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“The Glass Castle: A Memoir” by Jeannette Walls Essay

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Updated: May 29th, 2021


Human development is a complex process in which childhood environment and interactions largely determine the overall life of a person. The way a child grows and develops is impacted by his or her family, social ties, and changes over time. This paper aims to analyze “The Glass Castle,” a book by Jeannette Walls, where she presents her own escape from the family and poverty to build a new life. The systems / ecological theory is used as the framework for the analysis of the key problems and suggesting possible assistance actions from social work practice.

Systems / Ecological Theory

Bronfenbrenner, the author of the systems / ecological theory, claims that the environment of children’s development comprises four systems that are typically showed in the form of concentric rings (Figure 1). Namely, there is microsystem (family of a child), mesosystem (kindergarten, school, neighborhood), exosystem (adult social institutions), and macrosystem (cultural customs, resources, and values) (Espelage, 2014). While this theory may seem to be simple and self-evident, Bronfenbrenner emphasizes flexibility and interconnectedness between these four systems. For example, a flexible schedule at the company where the child’s mother works allow the woman to pay more attention to upbringing and indirectly affects the development of the child. At the same time, the opportunity for a mother to freely manage her time usually contributes to her peace of mind and indirectly affects the increase in female labor productivity.

In the theory of ecological systems, children are both products and creators of the environment. The situations in life can be both imposed on the child and turn out to be the result of his or her activity (Espelage, D2014). When children get older, they change their environment and rethink the experience. However, interdependencies continue to work since how children live, act, and think depends not only on their personal traits but also on how they were brought up and what they managed to absorb from their surroundings. Bronfenbrenner notes that ecological systems are mobile and change over time, which is the largest layer of the chronosystem (Lau & Ng, 2014). For instance, the birth of a younger brother or sister, the beginning of school, or the divorce of parents would change the relationship between the child and his or her environment.

The schematic presentation of the systems / ecological theory.
Figure 1. The schematic presentation of the systems / ecological theory.

Case Overview

Jeanette Walls is the protagonist of the story that is written about her own life, beginning with childhood and ending with her current period. The book presents memoirs of a young girl who was born in a family with a low income. The father (Rex Walls) is a chronic alcoholic without a job, and the mother (Rose Mary Walls) is a self-sufficient actress who abuses her children. Lori, Brian, and Maureen are siblings who also suffer from the living conditions and parents’ lifestyles. The first reminiscent shows how a 3-year-old Jeanette burnt her skin accidentally, and her father skedaddled with her to avoid hospital bills (Walls, 2005). The idea of running away is central in “The Glass Castle,” appearing as a leitmotif: Jeanette fell from a driving car, living in a hotel room for several months, and kicking out from Rex’s parents’ house.

The children of this family receive education, feeling that their school is the only safe place. It allows them to survive and move to New York City to find a good job. In other words, education grants them a ticket out of poverty towards new people, relationships, and career perspectives. At the end of the book, the family reunions in the house of Jeanette many years later on Thanksgiving Day and toasts Rex.

Systems / Ecological Theory and Jeanette’s Family

The main themes of the book are family and poverty since Jeanette and her sisters and brother often had nothing to eat. Their parents cannot afford appropriate housing and move from place to place across the US. The need to take into account the personal characteristics and properties of the environment is shown repeatedly in the book. The systems approach allows identifying ecological niches – the areas surrounded by humans, which are especially valuable or harmful to child development with specific personal characteristics.

In the given case, a microsystem of Jeanette is her family and possibly the kindergarten group. An illustration of the influence of a microsystem may be compared to the behaviors of families who lived during the Great Depression in the US. As adults, such children were agitated by parents who encountered difficulties in their personal life. More to the point, the children of their children also had pronounced problems with relationships. It is central to stress that this is not about inherited personality, yet about experiencing specific conditions in a challenging economic situation (Hutchison, 2017). Likewise, the main character of the story faces misunderstanding and a lack of attention from her parents, who seem to be more interested in their own challenges. The grown-up girl also meets problems with her first husband, which, to some extent, leads to divorce.

