex and she isn’t able to be firm with him the way she expected; realizing it isn’t as simple as she had thought.
Rex and Jeannette in movie
The movie makes Rex an even bigger focus in the movie, which is understandable because a movie usually needs to narrow in its focus more than a book does. They don’t have the part when Mary Rose and Lori are out of town and Jeannette must look after things. But they add some extra drama when Jeannette is an adult. There is more drama about Jeannette marrying her first husband and Rex also doesn’t like that she writes a “gossip column”. In the book, Rex didn’t have a problem with her fiancé or her job. Her fiancé by the way is played by Max Greenfield who plays Schmidt in New Girl. He is very fitting in this role because the character of David is a lot like Schmidt.
The movie does a good job showing how Rex can be fun, but that he can also turn quick. Like after he loses an arm wrestle with David, he punches him in the face. All of this wasn’t in the book.
In the movie, Jeannette and David have an engagement party and her parents show up and after this, she cuts them off. She doesn’t talk to them again, until Rex is almost dying.
I know it is pretty Hollywood to add this drama of them yelling at each other at her engagement party, followed by the dramatic scene of her at dinner with her husband and some rich clients, when she owns up to who she is and who she came from. And from there leaves dinner to go run to her parent’s place and see her dad before he dies.
But honestly, I loved it. I mean, it was over the top with her running through the city to get to them. But the scene with the arm wrestle, the engagement party and her moment when she is reminded of the good things about her dad I loved.
In the midst of all he did wrong, she is reminded of when gave her money to pay for her tuition so she wouldn’t have to drop out. This happens in the book as well, but when it is shown in the movie, I lost it. The timing of that scene was perfect and I loved that moment so much. The perfect example of a good person who struggles with addiction.
The movie doesn’t go as in depth into Rose Mary as the book did. In the book, we learn she has a teaching degree and is a teacher while living in Arizona. However, there are mornings she doesn’t want to go to work and the kids have to get her out of bed and to school. Jeannette and her siblings also help her correcting student homework. She teaches again while living in Welch, and it is the same scenario. She then leaves for a month over summer to renew her teaching certificate and while she is away doing that, she decides she doesn’t want to teach anymore. Even though they need the money, she just decides she doesn’t want to.
Also, when she was teaching, they were making more money, and yet by the end of the month they were still out of money and having to dig in the trash for food again.
At one point, while starving in Welch, the kids discover Rose Mary hiding under a blanket eating a giant Hershey’s bar. She tells them she has a sugar addiction and it isn’t her fault. Jeannette also talks about how there are times Rose Mary will stay in bed all day reading. Showing that Rose Mary has her own addictions she turns to as well to try and numb herself from their situation. Also showing her selfishness.
One scene that is in both book and movie is when Jeannette tells Rose Mary that she needs to leave Rex. This is changed from book to movie though and it is a change the movie made that I really didn’t like.
So in the movie, it is just Jeannette and after she tells her mom she needs to leave Rex, Rose Mary says how Rex has always believed in her as an artist. When Jeanette repeats herself, Rose Mary simply says, “I can’t”.
Whereas in the book it was Jeannette and Lori, and maybe even Brian telling her. Rose Mary guilt trips Jeannette saying how Jeannette is dad’s number one supporter and it would break his heart to know she was telling mom to leave him. She then tells them that she doesn’t want to leave and that she is an “excitement addict”. I’ve heard something similar in a talk given by a woman who was married to an alcoholic saying she was addicted to the “exciting misery” that the relationship made her feel.
Rose Mary and Rex
Because the book gives a better look at Rose Mary, we can see how she is messed up in her own way and she and Rex kind of make sense together. They aren’t a healthy couple, but you get why they are together.
We also have the scene in both book and movie where they get in a fight and Rose Mary is even hanging out the window. This is in the book, but it had taken place in the desert and the whole neighborhood was out watching them. Whereas in the movie it was in Welch. But when Rose Mary comes back in through the window she and the dad are physically fighting, then they stop and start laughing saying how much they love each other. This was also in the book and shows how Rex may be the one with the obvious addiction, but Rose Mary plays her part in their drama as well.
Another part in the book I liked a lot but wasn’t in the movie, is when they are living in New York City, Rex has a heart attack and is in the hospital where he of course gets sober because he has to. He then goes upstate where he gets a job and stays sober. He wants Rose Mary to come with him, but she doesn’t want to leave the city. However, after time, she is calling him up wanting him to come back.
He returns to Rose Mary and starts drinking again. This is a great example of how if you want to make an addiction relationship like that work in sobriety, both people need recovery, not just the addict. It also shows how returning to the same environment and the same people who aren’t supportive in your recovery, can cause you to relapse. Rex isn’t the only one that needed to learn to enjoy sober life, Rose Mary needed to learn to be happier with a less drama filled life as well.
In the credits of the movie, videos from the real Walls family are shown. In one clip, Brian is talking about how Rex was great at “grand gestures that didn’t require a lot of follow up”. A lot of romantic comedies, especially older ones, love to show a character doing some grand gesture, but really, someone who does the grand gestures but isn’t any good at following up and being there for the normal everyday stuff-that is a huge red flag! In the movie, Jeannette also says how he is always talking and making empty promises. The idea of building a glass castle and even putting all this work into the planning of it through the years, is an example of both his talk that led to nothing, as well as an attempt at a grand gesture with no follow up.
In book and movie, they did the foundation for the glass castle, but ultimately it is used as a trash pit. Talk about a great metaphor! The trash pit also draws the attention of rats (as well as complaints and taunting from people in the community).
