“The Glass Castle”- A Memoir of Abuse & Neglect

I recently finished Jeannette Walls’ bestselling memoir The Glass Castle, a book that I’ve been wanting to get to for a while now. This autobiography captures bits of her childhood, illustrating the hunger and pain of extreme poverty… sleeping in cardboard boxes and constantly escaping bill collectors. The snippets of her life that she shares are heartbreaking, such as digging through the school trash on a daily basis for a meal. The parents, a neglectful mother and an alcoholic father, raise the children in a way that made me question not only how “bad” their parenting style (if you can call it that) was, but precisely in what ways it was illegal…

Most states recognize the four major types of maltreatment:

Physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, & emotional abuse

To highlight the abuse in this book, I’ll see if these forms of maltreatment are a part of the story…

Physical abuse:

Non-accidental physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child, that is inflicted by a parent, caregiver, or other person who has responsibility for the child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child. Physical discipline, such as spanking or paddling, is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child.

I cannot recall a specific instance of physical abuse towards the child… but, later on, one of the children ended up stabbing the mother. That made me think of the long-lasting damage of abuse and neglect on people, lasting much past childhood… as well as the cycle of violence and abuse (i.e. intergenerational abuse cycle). It was interesting that the neglectful parent had become the victim; the tables have turned.
There was one instance during which the father was chasing this wife down in a car, clearly threatening her physical safety.
There were numerous instances of physical abuse from others, such as school bullies.




The failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs. Neglect may be:

  • Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)

  • Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)

  • Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)

  • Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)

I would state that possibly the biggest issue throughout is neglect.

In terms of physical neglect, the Walls children often went hungry. There were times during which the children were digging through trash to avoid starving. Food at home was never a guarantee. For shelter, at times, the family did not have a home. Sometimes, they managed to find a building to stay in, but the health of the children in such conditions (e.g. no electricity or heat during the harsh winters) was often in question.

For medical neglect, the children rarely saw doctors. One child was in desperate need of glasses, but the mother did not take this need seriously. When their young child bust their head, they did not even seek medical treatment.

For educational neglect, it was not abnormal for the children to not be enrolled in schools. The family was often moving from town to town. Their parents said that they could teach the children better than any formal teachers could. Their educational needs were often not met.

For emotional neglect, those are a little harder to directly call out. I believe that overall, the parents frequently put their own needs ahead of those of their children [almost as if the children were just burdens]. The mother would focus on her art, the father on his next business venture or drinking binge. When the children asked for something, the parents would often react in a strongly negative way that made the children feel as if they could not depend on their parents at all.

The fact that the children were starving and the parents seemed to not put much effort into improving their living conditions (mother seldom held a job despite having a teaching degree that could easily have gotten her a job; father has many skills but cannot or will not hold down a job for long) was alarming. I think having the ability to improve their conditions, yet making life decisions that prevented this improvement is another form of neglect. The mother played an interesting role in the family dynamic, almost being both the victim (lack of control in relationship) and enabler [of husband’s actions such as excessive drinking and spending]. The fact that the father blew any paycheck on alcohol rather than food for his family was directly harmful to the health of his wife and children.

Sexual abuse:

Includes activities by a parent or caregiver such as fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.
There are several instances of sexual abuse throughout the book (e.g. uncle inappropriately touching child). The main character’s parents did not sexually abuse their children; it is suggested that the father was possibly a victim of sexual abuse (by his mother) as a child.



Emotional abuse (or psychological abuse):

A pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance.
Emotional abuse can be seen in the book as well. The parents often withheld support or guidance.




Now defined in many states as a form of neglect. In general, a child is considered to be abandoned when the parent’s identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left alone in circumstances where the child suffers serious harm, or the parent has failed to maintain contact with the child or provide reasonable support for a specified period of time.

As the main character grows up, her father seems to be around less and less… he is gone for long stretches at a time. I would define this as abandonment, even if he did not permanently leave his family.

Signs of Neglect

Consider the possibility of neglect when the child:

  • Is frequently absent from school

  • Begs or steals food or money

  • Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses

  • Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor

  • Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather

  • Abuses alcohol or other drugs

  • States that there is no one at home to provide care

At one point, a child welfare worker comes to the door to investigate the living conditions of the family/children. If he had stuck around, he certainly would have seen a majority of these signs of neglect. The children were frequently absent from school, as they were not even enrolled for some stretches of time. In desperation, the children would sometimes steal food, such as from the lunch boxes of their peers. They likely were not seen by a doctor. Hygiene was also an issue, since the children did not have access to frequent showers/baths or clean clothing (they definitely had noticeable odor). The children had few items of clothing, especially problematic in the freezing winter temperatures. Often, the children were unsupervised, despite needed to be cared for… numerous signs of neglect are clearly evident.

Related image
The Glass Castle
(Main character as an adult)

While this book was hard to read at points (very difficult material such as poverty, neglect, alcoholism, and abuse), I think that it was well-written and truly shows the devastating impacts of poverty, neglect and abuse.

*Note: I have yet to watch the movie, but I read that it did not truly represent the book. For those who have seen it, would you recommend it?

Source (of quoted material of defined legal terms): Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. PDF. — Includes relevant resources!

Images are from the movie based off of the memoir.

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