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Attached to the Castle

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Attached to the Castle:

Attachment Theory in Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle

I. Introduction

Family interactions play an important role in any child’s development. However, they play a particularly important role for many in poverty because of the propensity of such families to move around more frequently (Center on Rural Education and Communities, n.d.), and to face traumas together (Collins et al., 2010), thereby potentially relying more heavily on one another. This is clearly illustrated in Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle. Because of the particular insular environment within which Jeannette grew up, her parents played an enormous role in her experience and own identity formation. In particular, I aim to understand better Jeannette’s parents and their impact on Jeannette’s own identity formation. I look first at Jeannette’s father as exhibiting dismissing attachment (Sloman, Atkinson, Milligan, & Liotti, 2002), then at Jeannette’s mother as exhibiting disorganized attachment (Alexander, 2003), before finally examining the transitional object attachment Jeannette relies on and her own adolescent identity development.


II. The Memoir

“The Glass Castle” tells the growing-up story of writer Jeannette Walls. Her story tracks the many moves she and her family made, the instability of their economic position and social relationships, and the creativity she and her siblings employed to survive in spite of challenging circumstances. She begins with a story of accidentally setting herself on fire at age three while cooking herself dinner and being ‘kidnapped’ from the hospital several weeks later by her parents and siblings. And her life only grows more eventful from there. Her father is characterized as a charismatic and highly intelligent man, whose alcoholism, abundant creativity, and wanderlust prevent him from maintaining a steady job. Her mother is portrayed as an artist unwilling to compromise her independence and creative life for the sake of supporting her family or own wellbeing. Meanwhile, Jeannette’s siblings bond together to support each other in their unstable settings. They follow their parents from a Western desert town to Phoenix, AZ, to a small coal town in West Virginia, before striking it out on their own in individual moves to New York City.

Throughout the memoir, Jeannette highlights and questions the roles of parent and child, often sharing caregiving roles with her siblings, but caring for her parents and each other rather than the reverse. For example, she and her siblings are the ones to suggest her mother take on a teaching job when the family becomes desperate for food. Meanwhile, her mother resents this directive and responsibility, wanting only to return to her artwork. In another example, Jeannette becomes responsible for the family budgeting when her mother goes to a college-sponsored summer program, and her father comes to her for money to buy his alcohol. Jeannette is forced into the position of needing to say no to her father. Unfortunately, the hierarchies of parent-child relationships and elder-younger relationships still play out, and Jeannette finds herself unable to deny his requests – decimating their budget. Within the Walls family, the responsibilities traditionally associated with parenthood and the behaviors often associated with youth are far more fluid and flexible. This flexibility impacts all aspects of the family dynamics, and is something I explore further in the following sections.


III. Analysis

Identity development does not happen in a vacuum. External factors such as family environment and social situation greatly impact a child’s development. The way in which external  factors impact development is laid out by Brofenbrenner in the ecological perspective on development (from S. K. Whitbourne & S. B. Whitbourne, 2010). Whitbourne & Whitbourne write that the first level in Brofenbrenner’s theory is the biological and refers to the “physiological changes that take place over time to affect the individual’s functioning” (2010), such as physical growth and brain development, puberty, etc. The second level involves thinking and personality (2010). The third level includes “the individual’s relationships with significant others, peers, and members of the nuclear family” (2010). Though it is last in Whitbourne & Whitbourne’s list of social relationship groups, I would argue the nuclear family makes up the most developmentally formative social group for the Walls family. The fourth and final level is the “sociocultural level” and includes “larger social institutions of education, public policy, governmental, and economic systems” (2010). This level is significant because Walls family frequently comes into conflict with these systems. It is also significant because Jeannette’s parents make many efforts to live outside of these systems. Because of the impact of the family dynamics on Jeannette’s development, I look at the identity formation of Jeannette’s parents before considering her own development.


