Judy Batalion Takes On History, Hoarding, And Family In ‘White Walls’

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In White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between, Judy Batalion recounts growing up amidst stuff. Where normal kids cuddled on their mother’s bed for story time, mountains of detritus left no room for little Judy to snuggle up to mom. Tuna fish cans stacked like a great wall through her kitchen; newspapers, free magazines, and library books towered next to the sofa; records overflowed from shelves onto the floor.

Judy’s mother hoards as if fighting off the deprivation of her history, a woman born to Jewish Polish immigrants struggling for survival as they fled the Holocaust, fled the Nazis, leaving behind friends, neighbors, and their homeland. This isn’t inexplicable hoarding, but hoarding grown out of a time of having nothing, starving in camps, standing in breadlines. Judy finds herself, as a third-generation Jewish woman, separated from the Holocaust’s physical hardships but living amidst its emotional aftereffects.

All the dysfunction of Judy’s childhood–her over-anxious and self-absorbed mother, a house filled with so much stuff it had little room for love–bubbles to the surface when Judy, as a successful young woman, finds out she’s pregnant. Although she’s left her home behind, her mother’s mental health is in decline. How can she be there for a mother who has been largely absent? And will Judy, like her mother before her, continue to pass down the trauma she inherited from previous generations? Can she overcome the anxieties of a childhood drowning in unneeded junk, and of a mother (and now grandmother) unlike any other, to her own child?

Judy writes pretty prose, posing questions about her own experiences that she answers through relayed experience without extended navel-gazing. White Walls is funny, as Judy, also a comedian, has a crack-up sense of humor and a gift for one-liners. It is tragic at other times, as Judy, along with her brother and father, seek a court order to hospitalize her mother against her will.

I’ve read books about crazy moms (Chanel Bonfire, Oh The Glory of It All) and books about hoarding (Coming Clean, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things) but this one explores the heartbreak of mental illness, a struggle to overcome generational trauma, the shame of hoarding, and the anxieties of motherhood all in one free association, full disclosure, flash-back style relay between motherhood and childhood, between then and now.

White Walls on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Review – Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller

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Considering its grim subject matter, Coming Clean is a surprisingly upbeat memoir. Kimberly Rae Miller takes us back, as much as she may be able, to a home raised by hoarding parents. Growing up, the kitchen was often too messy to eat in, and the family (Miller, her mom, and her dad) would gather on the parents’ bed, the only clear space in the house, to eat a family dinner. At times the water and plumbing would break down and fights with neighbors were constant. As a girl Kimberly picked another house near her own, and had her friends’ parents drop her off their after playdates so no one saw the disrepair of her yard. As an adult, she has dreams where she is back in the squalor of her childhood home, where “wet mashed newspapers, between [her] toes, not so different from the way sand feels as you inch closer to the ocean.” When the living conditions became too much for the family, abandoning homes entirely seemed an easier choice than cleaning the mess they’d created.

Despite the neglect Miller suffered as a child, and the responsibility she takes on for her parents’ hoarding issues as an adult (repeatedly attempting to help them clear out stuff so they don’t literally die in their own filth), her parents are both portrayed as sympathetic, loving, and likable people. I think this is part of the memoir’s charm–above all, this is a story of a family’s struggle with mental illness. As Miller grows into a more self-aware adult, her role within her family is able to change. She broaches the subject of hoarding with her seemingly oblivious parents (her father continually implies that she is just very clean, rather than him having any sort of issue), passes along a book on hoarding, and eventually takes it upon herself to write this book. These choices make ripples, and these ripples can make waves: near the end of the book, another young woman sneaks up to Miller at a party, and asks if she is writing about hoarding. Miller is sort of panicked, still not sure if she is “the kind of person who regularly told people that my father is a hoarder.” The young woman quickly says that her mother is a hoarder too, and the two women compare stories “like grizzled war veterans.”

There are always bunches of memoirs of notable or unremarkable life experience, and one thing I appreciated about Coming Clean was Miller’s restraint when it came to self-analysis. Right at the start, she admits she may not be fully over her traumatic childhood, and I don’t think this book was written as an attempt to find herself or better herself. I’ve had to stop a few memoirs because I felt so bogged down by the author’s moody, indulgent pontification on their upbringing.

I also liked that Miller acknowledged, at the end of the book, that this was (to a great extent) her parents’ story. Many memoirs cover the area of childhood and upbringing, and many do it well, but these stories can skip dangerously close to biography–who are these mothers and fathers that children have assumed to know so well? Do mom and dad wish to chime in? Maybe Miller was able to acknowledge and have the support of her parents in writing Coming Clean because of their still strong relationship, despite all the stuff accumulated between them. Miller notes that upon finishing Coming Clean, her father said: “Wow, that’s quite a story. I’m sorry that it was yours.”

A quick note here: Coming Clean is available to borrow from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, if you have a Kindle and are an Amazon Prime member. One of the perks of Prime/Kindle I often forget about, but there are some gems available to borrow amidst all the rest!

Coming Clean on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org