Wall Disease: The Psychological Toll of Living Up Against a Border by Jessica Wapner (NetGalley Review)

3/5 stars

After the post-WWII partition of Germany, doctors began to identity what was dubbed mauerkrankeit, or “wall disease”–physical and mental illnesses observed in patients who lived along the Berlin Wall. Even years after unification, the symptoms still linger, in individuals and in the nation as a whole. One of the most sobering things I saw in Berlin was the Mauerpark, part of the old wall site that was turned into a park and a memorial to those who lost their lives attempting to cross. As opposed to the touristy “East Side Gallery” and other chunks of spray-painted concrete scattered around the city and the world, the Mauerpark is a stark reminder of the real pain these barriers cause, and what Germans call “the wall in the mind” that lingers to this day. Science journalist Jessica Wapner tries to dissect these phenomena in Wall Disease, a look at the border walls and fences that still exist around the world and how they affect the communities against them.

One of Wapner’s primary focuses is, predictably, the US-Mexico border and the political firestorm around Trump’s campaign promise of a border wall. She interviews subjects on either side of the existing fences and barriers, and the complex nature of identity for the many Tejano people who feel tied to both the US and Mexico–but have ended up on one side or the other due to political squabbles. These chapters were probably the most affecting, with a lot of material to work with and a nuanced examination of the “us vs. them” narrative that lingers in immigrant communities in the US and other developed countries.

Wapner’s work is intriguing, but in my opinion she takes too literal an interpretation of borders–she focuses more-or-less exclusively on physical walls and fences that demarcate community or national differences, from disputed territories in Russia to the lingering effects of “peace lines” in Northern Ireland, and how these structures affect physical and mental health as well as socioeconomic opportunities. I wish Wapner had examined immigration policies as a whole, that act to create “invisible borders” and I would believe to have the same health and physcological effects as real structures.

I’m currently watching Stateless on Netflix, a hidden-gem miniseries exploring the flaws of the Australian mandatory-detention immigration policy through the experiences of a variety of characters. It’s fantastic and I highly recommend watching it, especially as someone mostly unfamiliar with Australian culture and politics. I would have liked to see Wapner discuss these sorts of policies that act as virtual borders–countries that treat asylum seekers as criminals, navies that turn boats around, and complicated rules around income and employment that make immigration a serious challenge. They exist around the world, and with Brexit looming, it’s only going to get worse.

There is a lot of interesting information here, but I wish Wapner had gone further–it’s almost certain that more and more of us will be affected by “wall disease” in the future.

Thank you to NetGalley and The Experiment Publishing for the ARC.

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