The Glass Castle, a major motion picture released to the box office on August 11th, 2017, is based upon the real-life experiences of now author Jeannette Walls (IMDb, 2017). This film portrays Jeannette and her atypical family’s journey to live a stable and happy life in the midst of poverty. Throughout this film, the viewer can clearly see the detrimental impact that the structure of the Walls family has on each of its members. The following analysis aims to describe the unique story of Jeannette and her family from a sociological perspective in order to highlight the influence of the family on its members and to show how the depiction of this family through the media may influence society.
On paper, the Walls family appears to be a nuclear family with a Mother, Father, and three children. However, upon viewing The Glass Castle the viewer can see that this family is anything but normal in structure. The family functions with Rex, the father, being unemployed, and his wife, Rose Mary, being the sole breadwinner of the family through her work as a freelance artist. Their three children Jeannette, Lori, and Brian live difficult lives as they constantly move across the country while being abused and neglected by their family members. Despite all of the negative aspects of the Walls family, one thing the viewer cannot fail to recognize is the strong love that each and every member of the family has for each other. Regardless of their mother’s mental problems and their father’s alcoholism, the parents love their children endlessly.
Upon watching The Glass Castle, the viewer can easily pick up on many issues within the Walls family. One of the first and largest issues within the Walls family that the viewer is presented with is their constant moving. The family frequently relocates to different places across the country, which can be interpreted as Rose Mary and Rex (the Mother and Father) running away from their financial problems rather than facing them head-on. Towards the beginning of the movie Rex returned to the family home late at night and awoke all the children to say “Time to pull up stakes and leave this shit hole behind” Jeanette then asked “Where are we going, Dad” and Rex replied “Wherever we end up” (The Glass Castle, 2017). While Rex and Rosemary probably didn’t realize, this constant moving had a large impact on their children’s lives. A study completed by Andre Dupré in order to research the effects of relocation stated, “The father and the mother themselves involved in the residential relocation process, are not necessarily sensitive to the problems of their child” (Dupré 1985). This being said, Rose Mary and Rex probably weren’t even thinking about how their constant moving affected their children’s social lives, education, and development. Additionally, a study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that “the more times people moved as children, the more likely they were to report lower life satisfaction and psychological well-being” and that “those who moved frequently as children had fewer quality social relationships as adults” (2010). The viewer can see these findings come to life when the movie jumps ahead to show the children’s adult lives. As an adult, Jeannette’s first marriage ended in divorce, likely because of her inability to form strong relationships with her husband and his family. Whether the parents realized it or not, the constant relocation of the Walls family put great pressure on the children and the family unit as a whole.
Another major issue within the Walls family is Rex’s alcoholism. Throughout The Glass Castle, the viewer is shown how this addiction can completely cripple a family. Although he adores his children, Rex’s life is consumed by his drinking. Rex cannot control his addiction and it leads to a life of constant moving, hunger spells, and inadequate care for the children. Additionally, his addiction leads to Rex abusing his wife, making rash decisions, and self-loathing throughout the film. While sober Rex is a loving and caring father, when he is under the influence he becomes egotistical and tyrannical over his family. Within The Glass Castle during the holiday season Jeannette explains, “He’d popped open the first Budweiser before breakfast, and by the time midnight mass rolled around, he was having trouble standing up… He’d ruined the Christmas our family had spent weeks planning- the Christmas that was supposed to be the best we’d ever had” (The Glass Castle, 2017). This quote shows that despite having planned a great day for the family and having good intentions, Rex was incapable of controlling his addiction. Sadly, this sort of scenario is commonplace throughout The Glass Castle. An article written by Joan K. Jackson titled “Alcoholism and the Family” explains “children are affected by living with an alcoholic more than any other family member.. children must model themselves on adults who play their roles in a distorted fashion.. the child is bound to have problems in learning who he is, what is expected of him, and what he can expect from others” (Jackson, 1958). This information explains that Rex’s alcoholism not only affected the day to day interaction within the family but the development of his children as well.
A final impactful issue within the Walls family is that of child neglect. While Rex and Rose Mary adore their children, they are without a doubt neglectful free range parents. One of the first scenes in The Glass Castle shows a young Jeannette making hot dogs for herself and her mother when she was not even tall enough to reach the stove. While her mother encouraged this action things quickly took a turn for the worst when Jeannette’s apron caught fire and she was severely burned. After this incident, Jeannette was rushed to the hospital for her injuries and her parents were questioned by both the doctor and social services. Once Rex and Rose Mary realized that the social worker did not find their family stable and that there was likely an issue of child neglect within the family, they hatched a plan in which they kidnapped Jeannette out of the hospital despite the fact that she had not finished her treatment or healing. This theme of child neglect is constant throughout the movie and can be attributed to both Rex’s alcoholism and Rose Mary being a neglectful mother. Rose Mary’s selfish need to self-satisfy leads her to be unaware and unconcerned of all the negative issues and experiences that her children were going through. The quote “Mom liked to encourage self-sufficiency in all living creatures” expressed by Jeannette at the beginning of the film shows that despite loving her mom, she realized that Rose Mary did not believe in having a large active role in her children’s day to day lives (The Glass Castle, 2017). Rose Mary encouraged her children to fend for themselves, often hid food for herself from her starving family, and had no concern when her children were abused by other members of the Walls family. A 2011 study found that having a “disengaged parent with lower levels of parental warmth, involvement, and monitoring.. makes a child more likely to internalize and externalize negative symptoms” and that “neglect is most problematic for young children, given their high vulnerability couples with virtually full reliance on parents to meet their physical and emotional needs” (Mustillo et al. 2011). This being said while Rose Mary loved her children, her actions and behavior had a strong negative influence on their upbringing.