i. The Dismissing Parent: Jeannette’s Father

The parent-child relationship is integral in the family and the successful dynamics of said family. When this relationship is not optimal, the dynamics of the family are shifted. One of the key themes in Walls’ memoir is the unclear boundaries between parent and child roles. Psychologists and psychotherapists have found this to be highly significant, saying, “a weak generational boundary was associated with increased levels of psychological dysfunction for both identified patients and their siblings” (Sloman et al. 2002). Indeed a normative social rank within families was found to be incredibly important to successful attachment and psychological development (2002). Sloman et. al. found that part of the way social rank is established in families is based in the way parents and children form attachment (2002). For example, parents will ideally respond to the emotions of their children in order to reassure and support them. Part of that positive support is reliant on how parents respond to their own emotions. When parental response goes wrong, attachment doesn’t form or doesn’t form well.  Sloman et. al. write that

“Parents who deny negative aspects of their own childhoods or dismiss the significance of these experiences are classified as having Dismissing states of mind concerning attachment” (2002).

Sloman goes on to say that,

“…infants of these caregivers employ an insecure-avoidant emotion regulation strategy that minimizes their need for the attachment relationship. This is manifested in affective neutrality, decreased interest in proximity or contact, and active avoidance of the parent” (2002).

This especially resonates when considering a scene in Walls’ memoir between Jeannette’s brother and her father. While Walls’ parents are out of town, the Walls children live under the care of their paternal grandmother. She’s a harsh woman and none of the children like her, but things come to a head when Jeannette hears her brother “weakly protesting” from their grandmother’s room. She walks in to find her grandmother groping her brother while he cries and tries to protect himself. Jeannette yells at her grandmother to stop and they get into a fight. The children are then relegated to the basement, not allowed food, use of the toilet, or coal for the stove. When their parents return, their father yells at them for provoking their grandmother and when Jeannette tries to explain what happened he says, “I don’t care what happened!” Jeannette protests that  “We were just protecting ourselves!” Their father responds, “Brian’s a man, he can take it, […] I don’t want to hear another word of this. Do you hear me?” This kind of response shuts down Brian’s real experience and emotions. Jeannette and her siblings lose their trust in their parents and from then on try to solve problems on their own.

They later process this incident and their father’s denial by hypothesizing that the same happened to him as a child.  It is important that the Walls’ children have this reaction and make this connection. Without explaining their father’s reaction, the experience could have incited shame in Brian, as “the experience of defeat promotes shame in the child” (Sloman et. al. 2002). Interestingly enough, it seems the youngest sibling, Maureen, is the most impacted by their father’s dismissing behavior. I would hypothesize that her relative youth at the time of this incident and others impact her avoidant response. She alone begins actively avoiding their home – spending the night with friends and going on frequent play-dates. This avoidance continues through adulthood for Maureen, when she runs away from her siblings in New York following her parents’ move to the city. She moves to California and stays there through the end of the memoir. However, all the children make the move to New York and away from their parents in their adolescent years, signifying both their need to get away from their Dismissing father and their natural second individuation process (Blos from Kroger, 1996).

Reading Walls’ father as a Dismissing individual makes sense based on some of his other characteristics as well.  Sloman et. al. write that “Dismissing individuals respond to failure by trying to prove that they can succeed independently, relying solely on their own resources, a response which entails activation of the dominance system” (2002). Indeed, Jeannette’s father experiences regular job loss and often responds by uprooting his family and repeating the rhetoric that they can do it on their own. Additionally, both of Jeannette’s parents refuse to apply for welfare support or food stamps, saying they don’t need the government’s help. Jeannette’s father’s extreme focus on individualism comes from his own insecurity and lack of self-esteem. When his responses fail, he turns to alcohol.


ii. Perpetual Adolescence: Jeannette’s Mother

While Jeannette’s father is dismissive of childhood experiences and passes that on to his children, Jeannette’s mother sends mixed messages to her children insinuating both that she needs them and that she’s entirely independent of them. She confuses her relationship with her children with her relationship with her own mother and replays her child role in the parent-child relationship without taking on the dominant and supportive parent role. In one scene, Jeannette tells her mother that the family needs to do something drastic to change their living situation and reminds her mother that they’ve eaten nothing but popcorn for three days. Her mother responds by saying, “You’re always so negative. You remind me of my mother – criticize, criticize, criticize.” This kind of response might be expected from an adolescent, still going through identity formation.

