"Walls: they are not merely boundaries between rooms, but are material objects, encompassing layers of interiority within themselves."

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An Interview with Writer Judy Batalion

I first heard Judy Batalion’s name from my colleague. We were standing over the snacks table outside the writers’ room of the sitcom we write for. The table was cluttered with various fruit, opened plastic trays of supermarket pastry, Sun Maid raisin boxes, a half-eaten package of Skittles (original flavor), an unopened package of Skittles (tropical flavor), different meat jerkies, a complicated Dutch brewer which was leaking slightly, alongside a corresponding army of abandoned cups with Rorschach splotches of shit-brown coffee at the bottom, some chewing gum, two bobblehead dolls still in their boxes, and a water-crinkled photocopied photo of Ben Affleck’s rumored mistress sitting in a jet wearing a bunch of Super Bowl rings.

My co-worker said, “A few years ago, Judy and I tried to sell a historical TV comedy set during the war of 1812. Shockingly, no one wanted it.” I asked her why she was thinking of Judy in that moment. She said, “Oh, you’re both Canadian.” Then my colleague stared for a moment at our disastrous snacks table. “And she just finished writing a hoarding memoir.”

White Walls, Judy Batalion’s moving account of her relationship with her mother, a lifelong hoarder, came out in January. If you zoom out far enough, the story of how a person is messed up by their parents isn’t a rare one. But in Batalion’s case, there is actual mess: a suffocating sprawl of unlimited dog-eared newspapers and ancient cottage cheese containers and piles of cheap ill-fitting clothing.

What complicates the story is that at the time Batalion was trying to forge an identity within that mess (the 1980s and 90s) her mother’s illness hadn’t been defined. The term “hoarder” did not exist. And so the triumph of White Walls is the rigorous yet tender sorting process Batalion committed herself to—separating herself from her mother, separating her mother from her pathology, and separating them both from the teetering pyramid of furniture sets with one chair missing. It would be a difficult story to read if it weren’t for Batalion’s reeling, esoteric wit and her unflinching capacity for self-examination. Because the question she asks in the book is a universal one: after we’ve driven to the local dump and dropped off the 780 tons of junk our parents foist onto us, who are we?    

Judy Batalion and I corresponded over several weeks this past winter, over email, after tentatively admitting to one another how much we loathed speaking on the phone.

—Kathryn Borel  

THE BELIEVER: For those who haven’t yet read your book, can you do a brief walkthrough of your childhood home? What did it look like? What were the objects that overwhelmed each room?

JUDY BATALION: My mother’s hoarding developed gradually, over many years—really it’s been evolving throughout my entire lifetime in quantity and quality—so it’s hard to do a general walkthrough but I can provide a selection of snaps. In the early 80s, our den was overloaded with used paperbacks and folk records – not surprising considering my mom was a bohemian boomer poet. She then began “collecting” newspapers and especially the free papers that you could pick up at the library and the Y. These piles were complemented by the mounds of library books that Mom checked-out, and renewed, and renewed, and renewed. We moved houses in 1982 and needed a dining room table. Suddenly, there were three bargain credenza sets, each one missing a couple of pieces, but all stuffed into the room. Many boxes from our move went unpacked for years (forever?) and crowded the basement, along with a growing stash of “just in case” bought-on-sale toys and children’s clothes. The fridge grew fuller—expired cream cheese, Kodak film, rotting bananas saved for a supposed transformation to banana bread (at one point my mom started baking these, like ten at a time). The kitchen counters hosted mounds of pastries, Saran Wrap, boxes of tea bags that were so dried out, the leaves leaked out. In the late 90s, my mom’s mom (also a hoarder, by the way) died. This was around the same time that I left for college and my mother took early retirement, and her best friend died of breast cancer. 

At that point, Mom began madly buying school supplies and organizational materials. My brother had moved to the basement and she filled his former room floor to ceiling with binders and highlighters. In the next few years, her den became so saturated with files, papers and clocks, that the only place to sit was Dad’s leather recliner, attainable by a narrow path—I always thought he’d marked out his space like police mark out the victim at a murder scene. My childhood bed now, in 2016, hosts a mountain of clothes which looks to me like a volcano, patterned shirts and knit sweaters tumbling down like lava.

There are so many complications in the writing of memoir, memory itself being one of them. It is hard for me to think back to the early days, to my Mom’s house in the 1980s, without seeing how it is right now, without knowing how the story turned out, without my awareness of current diagnoses. Because hoarding didn’t even exist in the 1980s as a concept—is it legitimate to now retroactively fit my mom’s behavior into that term?

BLVR: Can you do a walkthrough of your mother, like you did with your old house? You managed to portray your mother very lovingly, yet you didn’t shy away from defining the extent of her illness and how it affected you. If you were to take away the hoarding, how would you describe her? Is that possible?

