Friday, September 8, 2017

The Glass Castle Adoption Movie Review

Rex and Rose Mary Walls lived a nomadic lifestyle with their four children. Rose Mary was a free-spirited artist, and Rex had big dreams, but Rex’s alcoholism and Rose Mary’s commitment to her art resulted in the children going without food, not attending school, and moving from home to home to avoid eviction or arrest. Now a young adult, Jeannette Walls remembers aspects of her childhood while adjusting to life as a young professional adult in 1980’s New York City. Jeannette’s parents and siblings have all relocated to New York; Jeannette works for a newspaper, one of her siblings is a police officer, and her parents are squatting in a building. Rex does not approve of Jeannette’s life; he finds it too sanitary. She struggles with being ashamed of her parents, and often lies about them, even though some aspects of her childhood remain present in her adult life: she takes home leftovers from restaurants when others in her party don’t, she keeps her belongings in boxes, and she bears the scars she sustained while cooking food for herself as a young child. Jeannette has stopped communicating with Rex after one too many blow-ups regarding her fiancĂ©. When Rex becomes sick and draws near death, Jeannette must decide whether to let him stay in her past or whether to go and make her peace with him before he passes.

The Adoption Connection

There is no mention of adoption in this film, but several aspects of the story seem relevant for people who have experience with foster care or with the child protective services system. Jeannette and her siblings are receiving inadequate care; their parents do love them, but the children are left underfed and undereducated, and their housing is often unstable. For a brief time, the children live with their paternal grandmother, and it appears that she molests Jeannette’s brother. The other children physically attack her to protect their brother, but their father refuses to hear their allegations.
A couple times, a character mentions that they don’t want the children to be taken away from them; it appears that part of the family’s reason for staying on the run is to avoid child protective services workers. After she is burned, Rex sneaks Jeannette out of the hospital when a social worker has started to show concern about their family.

Now that she is an adult in New York City, Jeannette struggles to form her own identity as well as her understanding of her parents. She is initially ashamed of them, but ultimately is able to form a balanced view of her father as a person with significant problems, but also a person who loved her and had positive characteristics.

Some kids in foster care have particular issues around food; Jeannette has not been in foster care, but also exhibits some insecurity about the availability of food.

Strong Points

Rex and Rose Mary love their children, even though their family is dysfunctional. This film can challenge foster and fost-adoptive parents to develop a well-rounded view of their children’s birthparents as people with real problems, who have abused or neglected children, but who also have redeeming characteristics.

Rex tries (and temporarily succeeds) to become sober at Jeannette’s request. Jeannette clearly but compassionately tells him that she is not ashamed of him, but that when he drinks, he can’t take care of his children.

We see that Jeannette’s family is important to her, even as she struggles with her feelings towards them. When her fiancĂ© speaks ill of them, it hurts her. It is important for foster and fost-adoptive parents to remember that kids often have deep love for their parents, even though their parents may have made poor choices that have impacted the children negatively. The healthiest outcome for an adoptee or a child in foster care is a well-rounded view of their life and circumstances in which their parents are viewed as real people with strengths and weaknesses, with successes and failures, with redeeming qualities as well as concerning factors that led to the child’s involvement in the foster care system. Monochromatically positive or negative understandings of their birth parents are likely to be inaccurate, confusing, and unhelpful.

Jeannette is able to express her frustrations clearly to her parents about the ways in which they failed. At times it’s brutal, but the things she say do ring of truth, and it’s helpful for her to acknowledge the losses she suffered; in fact, acknowledging the losses may have made it possible for her to also acknowledge the positive aspects of her childhood. Eventually, she expresses a clear, integrated understanding of her father as a squatter, a drunk, occasionally cruel, but also a big dreamer and the smartest man she knows. Later, she discovers that he has treasured all of her writings. She confides in him, I am like you, and I’m glad.” Eventually, her father dies. Jeannette, her mother and her siblings gather to remember him.
The film is dedicated “to all families, who despite their scars find a way to love.”


Jeannette’s parents put her in dangerous situations; her father throws her repeatedly into a pool to teach her to swim, even though she fears that he is trying to kill her. They also have four of their children, including an infant, ride in the storage compartment of a moving truck because there aren’t enough seats in the cab.

Rex’s mother is unkind; even though she has not seen Rex in a long time, she insults him in front of his children, and hits Rex’s son on the back of the head during his first meal with her. Later, she appears to molest her grandson. Jeannette yells at her to not hit her brother, but her father tells Jeannette to show respect to her grandmother. Later, Jeannette wonders if her father was also abused by his grandmother, but in a moment of anger she tells him that she doesn’t care what was done to him.

As a pre-teen, Jeannette has to stitch a wound on her father; he assures her that he is so drunk that he won’t feel anything.

Some scenes seem to suggest domestic violence between Rex and Rose Mary. In one scene, Rose 
Mary hangs out of a window.  

While Rex is trying to sober up, he attempts to manipulate Jeannette into giving him a drink by saying “Do you want your daddy to die?”

The children often have more responsibility than they should; Jeannette takes responsibility for trying to help Rex stay sober. Decades later, Rex tells her that no little girl should have to carry her father on her back.

When Jeannette is a young woman, or perhaps late in her teenage years, she appeals to her father for help as she tries to avoid the advances of one of her father’s barroom friends. He declines to help her, because he is angry after having learned that she intends to move away from the family. This leads to Jeannette being taken up to the friend’s apartment, where he tries to rape her.

Adults hit children and children hit adults.

In a moment of anger, Jeannette tells her parents, “We were never a family; we were a nightmare.” She means this, but later she also remembers the moments in which they did function as a loving family.


The Glass Castle isn’t for kids, and might be triggering for many teens who have experienced abuse or neglect. It could also be difficult for kids and teens who haven’t yet developed a healthy, integrated view of their birth parents. For adoptive or foster parents, this could be a worthwhile challenging film that offers an opportunity to reflect on the importance of an adopted person having a holistic view of their background and birth family. As you watch it, think about the ways in which your child values their history, and think about ways that you can help them find and celebrate the positive characteristics of their family of origin while also helping them give voice to their painful feelings with regard to the mistreatment they may have experienced.

Questions for Discussion

What aspects of her father does Jeannette resent? Which ones does she admire?

Would you be comfortable with your child having powerful, mixed feelings about their birth family? Are you comfortable with everything they might express? What can you do to become more comfortable with this?

How may Rex have been impacted by abuse he suffered as a child?

Why did Jeannette decide to see Rex? What good came out of that final visit?

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