The mesosystem affects the development of Jeanette indirectly but paired with the microsystem – the family. The relationships between parents and children in Walls family are influenced by the relationship between the child and school and vice versa. If the family and teachers are ready to cooperate, make friends, and communicate, relations between the child and parents are likely to be improved (Hutchison, 2017). On the other hand, the situation in the family affects how the school will affect the child. The child’s performance at school depends not only on the situation in the classroom but also on the family: performance improves if parents are interested in school life and teach their child to do homework. However, the case of Jeanette proves that a school may turn out to be the only safe place despite the fact that parents are not engaged in learning affairs.

Furthermore, the exosystem comprises the links between different environments, such as neighborhoods, towns, and relatives. In at least one of them, the girl is not engaged, but the related events have an influence on the environment in which she develops. For instance, for Jeanette, the affairs of her mother are such an environment: if she is too busy, then she would spend less time with her. Being at work, Rose Mary would have unpleasant feelings, which are likely to impact the behaviors and thoughts of the child over time.

The macrosystem consists of the interweaving of micro-, meso- and ecosystems in terms of the given culture or some wider context, focusing on attitudes regarding lifestyles, development opportunities, and sources of development (Espelage, 2014). For Walls, the assistance of government and social programs significantly impact their lifestyle as well as the father’s skedaddling. Since Jeanette grows without friends, she believes that her family is normal and that idea of parents is perceived as adequate. The society in which the family lives also places an important imprint.

In terms of the chronosystem, Jeannette and her siblings began to grow up and realize the eccentric existence of their parents. Despite the severity of their lives, love and acceptance of parents reign in the family. No matter how surprising it was, but the children were infinitely smart, and climbing out of this abyss, they became the opposite side of their parents. Despite all the problems, difficulties, and chaos that parents brought into children’s lives, it was difficult for them to imagine their lives without them. It should be stated that no matter how strange it may sound, but she always knew that the father loved her, which shows her reception and commitment.

Social Work Practice Contribution

The social and economic injustices presented in “The Glass Castle” include low income, poor living conditions, a lack of government assistance, and the mistakes of the education system. When Rex becomes an alcoholic, social services might assist him in recovering, which also concerns the overall family lifestyle. Another issue is associated with the situation when children are regarded as disabled and assigned a special class only due to their accents. One may suggest that more precise attention from social work services and preventative strategies could facilitate the challenges faced by Walls.

People are products of the environment, but they also impact the formation of social and cultural norms. To help this family, social work practice should be initiated with a focus on explaining to the parents that their current status can be changed (Hawley & Williford, 2015). By visiting the family at least once a week, social workers can translate the family values that strengthen the ties between them and their children. This is likely to evoke feelings of responsibility and desire to participate in Jeanette’s life. Such psychological assistance can be supplemented by social support programs for housing and employment.

With regard to children of the given family, the provision of education opportunities may be a significant contribution. For example, it would be better if they can visit additional courses to develop more skills and acquire knowledge. Personal consultations are another point that seems to be especially important for Maureen, who remained psychologically unstable, failing to take care of herself, and struggling to live in New York (Lau & Ng, 2014). On the contrary to her siblings, she is not able to cope with her feelings, which evidently can be addressed by means of therapeutic mental sessions. The key goals of social workers are to set the family roles and help with sanitary conditions, food, health issues, employment, and alcohol abuse.


In conclusion, this essay revealed that “The Glass Castle” presents the problems of family and social injustices. Jeanette and her siblings had to survive in conditions of poverty, frequent moving, selfishness, and alcohol abuse of parents. The paper discussed this case in the framework of the systems / ecological theory that implies the connection between different levels of one’s surroundings. Children’s development in “The Glass Castle” can be characterized by the great impact of the microsystem as well as meso-, exo-, and macrosystems to the less extent. In general, the use of the systems / ecological theory is beneficial to deeply understand the way Jeanette grew up.


Espelage, D. L. (2014). Ecological theory: Preventing youth bullying, aggression, and victimization. Theory into Practice, 53(4), 257-264.

Hawley, P. H., & Williford, A. (2015). Articulating the theory of bullying intervention programs: Views from social psychology, social work, and organizational science. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 37, 3-15.

Hutchison, E. D. (2017). Essentials of human behavior: Integrating person, environment, and the life course (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Sage.

Lau, J., & Ng, K. M. (2014). Conceptualizing the counseling training environment using Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 36(4), 423-439.

Walls, J. (2005). The glass castle. London, Virago.

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