JB: Yes, it is possible, but it’s much harder. Hoarding became a device in my writing, an issue/symptom/system around which I could organize my experience of my mother, and understand her for myself. By tracing her hoarding, I was able to trace her mind, and our relationship. Her stuff—or, she—blocked me, affronted me, shamed me, swallowed me, aggravated and scared me, but connected and nestled me too.

A different answer: My mother is extremely smart, literary and someone that spends a lot of time in her own head. She also spends a lot of time in her house, which she has only left a handful of times in the past decade. My mother came of age in the 1960s, she was a bohemian boomer, a Leonard Cohen-loving kibbutznik gone awry, a true iconoclast, someone who taught me above all to listen to myself over the crowd and to love stories.

BLVR: Most children start cleaving in two as they grow up—they are one person inside the homestead and another in the outside world, which is where they begin to forge a more independent identity. I imagine this cleaving process was more intense for you, as you first had to escape a place where there was literally almost no room for you. Can you talk about the “inside” Judy and the “outside” Judy, identity-wise?

JB: I want to set my hoarded house in a greater context: Canada. I grew up in Montreal where for the better part of the year, the climate was brutal. Going outside was unbearable, or at the very least, physically uncomfortable. I didn’t feel settled inside or out. It felt like I was always sheltering, and finding pockets of release. I think what I’m getting at here, with your rather intense psychological prodding, is that inside Judy and outside Judy were always a bit confused and conflated. I mention in the book my favorite description of walls: they are not merely boundaries between rooms, but are material objects, encompassing layers of interiority within themselves. Everything felt (and sometimes still feels) very palimpsesty. Aha moment: perhaps this is partly why I became a memoirist! I expose my intimate life to a public, but tend to hold back details with friends. Where’s the private me? It’s complicated.

BLVR: It takes time to accumulate the amount of stuff she did, over the years. What did that process of accumulation look like? You talked about a lot of bags of open food, and discount clothing, and tchotchkes. What was her manner when she went shopping?  

JB: Total immersion. She shopped with determination and focus, and this could go on for hours and hours. I used to have panic attacks at Bonimart, the 1980s Montreal discount department store, because they’d be shutting the metal grates and yelling over the loudspeaker that the store was closed, and still my mom would be dawdling in the aisles, comparing paper towel prices, unaware of time, of social expectation, of the world around her, of my panic attack. Often, there were fights at the cash. My mother was fastidious about checking bills, using coupons, gathering rain checks. If someone got the refund policy wrong, or couldn’t follow her complex discount logic, she grew terrifically frustrated and would sometimes lash out at them.

BLVR: Would she try to justify why she needed what she was accumulating, as it was happening?

JB: I think so, I think she said things like “Judy needs this for camp” (large selection of fake Howard the Duck t-shirts) or “it’s a good deal” (third dining room credenza). My mother was very defensive about her shopping; probing her often led to anger. “Why do you need to keep last week’s Gazette?” led to “I haven’t read it all yet (hiss).” Both sides of the conversation were uttered with annoyance, even hostility. We didn’t address things head-on in my household. We told jokes, usually behind her back. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” my dad said as we waited for Mom to return to the damp Pontiac drenched in bags of bargain shampoo and toilet paper. “And a vacuum cleaner.”

BLVR: Did you ever say, “Mom I do not need this for camp.”? If so, what was her reaction?

JB: My mom got upset. She was defensive. I tell a story in the book of a time when I was about 11 and she bought me a series of ceramic pigs, for my “pig collection.” I was livid. The last thing I wanted was more tchotchkes. I was so angry that I was getting the wrong gifts (were presents about the giver or the receiver?); Mom was furious that I didn’t appreciate her gesture. It took me many decades, and having kids myself, to even see her giving for the kindness she intended. She wanted to connect to me through pigs, whereas as a child I’d felt that they just added to the blockade between us.

BLVR: It seemed as though your book facilitated this conversation, but before you had the idea for the book, did you ever sit her down and plainly say, “Why do you do this?”

JB: No, we never talk like that in my family. We generally are not straight with each other.

BLVR: Now that she’s read the book, does she have more clarity about herself?

JB: I think so. In the book I recount an episode where she tells me she read the first essay I ever published about her and her hoarding. I hold my breath waiting for razing censure, but instead, she let me know how much it taught her about herself. She finally understood why I’d run away from her. Though she didn’t always react so positively (depends on the day and mood), it’s the fact that my writing about her can help her, and us, and me, and perhaps even others, that has pushed me to keep writing.