By looking at the structure of the Walls family and seeing all of the different issues they face, sociologically one could explain their family through both the Conflict Perspective and the Exchange Theory. The Conflict Perspective describes how society is saturated with conflict along with opposition and struggle which are necessary for social change and evolution. It also explains how social structure promotes division and inequality between social groups. When looking at the Walls family, it is easy to see how the structure of society was a key factor in their family life being the way it was. Rex, while he was an alcoholic, was also a very smart man. He had plans to develop a solution to reduce emissions produced by bituminous coal. However, due to his families lack of money and support from the government, he was never able to make progress on his ideas and never had money to be able to fund his research. As a retired air force veteran who was unable to hold a real job due to his PTSD, Rex received little if any assistance from the government to have a financially stable family or work towards being able to make money. The vast amount of inequality between the Walls family and others also pertains to the conflict perspective. This inequality is best understood in one of the opening scenes in the movie. Adult Jeannette is engaged to a very wealthy man who doesn’t understand her past because the division is so stark between the higher and lower social classes. Jeannette ends up lying about her past due to embarrassment to people all around her which only hinders the relationships she tries to build. The Exchange Theory can also be easily attributed to the demeanor and function of the Walls family. The Exchange Theory explains how individuals act rationally to maximize reward and reduce cost in their social relationships. This can be seen through how Rose Mary and Rex raise their children. As Rose Mary is a selfish individual, she established relationships with her children in which they essentially raise themselves. The children cook for themselves, play with each other, and for the most part leave her to do whatever she wants. By creating this type of relationship with her children, Rose Mary is maximizing her rewards in the relationship and reducing her costs.
The pressing issues of constant relocation, alcoholism, and child neglect throughout The Glass Castle clearly had a major impact on the family as a whole as well as other institutional arenas that the family interacted with. Surprisingly, the intersection between the educational arena and the Walls family was incredibly positive. The Walls children Jeannette, Lori, and Brian all attended public school where they excelled in math and reading. This can be attributed towards Rex and Rose Mary teaching the children while they were at home. Despite their constant moving, the children’s educations were not hindered. However, this positive interaction between the family and the educational arena cannot be said about many other social institutions they come into contact with. The Walls family also intersects within many different facets of the governmental arena. As earlier described the family encountered the department of social services many times always in a negative fashion. Additionally, with the family being poor they were often pursued by debt collectors and state personnel in order to pay taxes and debts to the government. The interaction between the family and the governmental arena can be seen as a cause for their constant relocation along with other issues that promoted the negative family environment.
If the family had not been burdened with addiction and debt, things could have been much different for both the parents and the children. If Rex had not been an alcoholic and if Rose Mary had not been a neglectful mother, the family’s structure and demeanor could be completely different. The children would probably have different attitudes and perspectives on life if they were raised with present parents who spent time with them and taught them how to grow. The interactions between the different social institutions would be completely different, which could lead to fewer stressors and tension within the family. Arguably, one of the saddest aspects of The Glass Castle is that the family did have a possibility to be normal. At the end of the film, it is revealed that although the family lived in poverty for the children’s entire lives, at some point Rose Mary had inherited land from a deceased relative. This land could have been sold for over one million dollars and could have relieved the family from their financial burdens. Despite this revelation, money doesn’t solve all problems and it is likely that the family would still face many issues due to Rose Mary’s nature and Rex’s addiction.
The way that the media has negatively portrayed this family with all of its issues and interactions within the social world can influence how people might view different aspects of life such as the role of the family, social class, children, along with violence and abuse. By detailing the life of the Walls family, the media has been able to show viewers the consequences of these issues. While watching the heartbreaking film, viewers see how having abusive, selfish, and addicted parents add such hardship to the lives of children. The Glass Castle also shows viewers the consequences of living in poverty and how being unable to meet one’s needs can have a tremendous strain on the family and their day to day lives. All in all, The Glass Castle depicts a negative family situation which is not desirable. While the Walls family still functions as a social institution, as all families do, it does not follow the social norms created by society to have a happy and healthy family environment. Due to the heartbreaking way the media portrays the Walls family within The Glass Castle, individuals who view the film may be encouraged to change different facets of their lives in order to improve their family’s structure and function.
Through the portrayal of the Walls family within The Glass Castle, the media is telling the story of family hardships that are common in our society. Despite the Walls family having a tremendous amount of detrimental issues that affected their day to day lives, many families across the nation can relate to at least one of the hardships that the Walls family has faced. This can be seen as especially true as The Glass Castle is based completely upon a family’s real=life experience. So, while the Walls family may seem like an extremely problematic family, the issues they face are still very commonplace in families across the nation. Through The Glass Castle, the media is reflecting to viewers the hardships that families currently face, they are reflecting back into our culture the issues within families that are already there. Despite the dismal nature of the film, one can hope that The Glass Castle will influence and encourage families that are in similar hardships to make a change for the better.