Books: Making meaning out of mess

How can a third generation Holocaust survivor and daughter of a hoarder make her way in the world?

Under the piles of garbage, a mother-daughter relationship prevails (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Under the piles of garbage, a mother-daughter relationship prevails
 If you are either Jewish, the descendant of a genocide survivor, intimately acquainted with the life of a hoarder, or all of the above, White Walls will feel like home.
Judy Batalion’s debut book is subtitled “a memoir about motherhood, daughterhood, and the mess in between.”
Yet, her mother’s mental illness and the gargantuan mess of her parents’ home are just the context for this beautifully written introspection. The crux is what’s underneath – a search for home, identity and the right distance between past and future.
With impressive agility, Batalion weaves together two narratives: her coming- of-age and her pregnancy, which is filled with anticipation (read: fear) of becoming a parent in the shadow of her own dysfunctional relationship with her mother.
Batalion grew up on stories of her grandparents’ valorous escape from the Nazis. Her mother was born in 1945 as they made their way back from Siberia to their native Poland, where they found that all of their family members had been killed.
Though the trauma encumbers the whole family, it’s Batalion’s mother who never recovers, hoarding anything and everything in their suburban Montreal house. The mess is so bad that her father sleeps in the basement, the only place he can clear out space for himself. Moldy tuna cans fill the kitchen. Batalion and her brother barely have room to hang their clothes among the piles of bargain buys inhabiting their closets.
“Mom” (we never learn her name) accumulates stuff to fill her emotional void, according to Batalion. This mass of things is a buffer between mother and daughter.
While Mom can’t provide the author with the love and warmth she craves, her grandmother was a pillar of strength, her savior. Despite her recurrent mental illness, Bubbie was decisive, gave her direction, and picked her up from school when Mom couldn’t.
It’s no surprise then that she names her eldest daughter Zelda, after Bubbie. This cyclical theme is repeated throughout White Walls, and Batalion is at her best when writing about the complexities of her matrilineal relations.
Men, by contrast, are supporting characters.
Her father, whom she loves and bonds with, is ineffective in the face of her mother’s illness. Her brother is an ally but we don’t know much about how he “survived the survivors.” Her husband, though Jewish and also the son of a hoarder, is her antithesis in many ways.
As opposed to her Yiddish, Zionist upbringing, he went to Christian school and doesn’t share the author’s visceral yearnings for her heritage.
After her fraught childhood and awkward adolescence, Batalion escapes her “Montreal shtetl” for Harvard.
In the same way that Mom expresses her mental illness by filling space, Batalion deals with it (or escapes it) through the obsessive study of space, going so far as to write a PhD on feminist art and home. The pinnacle of her design career was a gig at a goyishe design museum, where she desperately wants to belong. “‘Curator’ was the least Yiddish word I knew,” she wrote, “and I wanted in.”
At first, she revels in this old-new world of London, where families live in the same house for generations – a place where people aren’t busy escaping and surviving.
Then things turn. When her career as a stand-up comic starts to accelerate, she’s told her act is too Jewish for a British audience.
As she watches TV coverage of the 7/7 attacks in her London apartment, she notices that the man vocally supporting the terrorists – and the demise of Western civilization – is standing on her front doorstep.
These experiences make her realize that she will never truly escape the shtetl, whether it’s in Poland or Montreal.
Eventually, she settles in New York with her British-Jewish husband to become a writer, which seems to be a happy medium for her.
The book culminates with a slightly rushed account of the neuroses and challenges she faces as the mother of Zelda junior.
Amid the personal story, White Walls is a sophisticated, daring take on the effects of the Holocaust, and Batalion represents an important voice on contemporary Jewish identity as the third generation comes of age. Despite the dismal subject matter, White Walls is exceptionally funny.
To this end, one of Batalion’s biggest strengths is her ability to balance serious deliberations and humor.
Occasionally, Batalion delves into selfpity and unnecessary, mundane detail – one of the book’s few weak spots.
Ultimately, White Walls is an engaging, moving story, fueled by fresh humor and crisp, unexpected writing. Its messages will speak to a wide audience; those who share Batalion’s experiences and background will relish it even more.