This response and the interactions between Jeannette and her mother more generally are explained by parent-child role reversal, which is

“a situation in which a child assumes parental responsibilities to an extent that exceeds the developmental norms in a given culture. […] In a prototypical case, the child acts in a parenting role toward a parent who is unable or unwilling to give the protection and guidance expected of an adult caregiver” (Mayseless, Bartholomew, Henderson, & Trinke, 2004).

This exactly describes the relationship Jeannette and her siblings have with their mother and, at times, their father. From the anecdote of Jeannette cooking hot-dogs for herself at age three to the story of Jeannette being asked to be responsible for the household budget at age thirteen, she has been asked to take on far more familial responsibility than is considered normal for our culture – though may be entirely normal in other cultures and societies. Research on parent-child role reversal have found it is “associated with many types of family dysfunction, including parental alcoholism, […] marital conflict, […] depression and anxiety” (Alexander, 2003).  In addition, it has been associated with “an unstable sense of identity in young adults” (2003). Jeannette’s need to escape her family in her adolescence can be explained by the pressures this role reversal placed on her as well as the instability of her own sense of identity and her need to resolve that instability. 

Alexander’s research on parent-child role reversal cites Giovanni Liotti who observed a form of attachment formerly not included in attachment theory called “disorganized attachment” (Alexander, 2003). Liotti suggests that “the child’s presence triggers attachment-related anxiety in a parent with unresolved trauma or loss. The parent then looks to the child to control the parent’s anxiety” (Alexander, 2003). This makes for an unsettling situation for the child, who typically looks to the parent in times of anxiety, and thus faces more anxiety as a result of their parent’s anxiety. I would argue that while Jeannette’s father has dismissing attachment with his children, Jeannette’s mother has disorganized attachment. She fears being judged by her children – as shown in the scene where Jeannette critiques her parenting – and associates that judgment with her relationship with her own mother.  She puts her needs to be cared for on her children rather than her peers or husband, in part because she has very few, if any, social supports outside of the family because of their frequent moves and because her husband is so unavailable. In one scene in which she is overwhelmed about the grading work she procrastinated doing (while working briefly as a teacher), Jeannette writes: “… Mom lay wrapped up in blankets on the sofa bed, sobbing about how much she hated her life. […] Dad wasn’t there…”. The scene ends with Jeannette’s sister consoling her mother, and Jeannette standing in the doorway with her arms crossed. She says later,

“In twenty-five years […] I’d be as old as she was now. I had no idea what my life would be like then, but as I gathered up my schoolbooks and walked out the door, I swore to myself that it would never be like Mom’s, that I would not be crying my eyes out in an unheated shack in some godforsaken holler.”

Jeannette describes her mother as having very unstable moods and this instability exacerbates her mother’s need for care and pushes her to turn to those most available – her own children. Jeannette describes herself throughout the book as more of her father’s daughter, and I would argue she avoids her mother because of the pressure she feels to be a caregiver to her. In order to cope with those stressors, she uses avoidance techniques and actively makes herself less like her mother.


iii. Object Relations Theory: Losing Tinkerbell (and everything else)

Attachment happens not only with parents, but also with transitional objects while one is growing up. As a child, Jeannette can be read using Winnicott’s object relations theory. Gregory Hamilton summarizes Winnicott’s theory as follows:

“The holding environment describes the good enough mother’s function of providing the child with optimal closeness while allowing adequate room for development of autonomy. […] Eventually, the child can internalize the holding functions so that he can self-soothe and separate from the parent. An important step in this process is development of a transitional object […] which is neither self nor object and yet may be treated as if it were the beloved parent and simultaneously the self” (1989).

