Judy Batalion wanted her freedom. She wanted to escape the imprisonment of the things that surrounded her, just like her grandmother had escaped from the horrors of the Holocaust. Batalion grew up with a hoarder mother who had so much clutter that it even began to fill the young girl’s bedroom. She not only craved a “normal” mother, she craved a tidy space to call her own.
Batalion’s relationship with her mother was thwarted by walls—both the emotional walls of dealing with her mother’s underlying illness and the physical barriers built from piles of junk. In her memoir, White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between (New American Library, 2016), Batalion delved into what seemed to be an obsessive quest for simplicity and organization that stemmed from her otherwise complex and chaotic childhood.
As a young woman, Batalion learned about her family’s background as Holocaust survivors, and she believed that was the root of her mother’s hoarding tendencies; however, it was soon realized that her mother suffered from other delusions. While her mother remained captive of her own psychological baggage, Batalion retreated into her studies, excelled in school, and majored in interior design at Harvard. School became Batalion’s salvation; she thrived with a schedule and consistency. Upon graduating and working as a travel writer, she wanted to gain as much distance from her home in Montreal, Canada, as possible. While she pursued her graduate studies, she made her temporary home in London and worked as a research assistant in a museum. Batalion created the orderly life she had always imagined, but she desired more than just a sparsely-furnished apartment. She wanted a real relationship, one that was unencumbered by mess.
Although the book is organized into chapters, it is not chronological; rather, she flashes back and jumps back into the present. While this technique may seem confusing, the story is ordered and focused. The chapters are titled with the places and years, so the narrative is easy to follow. Batalion’s writing is candid, intelligent, and sprinkled with humor. Her comedy offered lightness to the heavy burden of her experiences. Most readers might identify with the stimulating and thoughtful questions that Batalion offered on learning how to overcome certain struggles through self-reflection.
Batalion explored the idea that trauma can last through four generations, so her tenacity to end the cycle is another integral part of this memoir. At the cusp of turning 30, she met an unlikely suitor and soon faced motherhood. Although her goal was to raise “stable” daughters, she feared how the necessary things required for a baby would fit in a minimalistic New York apartment. “I imagined myself sinking under the whole stash as in quicksand, writhing between my two cords, past and present, like a charm dangling off an endless umbilical bracelet. I couldn’t breathe.” After finally learning how to live orderly with someone else, the new messes of motherhood challenged her sanity.
Batalion’s story offered deep insights and valuable lessons on overcoming certain obstacles while nurturing relationships. She wrote, “Spaces create the people who live in them, but sometimes, to fit their spaces, people have to morph too.” While it appeared that the mother-daughter relationship was the central theme of this memoir, the other aspects of the story will appeal to anyone. White Walls was a delightful, inspiring read.
5 out of 5 stars
Angela earned her master of arts degree in creative writing from Wilkes University under the tutelage of Kaylie Jones and John Bowers. She lives below Blue Mountain in a log home with her husband and three cats, and she works in a delightfully quiet office. In her spare time, she indulges in books, films, ice cream, and making art.
[Angela previously served as a reviewer for Hippocampus for a number of years before moving into the editor role.]