Thursday, January 7, 2016

Conversation with Judy Batalion {+ Giveaway}

*This post contains affiliate links

It’s a pleasure to welcome author/performer Judy Batalion to Thoughts in Progress today to talk about her recent release, WHITEWALLS: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between.

Thanks to Lauren and the wonderful folks at Penguin/Random House, I have a print copy of this intriguing book to giveaway to one lucky visitor. Please see the end of the post for more giveaway details.

“A gorgeously textured, beautifully crafted book that touches the heart, tenderly, with laughter and with wonder, even as it reminds us of the strange, unyielding, often magical force of family in our lives.” — Jay Neugeboren, author of Imagining Robert and Transforming Madness

Here’s a bit of detail about WHITE WALLS:

        Judy Batalion’s mother was a hoarder. She grew up in a home stuffed with tuna cans, VHS tapes and piles of junk that her mother couldn’t bear to throw out.  As the collection of flyers, old clothes, and bags of flour slowly grew, so did Batalion’s desire to break free from the metastasizing clutter. After high school, she did a 180 from her parents, trading a messy, emotional, “Yiddishy” Canadian upbringing for a compulsively ordered, militantly minimalist lifestyle in Boston, London, and eventually New York.  
         A former standup comedian, Batalion recounts her experience in a new memoir that is “part Nora Ephron, part Woody Allen” (Honor Moore). WHITE WALLS: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between (New American Library Trade Paperback; January 5, 2016; ISBN: 9780451473110; $16) is not a clinical look at hoarding and compulsions, but a personal story about intimacy, stuff, survival, and the things—both physical and emotional—that we pass on to our children.
         Batalion recounts how, growing up, she felt buried beneath the clutter—separated from her mother, both physically and emotionally, by trinkets and trash. But at age nineteen, she burrowed out, and onto Harvard, where her fascination with home—and its power to foster or suspend intimacy—was fed by a thesis professor, who suggested she write about Victorian asylums, and the asylum as home. Batalion thought: “Who could write about that better than me?” 
        But just as she seemed to have left behind all chaos—including a serendipitous marriage to the son of a hoarder—she found herself enmeshed in one of life’s most uncontrollable and messy experiments: motherhood. 
        That birth of a new generation is what spurred this textured, clear-eyed, and genuinely funny examination of her family’s search for home, and how it has manifested differently in each generation: from her refugee grandmother’s flight from war-ravaged Poland after the Holocaust; to the genesis of her own obsessive compulsive tendencies; to the strange way she saw her genes expressing themselves as her daughters grew older.  
        Do we ever have control over the habits, idiosyncrasies, joys, and hardships we pass on to our children? In WHITE WALLS, there is no direct answer—only an illuminating and heartfelt meditation on the meaning of home, family, and the stuff that fills the space between.

Please join me now in a conversation with Judy.

You talk openly about the isolation, fear, and frustration of being raised by a mentally ill mother. Has she read the manuscript?

My mother asked me if she could read the manuscript and I felt I owed her that privilege (or maybe punishment!). I decided to give it to her while I was visiting Montreal. I was terrified she’d become upset and even threaten suicide so I wanted to be nearby. “Judy,” she called me in her serious voice. “I’ve read your book, and well…” My heart exploded. “The tone in chapter 17 is really off.” What? “Your use of humor is jarring.” I wrote a whole book about your emotional dysfunction and that was it?! But of course it was. Above all else, my mother loves literature and appreciates writing. She regularly checks my website for new clips. “I can’t believe you wrote this,” she’ll say, which I try to take as a compliment.

In the book you discuss your grandmother’s flight from Poland during the Holocaust, during which she was pregnant. You write “[my mother] was conceived into the tempo of a heart stalled, terrorized. . . . What pulse had been passed on to me?” How does trauma pass through generations?

