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Jeannette Walls was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1960. As a child, her family moved all over the American Southwest. They had very little money and routinely experienced hunger and homelessness. Jeannette’s mother, Rose Mary Walls, was a passionate painter and ambivalent about cooking meals and cleaning the house. Her father, Rex Walls, suffered from severe alcoholism. For the most part, her parents took a laissez faire approach to parenting, which meant that Jeannette and her siblings—Lori, Brian, and Maureen—were often left to protect and feed themselves.
When Jeannette was a teenager, the family moved to Rex’s Appalachian hometown of Welch, West Virginia. There Jeannette started working at the school newspaper, the Maroon Wave, in the seventh grade because it was the only club that didn’t require money to join. This experience launched her lifelong interest in journalism. At 17, Jeannette followed her sister Lori to New York City, where she finished high school and interned at a Brooklyn newspaper called The Phoenix. After graduating high school, she put herself through Barnard College with grants, loans, scholarships, and odd part time work. Jeannette graduated with honors in 1984.
After college, Jeannette worked on a local Brooklyn paper called The Phoenix, then later for New York magazine, first as a reporter, then as a gossip columnist before joining Esquire magazine and writing a gossip column from 1993 to 1998. From 1998 until 2007, she contributed gossip items to MSNBC.com—sometimes using tips from her father. In 2000, Jeannette wrote a book about the underappreciated history and role of gossip in American society called Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip.
During this phase of her career, Jeannette wrote a particularly negative article about the Church of Scientology. The church retaliated by investigating Walls’s parents and threatened to expose her unconventional history. At this point, Jeannette's parents lived as squatters in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and sometimes appeared on the local news talking about squatters’ rights. Although she remained in close contact with her parents, Jeannette worried she would lose her job and connections if people knew the truth about her family. She had hoped to keep the details of her life a secret. However, her husband, John, thought her life would make a great book. He encouraged her to tell her story on her own terms rather than risk cruel exposure, and this became the impetus for writing The Glass Castle.
Walls published The Glass Castle in 2005 to much critical and popular acclaim. The book remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for years, and in 2017 was made into a movie, starring Brie Larson as Jeannette, Woddy Harrelson as Rex, and Naomi Watts as Rose Mary. Since the publication of The Glass Castle, Jeannette has written three novels: Half Broke Horses (2009), which she based on the life of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith; The Silver Star (2013); and Hang the Moon (2023).
Walls lives with her husband John on a 205-acre farm in Virginia. Rose Mary lives in a cottage on Jeannette’s farm, where she still paints and collects art. Despite her father’s reckless alcoholism, Jeannette cherishes the relationship she had with him. Compared to her mother and siblings, Jeannette was the most enthusiastic advocate of her father’s wild antics and extravagant aspirations, extending him grace and compassion when the rest of the family couldn’t. To this day, Walls credits her self-confidence to their special bond, saying he instilled in her the courage, gratitude, and intelligence she needed to be happy in life. She doesn’t see herself as a victim of child abuse, but rather an exemplary product of alternative parenting.
Although Rex’s reckless behavior caused most of the Walls family’s upheaval, the exploitative business practices of the mining companies Rex found work with exacerbated their financial troubles. Throughout the early to mid-twentieth century, mining companies would build camps—also known as company towns—to provide the amenities that miners and their families needed to survive. Because the companies owned every establishment in the area, they controlled both the miners’ wages and their cost of living. Companies often abused this arrangement, adjusting prices and wages to drive miners into debt, and essentially making them indentured servants. The remote nature of many of these camps meant that miners had no access to other stores or the freedom to seek other jobs. For many industries, the practice of creating company towns had largely fallen out of favor by the 1930s thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. However, many of the mining communities the Walls family lived in or around still operated in a similar way.
The Walls family arrived in Welch in the early 1970s, a time of heightened racial tensions in the United States. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, Black activists engaged in public protest and civil disobedience to demand that the federal government uphold their civil rights and bring an end to racially segregated public spaces. White resentment grew as Black Americans gained the constitutional and legal rights that white Americans had long enjoyed. In more impoverished communities like Welch, this resentment often manifested as blame. On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, a white man named James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. King’s assassination led many Black activists to feel that white America considered even nonviolent action too threatening. Throughout The Glass Castle, Jeannette encounters both suspicion from Black neighbors and the horrific vitriolic racism of white neighbors.
Read more about the Civil Rights Movement.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Glass Castle!