My mom and I have always connected through literature and stories. Most of our interactions have been hostile and fraught, but my fondest childhood memories are of us sitting together unpacking Amelia Bedelia puns. When I left home and we developed a long-distance relationship, the phone wire an easier umbilical connection, we spent a huge percent of our conversation time analyzing my romantic life on a Mr Big/Aiden scale. Literature provided a framework around which we could chat, including literature written by me, about her.

My mom asked me to read my book before it was published and I felt I owed her that. I was of course terrified she’d become upset, even threaten suicide, and decided to show it to her while I was in Montreal just in case there was an emergency. I finally handed over the pages and then didn’t hear from her for days. Finally, the ring. “Judy,” she said, her voice paper-thin. I was ready to rush over. “The tone is chapter 17 is off…” Her first response was editorial. She treated it as a text.

BLVR: Tell me a bit about your father’s role in the equation—both in your family equation and the hoarding equation.

JB: As a former math nerd and all-time equation lover, I’m sitting here trying to come up with a clever one. Did he multiply the family problems? Subtract from them? Or was he a parenthesis—innocuous in some cases, but overturning the entire order in others? (And I could go on, and on…) I’ve always had a complex closeness with my dad. I was his star confidant, which was reassuring and confidence-boosting, and also, misplaced and confusing (i.e., he should have been a “team” with Mom, no?). My father was probably quite passive in his treatment of my mother’s mental illness, to the point that I actually think he was somewhat absorbed into it, his sense of domestic normality altered. (Or, was he always that way, which is why my mother’s habits didn’t bother him as much?) I do recall episodes where he secretly tried to throw out some of my Mom’s old newspapers and junk; he was generally quiet until he couldn’t take it anymore and exploded and fought with Mom about her “crap.” I talk in my book about how it was his coming to my defense during a particularly aggressive altercation I had with my mother that made me see that there was something deeply wrong with my mother’s behavior and the family dynamic. I’d been waiting for a long time for him to “see and say something.” I was thirty.  

BLVR: On a parallel track to your mother’s hoarding is your — and your family’s —Jewish identity. How are those two things related in your mind?

JB: Running away from my family was aligned in my (then? but certainly now) mind with fleeing my Jewishness. I grew up in a Yiddish-outpost of a Polish-shtetl (in the English section of a French province of an ex-Anglo colony). The Montreal Jewish community was made up largely of post-Holocaust immigrants and I went to a Jewish day school where almost everyone had survivor grandparents. We studied Elie Wiesel instead of Charles Dickens. Despite that, it was suburban and nouveau-riche and Club-Med-loving and had a small-town attitude and though I often miss it terribly now, it felt completely suffocating to me. The history, the community, the stuff in my house. I wanted to run from it all. As I’ve said before, curator was the least Yiddish word I knew and I wanted in. If my family and community was a hot Yiddishy mess, I was to become a cool, aloof art curator, in England no less.

BLVR: Did your experience in London, as a curator, help? One thing I noticed in the book is while you had a very regimented work life at the museum, your romantic life – before your husband – felt quite overwhelming and cluttered. Is that fair to say?

JB: Yeah, I dated my mother over and over again. (When I tried to focus the arc of this story, I actually drew a Venn diagram that tried to articulate the exact ways in which each guy shared characteristics with my mother.) My personal life was a mess. The structure of work, and academia in particular, was certainly a helpful coping mechanism. (Up to a point, that is, when I realized how depressed I was in that career, but that’s a story for another book.)  Someone recently asked me if I thought of museums as “hoarders,” but to me, they are (usually) organized collectors that value aesthetics, uniqueness and worth – the opposite of the hoard at home.

BLVR: The public idea of a hoarder, I feel, has almost entirely been defined by the actual show Hoarders. Hoarders wasn’t on TV when you were a child, and experiencing your mother’s behaviour firsthand. You illustrate the hoarding in your book so specifically, but I’m curious about how you defined it back then, when we didn’t have that much (or any) of an understanding of it.

JB: Oh, it was just mess. Disorganized. Chaos. Dirty. I didn’t understand why it had to be that way. It would be so easy to just clean up. I was mad about it. (I still am, though I try to control my feelings with awareness that it’s a mental illness. Brings up a whole other issue: is a mentally unwell person ever culpable? Is that why I continue to have so much trouble getting angry at people?)  

The TV shows are criticized for making spectacle, but I think they also helped. They brought a condition into public discussion; I have a hunch that my mother is able to now call herself a hoarder in part because of these shows. She’s not alone, others do it. She doesn’t have to feel (as much) shame and guilt – especially when she sees houses that are worse than hers. She’s even started to get a hoarding specialist to come over. These specialists now exist!

BLVR: The portion of your book that made me sigh in massive relief was when you found out that your husband also came from a hoarding family. But his family’s hoarding was different. How do you characterize that difference?

