White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between
Judy Batalion’s mother is a hoarder, and Batalion will do nearly everything, it seems, to avoid living in the filth and clutter that overwhelms the house in which she grew up in Montreal, Canada. Moving halfway around the world to England, she keeps so very few items that her minimalist apartment sparks criticism from a boyfriend for not being a home.
Perhaps to understand the role of things in our lives, she researches living rooms as part of graduate study on domesticity as a co-curator at a museum. But Batalion’s carefully-ordered life is constantly disrupted: out of love, and to support her father and brother, she rushes home many times in response to her mother’s occasional paranoia and suicidal breakdowns. And then comes the ultimate disruption, marriage and motherhood, with the many challenges inherent in building healthy relationships and living with two adults’ and a baby’s worth of stuff in a small New York apartment.
But this story is not a simple tale better suited for reality television. White Walls presents a unique yet by now familiar story of the continuing effects of the Holocaust on the survivors’ descendants. Batalion’s grandmother was a survivor, and her mother was born in Europe after the war. The Holocaust is not the focus of this memoir, but the history is inescapable. The tuna cans piled high in Batalion’s mother’s kitchen bring to mind food scarcity among the ghetto; the memories from Batalion’s grandmother interrupt with a well-founded suspicion of who may or not be trusted. It all combines into a compelling, raw narrative about the strength of the mother-daughter relationship through challenges and on to the next generation.
White Walls would not be expected to be chronological, and indeed, Batalion makes liberal use of flashbacks and flashforwards. The jumps between time and space are somewhat clarified by headers at each jump, each containing a mini-title, location, and date. This helps to keep the connections between stories, but it is possible to lose the narrative thread. The writing is otherwise clear, engaging, and direct, which makes it easy for a reader to understand the facts and emotions that the author endeavors to communicate.
Particularly strong are Batalion’s descriptions of her family members and other people in her life. Her mother’s obsession and mistrust are front and center, of course, but Batalion’s father’s patience and love and her husband’s crucial support and cool headedness come alive as well. Even the so-called the minor characters—coworkers, medical professionals, friends, boyfriends—play a key role, and Batalion excels in demonstrating how these people have shaped her outlook on life and love. Overall, White Walls presents a powerful account of a difficult subject through what is fundamentally an enjoyable, rewarding read.
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Discussion QuestionsCourtesy of Judy Batalion
- Judy wrote in her thesis that “a person creates a room, and a room creates its inhabitants.” We design the spaces around us, but those spaces also have impact on us, creating our senses of physical and emotional comfort, and how we experience intimacy. How does your domestic environment impact your behavior and relationships? Do you feel like your house represents you?
- Judy’s husband was not as affected by his “cluttered” upbringing as she was – maybe due to his gender, family dynamics, or personality type (apparently extroverts prefer ornamentation, introverts prefer Spartan surrounds). How sensitive are you to your visual environment? Are you bothered by clutter – in your home, office, even inbox - or do you like decoration and visual complexity?
- Judy does the 180 from her parents by being ordered, tidy and early. Are there ways in which you’ve reacted to how you were raised by doing the absolute opposite? Judy’s 180s didn’t always work out well - did yours?
- The news of a pregnancy (yours or someone else’s) can bring joy, along with other complicated emotions. Has a pregnancy (again, yours or someone else’s) ever made you feel fear, regret, sadness, insecurity or envy? Why?
- A critic wrote that “Batalion’s memoir asks what it means to love both our parents and to be free from their wreckage.” A major turning point in the book comes when Judy accepts that her mother’s mess is not her mess. Judy finds it hard to balance living an independent life and being part of her family. Like many in the “sandwich” generation, she also feels torn between her kids and her childhood family. What care do we owe our parents? What freedoms do we owe ourselves? How do we separate our parents’ experiences from our own identities?
- At the end of White Walls, Judy is pregnant with a second child, and her reaction to this pregnancy is very different from her first one. How do you think birth order affects our personalities?
- Did your parents make you tidy your room? Do you think their attitudes toward organization have influenced you and your relationship to “mess”?
- Judy includes an author’s note about the act of writing memoir, mentioning the iterative and malleable nature of memory. Have you ever recalled an incident from your past only to learn your recollection was wrong? Can memories be authentic even if they are false?
- Judy’s mom appeared on the Today Show to tell her side of her hoarding story. She said she feels compelled to collect, hanging on to things because so much was taken from her. What stuff (and behaviors) do you hang on to, and why? What’s your relationship to your material possessions?
- Mental illness can be so complicated, for those who experience it and those who love people who suffer. There are no defining blood tests; diagnoses are subjective and can fluctuate so much with time. Mental illness is real and should not be taboo, but is a mentally ill person ever culpable for their behavior? What are the boundaries between pathology and personality? How do you love someone who is only, in mind, partially there? How do you accept the love they are able to offer?
- Many of us try not to repeat the mistakes of the past generation, and try to correct for our parents’ parenting. But can we? What do you think your kids would find you guilty of?
- If you are a parent… How do you parent like your parents, and what have you done differently? Has having a child made you understand and respond to your own parents differently?