My grandmother (Bubbie Zelda) gave birth to my mother in 1945 in Kirgizia, on the way from a Siberian work camp to war-ravaged Poland in a makeshift hospital staffed only by a janitor. I gave birth to my daughter Zelda in 2011 in a world-class operating room on the Upper East Side. While it might seem like as a lineage of women we’re “out of the woods” (literally) of tragedy, we aren’t really. Of course, I am exceptionally lucky and my daughter Zelda’s life is incomparably more comfortable than my mother’s. But the emotional impact of war and death lingers.

I once read that it takes four generations for trauma to pass through a family. Recently a study came out saying that this might even be genetic. My grandmother, the survivor, was a wild anti-Hitler ranter; my mother, I think, experienced a complex survivor’s guilt that played out as paranoia and a pathological victim complex. Her refugee life, the constant movement, how she was born into so much loss—I am sure all this affected her ability to self-soothe and feel confident and whole.

You grew up at a time when mental illness was taboo and less understood. Would your experience be different for a child growing up in 2015?

I think so. I don’t think the word “hoarder” even existed in the 1980s, let alone formed the title of a popular reality TV show. I think that if I’d been able to see that the conditions around me had concrete titles and diagnoses—that they existed outside my own home—I may have felt slightly less alienated and confused.

What were the biggest challenges in narrating the tale of your mother’s falling apart?

The challenge of memory. As much as I tried to mentally re-enter the moments of my youth, to smell the carpet stenches and be in the backseat of that damp seatbelt-less Pontiac, to touch the room around me and feel the awful anxious uncertainty and unfairness of childhood, it was very difficult for me to recall past scenes without them being colored by my current knowledge of diagnoses, by how the story turned out. Was our living room really that dirty in 1986, or am I imposing the 2015 version on my recollections?

Another challenge is writing about family. I think of my parents as fair game! Then there’s my children. The more Zelda matures, the less I feel able to write about her. My husband Jon reads everything personal that I write—he usually doesn’t mind what I’ve said. Then again, he’s usually the hero of my stories! I’m always aware that I implicate other people, and I am constantly concerned about how they might feel.

You wrote in your college thesis that “a person creates a room, and a room creates its inhabitants.”

The philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote about how people design chairs, but the design of chairs creates the way people sit.  This is a central idea to my college thesis, my PhD, my memoir, and my life. The relationship between spaces and their inhabitants is, I believe, reciprocal. At home I felt like I was drowning, inconsequential, seen in an oblique way. Outside the house, then, I found it hard to touch people, literally. I wanted nothing more than to be seen clearly.

You’ve said “It’s taken me years to accumulate all this nothing.” How did you finally separate your identity from your mother’s?

The major turning point came when my father finally reacted to the histrionic, near-violent way that my mother treated me in a particularly bad episode. As soon as he saw me, I could see me too. I was 30 years old.

A few months ago I was trying on a skirt in a dressing room and caught sight of some spider veins on the backs of my knees. I nearly had a heart attack at Joe Fresh. I HAVE MY MOTHER’S LEGS. Identical. It was troubling for me, that connection. I have a strong impulse to not be her, to not be her depression and anguish. But I am her, in many ways. 

How has having a daughter changed your relationship with your mother?

My mom was hands-off, and though I’ve spent most of my life bemoaning her distance, I’ve started to see the positive elements too. She may have crowded my life with tuna cans but she gave me room to make my own decisions and mistakes, which is something I try to give my daughter. Zelda herself is so organized and clean-obsessed. Is she emulating me? Or was she always like that? As a child I blamed a lot on nurture, but as a parent, I’m starting to think a lot more is down to nature.

I’ve also had some—sinister drumroll—hoarding inclinations. I don’t want to throw out baby swings and onsesies. I have to force myself to get rid of Zelda’s craft scraps. These objects are tied with so much positive feeling—love, creativity, hope. I understand the desire to hang onto remnants of the good-times; who knows when they’ll come again? All to say, I think I understand my mother and her actions a little bit better. I feel closer to her.

Judy, thanks so much for visiting with us today and sharing this insight with us. It’s always interesting to learn about the author’s experiences.

Now for those who aren’t familiar with Judy, here’s a bit of background on her.