JB: Jon’s mom is, as I say, a “high class hoarder.” She loves objects, is obsessed with Victoriana, pores over auction catalogues, wants to surround herself with high quality items that she finds beautiful (visually, taste, sound – all the senses). She loves the notions of rare and precious. She can spend an hour extolling the good old handiwork of an Edwardian belt buckle. She has – and uses – only baths (no showers) and rotary phones. Her mantra: They don’t make things like they used to! As I write this I wonder if some of her hoarding is about just that – hanging on to the past, to all of history. Like my mother (and many hoarders, apparently) she hangs onto newspapers – it just struck me that perhaps this is a way of stopping time, halting the passage of days. Jon’s mom, like mine, immigrated to England. She wasn’t deprived or a wartime baby, but I do wonder if forming attachments to objects was easier than to foreign (English) people. She’s a very petite woman, and I sometimes stare at her moving around her big house, wondering about the evolution of homes for women (especially women who are homemakers). Their kids leave. Women usually outlive men. They’re left alone. Are things a sort of buffer or replacement?

BLVR: You live in New York now, one of the most crowded cities in the world. How do you interact with the urban clutter of that place?

JB: Here’s the thing: I don’t mind clutter, as long as it’s located within defined borders. My desk is a warzone, but it’s a cute little warzone set inside a very ordered home. As a child I was never particularly perturbed by my grandmother’s stashes. I didn’t live in her house, and her physical baggage didn’t leave me with emotional baggage. I love New York’s urban clutter, and can enjoy it in particular thanks to the serenity of my apartment, my reprieve. Isn’t that need to carve out your own special little place within the crazy city one of the reasons that we’re so obsessed with interior design?

BLVR: You have two daughters now. I assume you’re highly mindful of accumulating the kinds of objects that kids generate… How does that play out for you? How long do you keep a piece of macaroni art?

JB: I think this relates back to my answer above about “contained mess.” When Zelda began bringing home macaroni art, I freaked out – with ambivalence. Part of me wanted to immediately purge, while another part of me wanted to keep every single glitter-painted noodle. All of a sudden this “junk” was my daughter’s creativity, her mind, her heart. I’ve always been incredibly anxious about the passing of time (again, another book entirely) but having children amplified the ticking clock. Evolution is dramatic and constant and the moment I gave birth and bonded with my babies, I was as aware that they would leave me. I wanted to hang on to Zelda’s childhood, to this happy time in my own life. I developed a lot more compassion for my mother’s hoarding too, realizing that objects may have been ways for her to cling to the positive and generative, to passion and pride.

BLVR: One of the primary fears of a new parent is to not repeat the mistakes of the generation before. But we inevitably do. If one of your daughters was to sit down and write a memoir right now, how do you think she would characterize you? Your mother had hoarding. What do you think she might see you as being a culprit of?

JB: This is really hard. As well as I think I know my daughters, the things that come out of their mouths (both words and liquids) constantly surprises me. How about this: a few weeks ago I was doing an event in Toronto centered on the theme of memory. Our talk was largely focused on the past, and writing about my parents, and the moderator jolted me by asking how I imagined I’d react in ten years time when my daughters read my book. “Oh god, that will be a horrible day,” I said instinctively.  He asked why. “Because I’m so terribly self-conscious,” I said, un-self-consciously, which means it’s true. I’m quite embarrassed by how aware I am of my own mothering, and of my relationships with my daughters. I’m cerebral, is what I’m saying here, and my hunch is, they notice that too.

Here’s another anecdote in my recent repertoire that might answer this in a different way: Last year, several distant relatives (and our cat) died. I found it incredibly hard to talk to Zelda about death. While I generally extol honesty uber alles, I was terrified and avoided telling her the truth. A mentor pointed out that this was likely a relic of my Holocaust lineage—death for my family was so horrific and hidden and underlying everything. My mother avoided telling me that her best friend died because she feared it would be too difficult for me to handle (I was twenty-three at the time). Everything was so fragile. My mentor advised me to be as blunt as possible, to just say: “Great-grannie Sarah died. Her body was very old and sick and it stopped working. She is buried in the ground.” I was more nervous for this conversation than for a stand-up gig. But I rehearsed and said these lines to Zelda, and she was like, “OK.”  At first I felt excited: I did it! I broke the cascade of family trauma! But then I imagined Zelda in twenty years telling her friends how crazy I was for being so blunt about mortality and for forcing her— at age two!— to wave goodbye to our cancer-laden cat before the lethal injection. What will these kids make of us self-conscious, helicoptery, psychoanalytically-engrained, 1990s-raised (struggling still with all its dreams), geriatric parents? Shudder, shudder.