In Jeanette Walls The Glass Castle, the Walls family has miserable life and each member uses different coping mechanisms to deal with that, some healthier than others. They are living in a dilapidated house that they cannot afford to heat in winter, with no running water, garbage in a hole in the front yard, and no money for food. They lack a steady income, especially after Rose Mary spends the summer away renewing a teaching degree and decides she doesn’t want to teach anymore. Everyone copes with this harsh reality very differently. Some members use escapism, and some literally plan how to escape the awful life they are trapped in. Ultimately, using escapism negatively impacts the family’s collective wellbeing as well as the mental health and stability of the individual.
Rex is the most obvious member of the family that uses escapism to deal with his family’s situation. Rex uses alcoholism, gambling, and prostitutes to deal with his reality. He’s an addict who can’t feed his family, and instead of doing anything about it, he hides his head in a bottle. He invents all these amazing stories and fantasies to tell his kids, all about his wondrous exploits, or about how the mob was chasing them across the country. “Dad always fought harder, flew faster, and gambled smarter than anyone else in his stories,” (Walls, 24). He drinks, smokes, and tries to escape to anywhere else, because he does not want to deal with the reality of his starving children, a miserable marriage, and being forced back to the town where he grew up. His alcoholism and general disconnect from reality means that he is unable to hold down a job or provide any steady income, creating a negative atmosphere to raise children in.
Rose Mary, while clearly suffering some form of mental illness, possesses all the tools needed to change her situation and build a better life for her family. She has an abusive drunken husband and four kids to feed, but she also has a teaching degree that allows her to bring in a steady income. The problem is that she lacks the maturity to understand sacrifice. She feels no maternal instinct to make sure her kids are okay and puts her own foolish dreams and creature comforts above the basic needs for her kids. She hides from her abusive husband, sometimes literally when he’s drunk, and ignores her children’s pleas for change. She hides in her paintings and novels, living in her own imaginary world where she never has to get a job and can be a flighty artist forever. She continually blames everyone else for a situation that she has the power to change. In Battle Mountain, when the food runs out, and Jeanette tells her she was hungry, her response was “It’s not my fault if you’re hungry! Don’t blame me. Do you think I like living like this?” (Walls, 69). Her escapism means she is trapped in an abusive relationship, cannot afford to feed her kids, makes art and novels she can never sell, and stays trapped in an existence she hates.
Maureen, though she is a lesser character in the book, uses escapism to deal with a bad life. She’s never home. Jeanette says that of all of the Walls children, Maureen was the happiest in Welch. “She was a storybook beautiful girl, with long blond hair and startling blue eyes. She spent so much time with the families of her friends that she often didn’t seem like a part of our family,” (Walls, 206). Maureen is never home and is always bouncing from one friend’s house to another. In some ways she’s better off because she eats and is warm more than the other Walls children, but that way of surviving stunts her emotional and social growth. She was never really a part of the family. That’s good in the way that Rex and Rose Mary didn’t have as much of a direct influence over her, but it also meant she lacks the sibling bond that the other three have, that provided them support in an unstable home. She was left adrift. It shows later on in the novel when she starts rebelling. She gets into drugs, alcohol, and starts smoking. Life really takes a bad turn for Maureen in her teenage years when she goes back to living with her parents, except this time she has no Pentecostal families to escape to. She possesses some of the same mental problems as her mother and the same lack of accountability. “Six months later, Maureen stabbed Mom. It happened after Mom decided it was time for Maureen to develop a little self-sufficiency by moving out and finding a place of her own,” (Walls, 275). She is the only Walls child who adopted her parent’s methods of escapism, and it is no coincidence that she’s the only Walls child to do poorly in life.
Lori, Jeanette, and Brian never use escapism as a technique of dealing with their situation. That’s not to say that they don’t have distractions and ways of coping with what they’re going through. Jeanette writes, Lori paints and creates art, and Brian escapes to the woods, carving and exploring whenever he can. But none of them use these coping mechanisms as a way to escape reality. Their first priority is always trying to find ways to improve their situation. They go hunting around town in the winter for coal, design budgets that would allow them to live comfortably, and Jeanette even gets a job to help pay for groceries. Unlike their parents and their youngest sister, they take care of priorities first, and spend time doing what they enjoy after. They want to escape their lives, but instead of pretending nothing is wrong the way the other half of the family does, they plan and work hard for a way to build themselves a better life. They make a plan to get out of Welch, and they work hard to follow through on it. “I told Lori about my escape fund, the seventy-five dollars I’d saved. From now on, I said, it would be our joint fund. We’d take on extra work after school and put everything we earned into the piggy bank. Lori could take it to New York and use it to get established, so that by the time I arrived, everything would be set,” (Walls, 222). When Brian finds out later, he picks up extra work and puts money toward the escape fund as well by cutting grass and chopping lumber. They make a plan to physically leave Welch and build themselves a better life away from their parent’s influence, and the choice to do so sets them on a path that leads to the success they have today.
No one in the Walls family enjoys the life they are living. Everyone is looking for a way to escape it, to get to a place where they don’t have to dig through garbage or sleep with a pool raft above their head to stay dry. The difference is Rex, Rose Mary, and Maureen all seek to escape by pretending it’s not happening, by burying their head in the sand and hoping things will change on their own. Lori, Jeanette, and Brian work to make a change. They acknowledge what is going on, and put in time and effort to build a better life for themselves and to earn a fresh start. In the end, escapism is easier. Though it is a quick way to numb the pain, nothing really changes. It may even make things worse in the long run. The only way to change their situation is through hard work and dedication, which is why the three eldest Walls children escape Welch and manage to be functioning, successful people they are today.
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