In Jeannette’s description, it seems she never really had optimal closeness with her mother before being asked to self-soothe. One of the opening scenes of her memoir tells the story of how at age three she was cooking hotdogs for herself when her dress caught on fire and she was severely burned. Her mother had been painting in the next room. The scene highlights both the incredible autonomy Jeannette was given and how little closeness there was between her and her mother. In spite of this or perhaps because of this, Jeannette does seem to rely on a transitional object – her Tinkerbell toy. Several months after the burning, Jeannette describes playing with fire and accidentally burning Tinkerbell’s face, melting the plastic. She identifies with the burning and disfigurement, and in that, sees herself within Tinkerbell. She writes, “Even though her face was melted, she was still my favorite toy.” Several months after that, Jeannette’s father announces they must pack up and leave their home. In the process, Tinkerbell is left behind. Jeannette describes the scene as follows:

“…I hoped whoever found Tinkerbell would love her despite her melted face. For comfort, I tried to cradle Quixote, our gray and white cat who was missing an ear, but he growled and scratched at my face. ‘Quiet Quixote!’ I said.
‘Cats don’t like to travel,’ Mom explained.
Anyone who didn’t like to travel wasn’t invited on our adventure, Dad said. He stopped the car, grabbed Quixote by the scruff of the next and tossed him out the window.  […] Dad accelerated up the road, and I burst into tears.”

Here, Jeannette is forced to separate from her transitional object and this means loss of some holding functions. When she tries to find that comfort in another object, the family cat, she faces rejection. When this transitional object is then forcibly removed from the picture,  she can no longer process the loss and she breaks down in tears.

After this scene, the theme of loss of transitional objects follows Jeannette throughout the memoir. Because of her family’s frequent moves, she often has to leave everything behind with little notice. I would argue this impacts her ability to form attachments in the future. As she matures, she is often guarded and warms to others slowly. When she enters her first major relationship – with a man named Eric – she describes him as “detached” and values his organization and stability. Her early attempts at attachment were constantly broken, so it makes sense that she would form her first strong attachment to someone who required little from her and did not seem to be disappearing any time soon. 


iv. Jeannette’s Adolescent Identity Formation

In spite of her dysfunctional family, Jeannette seems to go through fairly typical stages of identity formation. Jane Kroger discusses varying theories around adolescent identity formation and Peter Blos’s theories seem to apply particularly well because they take into account childhood trauma (1996). Kroger writes that Blos envisions people passing through four “character challenges” and says that the success of the person’s passing through said challenges dictates the level of autonomy and healthy functioning of the person following.  Kroger writes:

“Blos’s four character challenges of adolescence […] are those of (1) the second individuation process (2) reworking and mastering childhood trauma (3) ego continuity, and (4) sexual identity,” (1996).

Jeannette’s second individuation process happens perhaps earlier than many. At age 10 she asks her father to stop drinking as her birthday present. At age 12 she tells her mother to leave her father or get a job. At 13, her mother makes her head of the household while she takes a summer course away from home. Here, Jeannette is forced to budget for the family and finds herself giving in to her father’s requests for money for beer and cigarettes. By 16, she makes plans with her sister to save up money to move to New York and at 17 she leaves her parents to make it on her own. In part because of the trauma in her family, leaving behind the parental representations she’d internalized during early childhood may have been easier. On the other hand, her idolization of her father and his charismatic nature made looking at him critically more challenging – in spite of her ability to see his alcoholism and the negative impact that had on the family.

