APRIL 15, 2016
“IT TAKES FOUR GENERATIONS for trauma to pass through a family,” writes Judy Batalion in her compelling new memoir White Walls. Batalion is the granddaughter of Jewish Polish immigrants who escaped the Holocaust. But survival came with a high cost; Batalion’s grandparents are haunted by fear and uncertainty. Batalion’s grandmother, particularly, acts out her lingering damage. Bubbie is a hoarder collecting mounds of clothing as talismans against an uncertain future. The rising tide of her purses and dresses overwhelm her living room. Bubbie is also paranoid. Batalion recalls watching her accuse grocers of conspiring with Hitler. She writes, “As Dad always said, it was the paranoids who fled and survived, giving rise to paranoid children.”
The warning is dire. Batalion’s mother too becomes a paranoid hoarder, eventually closing herself off from her family behind her fear and cans of moldy tuna, piles of purses, and legions of chairs, leaving Batalion to wonder about her own fate and to passionately pursue an uncluttered life. The memoir discusses Batalion’s childhood with sharp humor and an almost reverence for her mother’s monuments of stuff that cluttered her childhood and eventually her life. The messes loom like so many altars to the things felt but left unsaid that course through Batalion and her loving family. White Walls jumps in place and time from messes on the floors to those in our hearts — the ones we can clean and the ones we can never reach. Told in a style that is anxiously charming, Batalion’s memoir asks what it means to love both our parents and to be free from their wreckage.
Batalion writes with sympathy for her mother’s messes. She writes, for instance, of her family’s living room:
It was completely obstructed, an impenetrable block filled with liquidation laundry bins, blankets, striped plastic shopping bags, ancient crates of Diet Coke, factory-second lime green place settings bought in the 1970s. Somewhere still tucked inside had to be our light blue L-shaped sofa which, even as a child, I’d never sat on once. […] This room that was meant to host guests, to connect public and private, to forge links, dress up and impress, was utterly inaccessible. Here, there was no room for living.
The book switches back and forth between the past and the present — jarring the reader between Batalion’s messy and unstable childhood and her life as an adult, trying to clear up the emotional wreckage of her mother’s mental illness and start her own family.
Batalion’s daughter is the fourth generation, the one Batalion claims will be born clean of the trauma that has haunted the women in her family. “Generations react to and against one another, compensating and overcompensating, sometimes instituting more trauma in their attempts to avoid it,” Batalion explains. “The first generation survives, I figured, the second suffers survivor’s guilt, the third becomes hyperaware, sensing both the dark past and the light at the end of the trenches. And now, the fourth.”
Batalion gives no source for her belief that the trauma will be excised from her family through the birth of her daughter. But the idea can be traced to the Old Testament, where in the Book of Numbers the Lord vows to visit the sins of the fathers “even unto the third and fourth generation.” And it’s the idea of release that gives Batalion herself a hope of redemption as she struggles to fight against the onslaught of her family’s heavy emotional inheritance.
Throughout the memoir, Batalion seeks her emotional salvation in clean open spaces: in, as the title hints, white walls. Her cleanliness is a rebellion against the chaos of her childhood and a desperate attempt to create both literal and figurative space for herself and the people she wants to bring into her life — boyfriends, her husband, and eventually her children. It’s an uneasy metaphor — one that recalls both erasure and forgetting. And one that collapses in on itself every time Batalion again returns to her parents’ home to face the mess that she so longs to escape. She is never truly free of it.
As Batalion leaves behind her parents’ residence, she attempts to create a new concept of home. Each apartment she moves to is a world unto itself. And Batalion creates each one with intent and purpose. But things don’t easily resolve themselves: one of her boyfriends, a man named Evan, complains that there is no warmth in her cleanliness and leaves her. In an ensuing relationship, Batalion tries to overcompensate for the emptiness and begins dating a man who completely alters her apartment, even going so far as to fill it with stolen DVDs, books, and gift cards. As she surveys the crumbs on the carpet and the mess of toiletries in the bathroom, Batalion notes, “I’d wanted to nurture, to be what Evan had dreamed of, but I was a mess. I was hoarding emotions, memories, doubts, self-perceptions, my ambivalent life cluttered with empty commitments and old selves I just couldn’t jettison.”
