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The Effects of Alcoholism on Marriage in "The Glass Castle" by Jeanette Walls

Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

Alcoholism has a devastating effect on marriage and the family in the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wells.

Alcoholism has a devastating effect on marriage and the family in the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wells.

The Class Castle

In The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls reveals the story of her childhood and what it was like growing up in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father and a mother who enabled him to drink. Jeanette’s parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls, are a classic example of what alcoholism can do to a marriage.

Rex doesn't care how his drinking and abuse hurts his family.

Rex doesn't care how his drinking and abuse hurts his family.

How Rose Mary Enables Rex’s Drinking Problem

Rose Mary rarely does anything to stop Rex from drinking. When he spends all his money on alcohol and there isn’t enough money to feed the family, Rose Mary ignores the problem. She seems to not know how to handle the situation, as she has become dependent on Rex and doesn’t know how to stand up for herself. When Rose Mary does try to get a job to support her family, since Rex is currently unemployed and spends any money he does earn from doing odd jobs on booze, Rex demands that she hand over her paycheck to him because he is the “man of the family.” She is unable to tell him no and instead tries to hide the money from him. In one instance, Rose Mary puts the money in a sock and gives it to Jeanette right in front of Rex, but Rex sees through this, and makes Jeanette give the sock to him. Rose Mary feels defeated, but she doesn’t know what to do, since Rex is her husband, and she doesn’t see a way out.

Even though Rose Mary is miserable, she continues to enable her husband's destructive behavior. She ends up turning to her own "addiction" to help her to cope.

Even though Rose Mary is miserable, she continues to enable her husband's destructive behavior. She ends up turning to her own "addiction" to help her to cope.

Rose Mary’s Coping Mechanisms

Rather than openly defy Rex and try to get him to stop drinking and wasting all of the family’s money, Rose Mary tries to find other means of escape. On page 174 of The Glass Castle, Jeannette and Brian find Rose Mary eating a family-sized Hershey’s bar by herself, despite the fact that there isn’t enough food to go around. When confronted by her children, Rose Mary claims that she can’t help it, and that she is a chocolate addict, just like Rex is an alcoholic. She then goes on to claim that they should forgive her, just like they always forgive their father for drinking. This represents Rose Mary’s distress over her husband’s drinking and how desperate she is for an escape or a way to cope with it. She is condemning her children for forgiving Rex, because she is upset with herself for forgiving him for so long. She is also tired of always being seen as the “bad guy” when Rex is the one who wastes all of their money on alcohol, and she doesn’t think that she is to blame for the situation at all. She is tired of the role that she has to play in the family and she just wants a way out.

Rose Mary continues to ignore Rex's drinking problem, enabling it to continue to get worse and worse.

Rose Mary continues to ignore Rex's drinking problem, enabling it to continue to get worse and worse.

The Games People Play in The Glass Castle

In his book Games People Play, Eric Berne, M.D. describes several roles that those close to the alcoholic may play in the Alcoholic “game.” The first role is that of the alcoholic himself. This is the role that Rex plays. The other major “supporting” roles are the Prosecutor, the Rescuer, and the Patsy (or “Dummy”). Berne goes on to state that the wife of the Alcoholic may play all three supporting roles in the initial stages of the Alcoholic “game.”

In this relationship in The Glass Castle, Rose Mary does, in fact, play a supporting role of the game. She plays the role of “Patsy” by allowing Rex to get away with going out and drinking, and then beating her when he is drunk. Rose Mary didn’t, however, really play the role the Prosecutor, in that she always let him get away with his drinking. Rex’s daughter, Jeanette, fits better into the role of Rescuer than does Rose Mary, when Jeanette asks Rex to stop drinking for her birthday. (Berne 73-75). By playing the role of “Patsy,” Rose Mary acts as an enabler for Rex, in that she is enabling him to continue his drinking and abusing her and their children.

Rose Mary stayed with Rex, even though he was an abusive alcoholic.

Rose Mary stayed with Rex, even though he was an abusive alcoholic.

Rose Mary and Rex’s Abusive and Codependent Relationship

Even though Rex is an abusive drunk, Rose Mary still loves him (perhaps only because she feels she must). On page 122 of The Glass Castle, Rex comes home drunk and starts yelling. Meanwhile, Rose Mary is hiding from him in the bathroom. When Rex finds her, they start fighting. Rose Mary tries to fend him off with a butcher knife, but Rex is unafraid and picks up a knife as well. Rex then knocks the knife out of Rose Mary’s hand and drops his knife. As they continue fighting, Rex says to Rose Mary, “...but you love this old drunk, don’t you?” and they both just start hugging and laughing when she answers “yes.” In spite of all of Rex’s faults, Rose Mary still loves him, which is perhaps her biggest downfall.

Rex keeps drinking and abusing his wife and family, and Rose Mary stays by his side. Perhaps she can't imagine her life any other way?

Rex keeps drinking and abusing his wife and family, and Rose Mary stays by his side. Perhaps she can't imagine her life any other way?

Nothing Changes

Because Rose Mary didn’t feel she could do anything to stop her husband’s drinking, she allowed him to continue and let him get away with doing whatever he wanted. By staying with him and allowing him to drink, Rose Mary acts as an enabler for Rex. Because Rose Mary loves Rex and has grown dependent on him she continues to let him get away with it, despite what staying with him has done to her life and her own happiness.

Sources

Berne, Eric, M.D. "Life Games." Games People Play. 1973. New York: Ballantine, 1980. 73-80.

Walls, Jeannette. The Glass Castle. New York: Scribner, 2006.

© 2018 Jennifer Wilber