Going back to Rex being a good person though, I think he and people like him, really do want to be able to follow through with all their talk, but their addiction keeps them hostage and they can’t. He was a man with a good heart, he was just help captive by alcohol. Addicts also tend to have such a low self esteem, which is why their pride is so easily hurt. I think they like to make these huge promises, talk about themselves and try to show off, as a way to impress those around them and to mask the low self confidence they truly have.
I liked in the movie though when at one point Jeannette says, “I don’t care what Erma did to you. That isn’t an excuse.” I whole heartedly agree with this as well. A person can’t live their life blaming their abusive parent for their own actions. Being raised by an abusive parent causes you to go into adulthood at a severe disadvantage, but that isn’t an excuse to be a mean, abusive person yourself. AA was around at the time and if Rex had attended those meetings, he could have started healing and being better and owning up to his actions. Like I said though, Rose Mary would also need to work on herself if she and Rex were to have stayed together in a healthy relationship. (I know AA isn’t for everyone, but at the time it was proabbly the only recovery support group around. These days there are all sorts of meetings if AA isn’t your taste for whatever reason.)
Going to New York
In book and movie they save money in a piggy bank and before Lori leaves, Rex takes the money. They think Lori won’t be able to go, but in the end an opportunity presents itself. In the movie, it is when Lori is already gone and it is Jeannette money that he steals. In the book, I knew he was going to end up stealing their money, but it still feels so devastating when it happens.
In the movie Rex tried to keep the kids in Welch, whereas in the book he drove Jeanette to the bus station and in general never tried to fight any of them on leaving.
Soon after Jeannette moves to New York, they invite Brian to move with them as well. Then, when Maureen is 12, she comes to live with Lori and finishes school in New York. The movie shows Jeannette leaving and Maureen feels like she was abandoned to stay with mom and dad. In the book, even though they brought Maureen, Jeannette talks about how she wasn’t there for Maureen because she was busy doing her own thing.
But with the kids leaving, the dad does say at one point how Jeannette and Lori are stealing the other kids away from them. Then the parents themselves show up in the city because they want to be a family again. It makes sense they would have followed their kids, because their kids were all they had. They didn’t make friends with other adults, and therefore just followed the kids because they probably got sick of only being around each other.
Other differences I want to mention really quick
In the movie, we see more of her relationship with David, whom in both book and movie she marries but later divorces. In the book we don’t learn much about him at all. At the end of the book, she has remarried but the movie shows her alone at the end.
In the book there were other sexual assault scenes, once while in Arizona, a strange man got in their house and was touching Jeannette and she and Brian chased him off. Another time, there was a boy who was 11 or 12 and Jeannette was 8. This boy had a dad who was an alcoholic and the boy had Jeannette come over because the boy wanted to show her his dad when he was passed out and had wet his pants. The boy thought it was funny and wanted to show Jeannette since, “her dad was also a drunk”. This upsets Jeannette, and then later, she is playing hide and seek with other kids when this boy follows her to where she is hiding and attempts to rape her.
Later, he shows up at their house when the parents aren’t there and they tell him he needs to leave or they will shoot him. They even get out Rex’s gun and shoot at the boy when he won’t leave. After this, they of course get in trouble and they leave in the night to avoid having to go to court.
There was also a Christmas where the family works hard to celebrate a real Christmas but Rex gets drunk and embarrasses them at church, then when they come home, he flicks his cigarette at the tree, it starts a fire, and as everyone is hurrying to put the fire out Rex is just sitting there laughing.
As I said, the book doesn’t really go into her adulthood but I did find an interview from 2013 and we see how her childhood still effects her. She also talks about her mom, who at the time lived in a small house that Jeanette had built on her property.
“Once the book was written and Walls left New York for Virginia, she seemed to make a clean break from her mother, who was still living in an East Village squat. But when it was damaged by a fire, Walls, alone among her siblings, took Rose Mary in. Her brother, Brian, a retired policeman who lives in Brooklyn, finds it hard to be around their mother, Walls said. Her younger sister, Maureen, stabbed Rose Mary in the back 20 years ago, before being given a diagnosis of schizophrenia; she now lives in California and claims she has no mother. Lori remains close to Rose Mary, Walls said, though she lives in Manhattan, where she works at a law firm to support herself as an artist.”
One quote from the interview Jeanette said, “So many people ask, ‘How could you forgive your mother for the way you were raised?’ It’s really not forgiveness in my opinion. It’s acceptance. She’s never going to be the sort of mother who wants to take care of me.”
She also said how people make a big deal about the story of Rose Mary eating the chocolate bar to which Jeannette says, “So, O.K., Mom kept the chocolate bar. But she gave me a lot of good material.”
She also said how in the end, she was able to get the glass castle for herself, so she doesn’t harbor negative feelings towards her parents for the childhood she had.
She also says that food is not a joy or a comfort the way it is for other people and will even go a day or two without eating just to remind herself that she can live without it if needed. She doesn’t like feeling dependent on it because as a child she often had to get by with so little to eat. She and her sisters also intentionally never had children.
Book vs Movie
My biggest complaint with the book, was that Jeannette doesn’t talk about how her childhood affected her adult life much. The movie shows us to some degree, when we see her at dinner wanting to take home everyone’s leftovers. As well as seeing more of her relationship with David.
The movie though, doesn’t get into Rose Mary as much as I would have liked. I specifically wish they could have kept the line about how she is an excitement addict and the scene when she is eating the chocolate bar.
All in all, I love both. Online, I was surprised how many people who read the book, disliked the movie, because I thought it was a faithful adaptation! Yes, it is Hollywood-ized and shows Rex and Rose Mary through rose colored glasses a lot of the time. I still liked it though and it had me crying in that scene when Rex brings her the money. Even so, in the end I suppose I will say the book wins because we get more details and as I said, I love the way Walls tells us of her childhood in a non exploitive way, not in a pity party way, and not even in a tone that judges her parents.