As a result, Batalion again clings to cleanliness. She meets a new man, Jon, and together the two create a life and home. There are white walls, white cupboards, there is light and space and, then, there are children. Here again, Batalion collides with her DNA: walls, she discovers, whether white or lined with junk, are still walls. Batalion fights against the rising tide of baby stuff with an admirable orderliness, but the end it overwhelms her. She finds herself consumed by cleaning and realizes that her obsession too is a wall. She writes, “But, no matter how much I tidied, I could not control the disorder of motherhood. I could never clean up for good. Which was OK. A bit of clutter was a small price to pay for closeness.”
They then decide to have another child, a decision that will compound the messes. But here the book ends, with Batalion noting only that her daughter had “shown me that there was so much space in my cleared home, in my heart. I could fit worlds inside without suffocating or bursting open. […] I’d make room for us all.” It’s a hopeful promise, but one that only glances off the deeper questions of pain, inheritance, and the ghosts of trauma that slide through our DNA. These unanswered questions hiding at the heart of this book are questions that so many parents deal with — how do we save our children from our own demons? This leaves the book in an ambivalence space — it’s unfulfilling and yet, what can anyone possibly say or know about the legacies we leave in our children? It’s a troubling dissonance and one without clear answers. In that way, Batalion’s unwillingness to dig deeper leaves the reader even more with a sense of the unease of inheritance.
Batalion’s fight to avoid the mental trauma that haunts her family and create home on her own terms is not a new concern. It’s what Kundera calls the battle of memory against forgetting. “Children have no past,” writes Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “and that is the whole secret of the magical innocence of their smiles.” And it’s a hope that Batalion clings to for her children, this fourth and unmarked generation. But it’s one that hardly proves sustainable.
Previous studies on trauma and families suggested that trauma was passed down through parent’s child-rearing behavior. Yet, a recent study led by Rachel Yehuda at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital discovered a clear link between trauma and gene expression. Trauma, as it turns out, can mark our DNA, affecting future generations. The idea, known as “epigenetic inheritance,” is controversial, because it flies in the face of Darwinian evolution that sees parents as a small speck in a long evolutionary history. Epigenetic inheritance instead seems to show that our pain, trauma, and crazy slide down the double helix into our children.
In an 2012 episode of Radiolab, the science podcast hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, Abumrad jokingly called the idea of Darwinian destiny offensive. Abumrad then expressed his hope that his children could overcome their bad DNA. He noted,
So what you do — and I think all parents do this — you slip into this Lamarckian delusion that what you do with your kids can somehow rewrite all that. That you could somehow, just by being nice to them or reading them stories, break them free of all that […] that you can help them overcome you.
The Lamarck that Abumrad refers to is French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who believed in a model of evolution that asserted that change in a species can occur within a few generations. Lamarck believed that giraffes had long necks simply because one generation began stretching to reach the leaves in the trees. As a result, the next generation was born with longer necks and they too stretched and they too, as a result of their efforts, had children with longer necks, who were finally able to reach the leaves.
Lamarck’s ideas were cast aside in favor of Darwin’s grand sweeping view of genetics and natural selection. Yet, the Radiolab episode explores two recent studies that seem to testify to a Lamarckian worldview. These scientific studies transpose the American dream into our nuclei. It’s a freeing thought, after all, that through strength of will we can overcome our destiny. We all want our children to be better than us, and hope that our experience can help theirs. But if Lamarck (like Abumrad) imagines this influence as progress, what we are learning is that the promise of change might also be a curse. Because if we may help our children overcome their inheritance, we can also damn them, and perhaps inadvertently or simultaneously, with our own darkness. To pick an extreme example, one study found that girls born to Dutch women who were pregnant during a famine had a greater chance of being born with schizophrenia. It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn (due out in April from Penguin) uses recent scientific evidence to argue that the emotional legacies of our parents’ pain haunts our genetic code. Wolynn then offers readers prescriptive ways for them to overcome their emotional and genetic legacy — stretching their giraffe necks higher and higher. Where outmaneuvering our genetic code was once wishful thinking, recent studies and books like Wolynn’s seem to show that it is possible. And yet, there are other forces at play. While Lamarck was not entirely wrong, he wasn’t entirely correct. There is no bootstrapping yourself out of your genetic destiny.
Here then is the space between destiny and determination, the place where parental anxieties lie. Is our trauma destiny? Can we ever scrub our DNA clean of our worst days and darkest histories? Is there truly a promise of a fourth generation?
Batalion offers no answers, only a return to the place where she feels most at home, her clean white apartment, choosing instead to transpose these complex existential questions into the metaphor of space. If trauma can mar her family, then Batalion’s white walls will cleanse them. This psychological paradox mires the book, limiting the insight it can offer, and indeed all people who try to escape the trauma of their past. Dr. Jerrold Lee Shapiro, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Finding Meaning, Facing Fears: In the Autumn of Your Years, told me once in an interview that being the opposite of your parents merely inverses the relationship. “You don’t escape,” he said. “You are just the other side of the coin.”
It’s a terrifying thought — to spend so many years running away only to find yourself in the same place. So much effort to change, only to wake up one day and realize that you are just living out your fears in a bizarro world of your own making. This anxiety lies beneath Batalion’s memoir. Like her mother’s hoarding, Batalion’s fanatical love of cleanliness is an escape. It too is a material comfort to hold a psychological threat at bay. The white walls are a protection from the genetic inheritance she grapples with. We are meant to believe, by the end of her memoir, that she has escaped. But the Lamarckian evolution that has damned her with trauma will be her undoing. Through force, her family was changed, and through force of will she will change it back. It’s a nice hope.
One study that seems to support this assertion shows that when rat mothers lick their children they are in essence changing their gene expression. This is a positive example, as rat mothers who lick their children are caring for them and, in turn, creating children who will turn out to be good mothers. But can we truly force our bodies to forget their trauma?
I have no answer; nor, at this point, does science. But I wonder if it is the wrong question. Too often with topics of pain, the focus is on healing — on moving on, getting over, bucking up, and sallying forth. Yet, the tyranny of our human flesh is that it remembers the wounds that, as adults, we attempt to heal and conceal. Our physical suffering is not visibly reflected in our children. But the body remembers. Just as old sports injuries throb when the weather changes, changes occur at more fundamental, chromosomal, levels too. Famine alters the phenotype of our children. And at some point this pain in our genes ceases to become trauma and instead just becomes an integral part of who we are.
I spent a year in counseling before I decided to have a child. I remember laying prostrate on the hardwood floor of my home swearing that I would never become a mother unless I could guarantee that my children didn’t have a childhood like mine — full of fear, heartache, and constant emotional instability. Now that same floor is covered with wooden train tracks, plastic cars, Barbie clothes, and a trail of couch pillows that are a “magical path” that, according to my four-year-old, I cannot under any circumstances move, lest I forever end the magic.
So much of what I see as evidence of trauma in myself — chronic anxiety, nail biting, panic attacks — I see now in my children but through a softer lens. I have spent years and thousands of dollars trying to manage my anxiety with drugs and therapy. This anxiety is now manifest in my daughter’s play. But in her I see it as evidence of a full and loving heart. This then is the unique grace of genetic remembrance — recasting your brokenness as blessing. The menace of memory is now a promise. You will never forget is our threat, but also our comfort.