Book review: Families, despair and love

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Our families of origin have a great impact on our lives. When a third generation is added, the necessity of understanding our past can be crucial – if only so as not to accidently repeat dysfunctional patterns of behavior. After all, unsettled issues can affect more than one generation. Two recent memoirs feature writers who realize that in order to shape their future, they have to come to terms with their past. In “Alligator Candy” (Simon and Schuster), David Kushner discusses how one moment radically changed the world in which he lived, while Judy Batalion struggles to discover how her reaction to her parents’ behavior continues to affect her life in “White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between.”
In the early 1970s, children were allowed to roam free, particularly in suburban areas. That was certainly true for Kushner’s two siblings: 13-year-old Andy and 11-year-old Jon. When Jon decides to ride his bike through the woods to the 7-Eleven store, no one thinks a thing about it. It’s only when hours pass and there’s no sign of him that his parents begin to worry. In fact, their greatest nightmare soon proved true: their son had been kidnapped and killed.
This fact – the disappearance and death of his brother – is clear from the beginning of Kushner’s work. In writing this memoir, the author hoped to learn not only how his parents survived this horrendous event, but what actually happened to his brother. Only 4-years-old when Jon was murdered, Kushner knew little about the actual crime. The topic was off limits in his home and at that age, he didn’t even know what to ask. At first, he struggled with guilt, believing that if he hadn’t asked Jon to buy him alligator candy – gum packaged in a plastic alligator – his brother might not have gone to the store and would therefore still be alive. His parents and brother also experience their own guilt, which was never discussed. As an adult with his own children, Kushner realized that he wanted to know more, but found it difficult to approach the subject. It’s only after the death of his father that Kushner, then age 42, did the systematic research necessary to write this book.
To understand his family, Kushner writes about the lives of both his parents. His loving portrayal shows a warm and welcoming family that invited friends and colleagues – from their synagogue and his father’s department at the university – to their home. Both parents were active in social causes, and created a caring and supportive atmosphere for their children. This remained true after Jon’s death, but something inside all of them had shattered and would never be the same.
The memoir contains no eye-opening or earth-shattering moments, but that just makes it more powerful, particularly when Kushner writes about the effect the event had on different aspects of his life. For example:

  • How Jon’s death changed his childhood: “Kids grow up hearing fairy tales, but the biggest fairy tale of all is that life is safe. Life isn’t safe, I learned. It’s crazy. Evil is real. One minute you could be riding your bike on the way to get candy, and the next, you’re dead. Anything could happen anywhere at anytime. So now what? How was I supposed to live without giving into that fear? Every kid fears the bogeyman, the creature in the closet, the monster under the bed. But my bogeyman had a face – two faces – and they couldn’t be dispelled by someone telling me he wasn’t real.”
  • What Kushner felt after he decided not to tell his parents specific details of the crime he learned from a police report: “I felt a kind of loneliness I had never felt before. The loneliness of the protector. The loneliness of being an adult, stuck inside your own head, aware of things you cannot control, aware of details altering your biochemistry, lacerating your insides... It is the loneliness of returning to the world you had known in a form you did not recognize or desire. And the only thing that felt lonelier was that to everyone else, you most likely looked the same.”
  • The importance of memory he learned from Judaism: “I thought about the canon of Holocaust memoirs, of the Jewish idea of bearing witness, of remembering, of telling stories, in all their horrific detail, so that people would remember, so that no one forgets. I thought about Passover, and how for thousands of years, Jews would gather around a table and recite the story of when we were slaves in Egypt and how the Haggadah, the prayer book for that holiday, uses the plural first person, we: when we were slaves it reads; this is the story of us.”
Ultimately, there is no satisfaction in learning about the crime or the criminals because the crime was senseless. Yet, Kushner realized that the efforts of the community, the people who searched for Jon – from synagogue members to university students to a biker gang – helped his parents survive: “the unexpected reserves that both [parents] had within themselves and the unexpected reserves that came from the community” made an enormous difference. Kushner also learned in more detail about the grief his parents’ felt; his mother’s journal from that time shows the raw pain of losing a child. For the author, the most important effect of writing this memoir was that – after sharing memories of his brother with his mother and Andy – he feels closer to Jon than at any other time in his life.
This powerful, emotion-packed work will grab readers from its first page. Although I tried to remain detached – because the subject matter is so difficult – that proved impossible after Kushner and Andy prepared to speak at the parole hearing for one of the men convicted of the crime. (The other man received the death penalty.) This amazing work was impossible to put down, making “Alligator Candy” one of the best – if not the best – memoirs I’ve ever read.
The tragedy Kushner’s family faced occurred during his childhood. Batalion, on the other hand, must deal with the effect of events that happened before she was born: having grandparents who lived through the Holocaust. Batalion believes her mother was conceived just before her grandmother fled Warsaw to Siberia and before finally moving to Canada. Although the differences in her family originally only made her uncomfortable, as years go by, her mother’s eccentricities become more problematic. At one point, the author realizes her mother is not only a hoarder, but has other psychiatric issues. However, Batalion’s father refuses to address the problems, for example, carving out a clear space in the house for himself, rather than seeking help for his wife. Batalion longs to escape – an escape that begins when she is accepted to Harvard University.
Batalion looks for ways to distance herself from her parents, traveling to Europe and South Africa before setting in England after winning a scholarship to study domesticity and contemporary art at a British art institute. She also finds work in a museum in London, which focuses on British domestic life. She arrives in London after 9/11, looking for a place that “felt like the exact opposite of my roots. Pristine, sophisticated, subtle, cut-glass. A place of history, gravitas, and extreme alcoholism. The antishtetl.” However, she remains an outsider because she is unable to conquer the nuances of the British class system, which manifests itself in everything from the proper name for a piece of furniture to the appropriate behavior in social situations. What complicates matters is that Batalion so wants to distance herself from her mother’s hoarding behavior that she goes to the opposite extreme. Even in her attempt to become a comedian, the author can’t escape her past. Although she does well, antisemitism rears its head: one person tells her that her face is too Jewish for British television.
However, her life takes a different course when she meets Jon, a nice Jewish man who understands her family issues because his family has similar ones. When they marry and move to New York City, Batalion becomes pregnant and wants to better understand her parents’ behavior and the legacy she’s passing to her children. This becomes explicit in her and Jon’s discussions about their daughter’s Jewish upbringing. It also creates problems at the time because Jon’s calmer approach clashes with Batalion’s tendency to worry and obsess about details. However, she realizes that this is due to the different ways they react to their upbringing. Batalion describes the effect of this realization in a beautiful image: “In the dark I imagine that it wasn’t just frazzled Jon and me, but all our parents, all four grandparents, perched around the crib. Our child was being raised by generations of ancestors, everyone’s actions and reactions repeating or opposing each other.”
While this description makes “White Walls” sound very serious, Batalion also has a great sense of humor. This becomes apparent early in her memoir where she writes in her disclaimer, “Names, dates, and identifying characteristics of certain people and events portrayed in this book have been obscured for literary cohesion, to protect privacy, and to make myself seem younger and thinner.” Although at times the sheer amount of detail can be overwhelming, this is a minor complaint about a well-done, absorbing work.