Reworking childhood trauma was perhaps a more difficult challenge for Jeannette. The level of dysfunction in her family led her to be a master compartmentalizer. Blos suggests that one must return to early experiences of trauma in order to master them for adulthood (Kroger, 1996). It is unclear in Jeannette’s memoir whether or how she does this. However, the act of writing this memoir indicates she has returned to early trauma and her current success and healthy functioning indicate she has mastered them. Her memoir does not contain bitterness or blame, indicating for me that she has successfully processed these events. Additionally, within moments of trauma in her young adulthood, Jeannette faces events head-on. She practices fight rather than flight in these situations, making her adept at dealing with new forms of trauma and allowing her to more healthily practice identity formation than would otherwise have been possible.

Ego continuity is easier to see in Jeannette’s writing – not only because she is practicing seeing it in writing a memoir, but also because she depicts herself throughout the memoir as a storyteller. She looks back to past events within more current moments. She practices journalism and tells stories about the events around her in an objective way. She also asks her parents about their family history in order to see herself as part of a continuum. Her father’s silence on his family history may have stunted some of her early ego continuity work, but ultimately I think she was successful.

Finally, what I would argue was the hardest for Jeannette to face was sexual identity. Jeannette spends nearly the entirety of the memoir without mentioning sexuality or romatic relationships. Any mention of sexual identity is related to trauma – attempted rape and incestuous groping, for example. Jeannette never writes about her own sexual desire. She notes only that she feels herself to be extremely unattractive during her adolescence due to her skinniness, burn scars, and general griminess. Of course, it is important to note that she may avoid the topic because she feels extremely self conscious. When she first mentions she has a romantic relationship, it is framed almost as a non-event and the only reflection on the relationship comes when she compares how different this man is from her father and how ultimately they weren’t right for each other. She mentions being fearful of her romantic closeness with her first boyfriend because she fears beginning a sexual relationship and having to make herself vulnerable in such an intimate situation, in particular because of her scars. Overall, though I would argue this avoidance of reflecting on her sexuality indicates a struggle in facing this particular character challenge.


IV. Personal Experience

Reading the memoir was definitely eye-opening for me. As someone from quite a privileged background, seeing extreme poverty in such honest relief was jarring. Additionally seeing such familial dysfunction was jarring. I felt at times as though I were reading a work of fiction. It was hard for me to process all the events of Jeannette’s life because each seemed so extreme and unbelievable. In this way, I emotionally disconnected from the text. However, I also approached the piece with open eyes. And I think in this case the emotional disconnect combined with openness worked in my favor because it allowed me to take in what Jeannette was writing without feeling pressure to self-identify with her character and therefore negate her own experience.

As someone who has very little social work background, it was difficult for me to approach the text with a “social work eye.” Instead I tried to think about what aspects of the family might be considered “normative” and what aspects might be considered “non-normative.” In this way, I could question my own assumptions of what it means to be either normative or non-normative. When I first started my research I thought I would end up focusing on Jeannette’s father’s alcoholism. Indeed, there is much research available on children of alcoholics and I could have potentially done a reading of The Glass Castle from that perspective. Instead, though, I found that Jeannette’s father and mother have both gone through identity formation in a particular and non-normative way, and this deeply impacts how they interact with the world and what they pass on to their children. My hypothesis is that for Jeannette’s father, the alcoholism is secondary to his assumed childhood trauma and inability to confront that. He uses alcohol as an escape from the emotion work he is unwilling or unable to do.

Because the memoir focused on Jeannette’s childhood – and was written from her perspective – it was difficult to get a sense of the impact of aging. By the end of the memoir, Jeannette is in her mid-thirties at the latest, but those most recent twenty years in which she transitions into adulthood only take up the last quarter of the book at most. Additionally, her role-reversal with her parents makes the transition much less eventful than it might otherwise be. She seems to transition quite successfully and seamlessly. While her parents spend the memoir passing through middle age and into aging adulthood, her parents’ experience was, understandably, not mentioned in detail. Indeed, as Jeannette presented it, her parents remained very much the same, even as they began to face the challenges of aging such as lung cancer (following years of smoking, on the part of her father) or arthritis (her mother). At the end of the memoir, Jeannette’s father approached death the way he approached most other things – as an upcoming adventure and a predictable next-step. On the whole, reading the memoir reminded me that identity development happens throughout one’s life and does not end with adulthood.