Author Judy Batalion
Judy Batalion grew up in Montreal. She studied at Harvard before moving to London, where she worked as a curator by day and a comedian by night.

She now lives with her husband and daughters in New York. For more on Judy and her writing, visit her website.

      “In this terrific and powerful book about hoarders, anti-hoarders, parents and children, Judy Batalion tells a laugh-out-loud story about her own mother and daughter—and shows how profoundly all of us are shaped by events before we were born, how trauma moves through families, and how responsibility can be the most meaningful path to freedom.”— Dara Horn, author of A Guide for the Perplexed
      “White Walls is an unforgettable trip into a truly original mind. . . . You won’t read another memoir quite like this one.” — Matti Friedman, author of The Aleppo Codex
      “Sharp, quick, funny, but the kind of funny that sometimes has you feeling kicked in the stomach and teary with the delight of recognition.” — Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter
      “Clear-eyed and compassionate, Judy Batalion’s White Walls is a sharply funny, evocative and moving memoir chronicling her voyage from daughter to mother as she finds her place in the world amidst the shifting currents of history, religion, time and place. The wisdom of how to move forward while caring for the past emanates from every page. Batalion brings a palpable warmth to difficult subjects that will leave her readers inspired to contemplate the construction of their own stories and how transformation is possible.” — Ruth Andrew Ellenson, winner of the National Jewish Book Award for The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt
      “This book is honest, difficult, and perfect. Batalion’s sharp wit and hard-earned wisdom provide the reader with hope that we can all somehow find it in ourselves to embrace the inevitable chaos and change that comes with living an imperfect life.” — Nicole Knepper, LCPC, author of Moms Who Drink and Swear


Thanks to Lauren and the wonderful folks at Penguin/Random House, I have a print copy of WHITEWALLS: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between to giveaway. The giveaway is open to residents of the U.S. only and will end at 12 a.m. (EST) on Friday, Jan. 15.

To enter, just click on the Rafflecopter widget below and following the instructions. The widget may take a few seconds to load so please be patient. A winner will be selected by the Rafflecopter widget and I’ll send an email with the subject line “Thoughts in Progress White Walls Giveaway.” The winner will have 72 hours to reply to the email or another winner will be selected. PLEASE be sure to check your spam folder from time to time after the giveaway ends. If you win and you’ve already won the book somewhere else or you just decide for whatever reason you don’t want to win, once again PLEASE let me know.

Thanks so much for stopping by today during Judy’s visit. Are you a hoarder or do you know someone who is? What do you think is the advantage or disadvantage of being a hoarder?

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Memoirs and biographies are right up there in my favourite reading genres. This one strikes close to home in many ways. I suspect I would (will) devour it. And weep.
    Thank you Mason.

  2. I can't imagine growing up like that. And I also read something recently that said great trauma was passed down from parent to child. That's a scary thing.
    Good luck, Judy.

  3. My mother wasn't exactly a hoarder, but we did find that she had a tendency to save huge amounts of junk mail, just in case it was important. In the closets. Maybe that is a hoarder. I am obsessively tidy. And save no junk mail. LOL

  4. My mother wasn't a scary hoarder, but born at the end of the Depression, she never liked to throw things out. When we had to clean out her house a few years ago, I wasn't shocked by all the stuff she had, what bothered me was how much of it was no longer good or useful and we had to throw it out.

  5. I know someone who has a family member who has so much stuff that there are bedrooms filled with things.

  6. What an interesting perspective! And it sounds as though there are some important life lessons here, too. Thanks for sharing, Mason.

  7. This looks like an interesting read and obviously with a lot of humor thrown in. Definitely one for my 2016 list.

  8. This memoir sounds captivating and fascinating. Growing up in Mtl. as well and being Jewish as well as keeping so much due to life at the time interests me greatly. Thanks.

  9. This sounds like fascinating memoir, Mason. Thanks for introducing Judy and her book (which I'm adding to my TBR list).

  10. I think it's great that Judy's mom can appreciate her honesty about her feelings when written into her book.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.