White Walls: A Mem­oir About Moth­er­hood, Daugh­ter­hood, and the Mess In Between

By – January 4, 2016

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.

Rachel Sara Rosen­thal is an envi­ron­men­tal attor­ney in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Orig­i­nal­ly from Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na, she grad­u­at­ed from Duke Uni­ver­si­ty in 2003 and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law in 2006.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy 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?