V. Applications to Practice

The Walls family do not seek out the help of a social worker, but there were many points in the memoir when I felt they could use one. For example, they could have used a therapist to talk through the experiences of sexual assault that Jeannette and her brother both faced. The Walls family could have used support in understanding good nutrition and how to find that on a very limited budget. Jeannette’s father could have used counseling to better understand and deal with his emotions and past – and to work on not using alcohol as an escape from his challenges.

For a social worker interacting with the Walls family, individual attention would be critical. Jeannette’s parents were both somewhat politically informed and very liberal; they certainly would agree with practices that focus on the social inequalities that exist and the oppressive structures of institutions. However, within their personal lives, I feel they tried to live with their family very much outside of this system – and while they faced inequalities, I don’t think they saw themselves as part of oppressive power structures because they were so actively trying to avoid those structures. Barbara Silverstone writes about “Restoring the Person-in-Situation” when working with aging adults (2005), but I feel her concept is key not only to aging adults but to many others as well. Silverstone writes, “The complexity and diversity of older people, as well as their adaptive capacities honed over a lifetime, require the dual focus on the person and the environment, the unique contribution of the social work profession” (2005). Jeannette’s parents age as part of New York City’s homeless population after they decide to be closer to their children and move there. This makes focusing on the person-in-situation is particularly important. The adaptive techniques her parents have learned are part of the reason they continue living on the streets, even when options are made for them to live in an apartment. Understanding that history would be critical for a social worker.

I would argue that understanding the family history as well as the environmental factors would also be critical for a social worker dealing with the Walls family at an earlier point in their lives and with the Walls children in particular. Jeannette’s parents pass their unique adaptive techniques on to their children, so even as young children the Walls siblings are complex and – I would argue – quite different from most children their age. Additionally, the amount of moving they do means the members of the family form few attachments outside of their nuclear group. The children are forced to rely on their parents and each other more than other children might, and this makes for a very insular environment. Their poverty means the children often face bullying at school. For all of these things, they could use the support of a social worker – and one who takes on their individuality.


Works Cited:

Alexander, P. (2003). Parent-child role reversal: Development of a measure and test of an attachment theory model. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 22, 31-44.

Center on Rural Education and Communities. (n.d.). Poverty, housing insecurity and student transiency in rural areas. In PennState College of Education CREC research and outreach initiatives. Retrieved from

Collins, K., Conners, K., Davis, S., Donohue, A., Gardner, S., Goldblatt, E., … Thompson, E. (2010). Understanding the impact of trauma and urban poverty on family systems: Risks, resilience, and interventions. Retrieved from            f_trauma.pdf

Hamilton, N. G. (1989). A critical review of object relations theory. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 146, 1552-1560.

Kroger, J. (1996). Identity in adolescence: The balance between self and other. (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Mayseless, O., Bartholomew, K., Henderson, A., Trinke, S. (2004). “I was more her mom than she was mine:” Role reversal in a community sample. Family Relations, 53, 78-86.

Silverstone, B. (2005). Social work with the older people of tomorrow: Restoring the person-in-situation. Families in Society, 86, 309-319.

Sloman, L., Atkinson, L., Milligan, K., Liotti, G. (2002). Attachment, social rank, and affect regulation: Speculations on an ethological approach to family interaction. Family Process, 41, 313-327.

Walls, J. (2005). The glass castle. New York, NY: Scribner.

Whitbourne, S. K., & Whitbourne, S. B. (2010). Models of development: Nature and nurture in adulthood. In Adult development & aging: Biophysical perspectives (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons