NEW YORK — Judy Batalion’s childhood home in Montreal was crowded. As in stacks of old mail, towers of tuna fish cans, rooms of swivel chairs and fax machines crowded: each object collected and saved by a hoarder mother.
So when Batalion learned she was pregnant one question dominated: How would she make room for a baby? Because for Batalion, space is a complex issue — literally and figuratively. In the end she decided the best way to answer the question was to write “White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between.” But above all, it’s a story of what it means to survive and thrive.
“I often say the book is about surviving the survivors,” said Batalion, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian.
The survivors of whom she speaks are her grandparents and her mother. Batalion’s grandparents’ escape from Warsaw to Siberian work camps, her mother’s wartime birth in Kirgizia, after which came DP camps and then finally Canada. The years of living as a refugee constantly on the move, of knowing so many in the family had been murdered in the Holocaust, left an indelible mark on Batalion’s mother. She experienced what Batalion described as a complex survivor’s guilt that played out as paranoia and a pathological victim complex.
As she wrote Batalion thought about how these various forces shaped her mother.
“I think there can be a genetic predisposition to mental illness, and then there is the question of early parental care, and then life circumstances. Sometimes these things come in a storm and unleash themselves,” she said. “Of course not everyone who went through the Holocaust is a severe depressive and hoarder, and there are those who didn’t go through the Holocaust who are severely depressed.”
The book, which will be published January 5, chronicles her mother’s particular mental illness, which began with obsessive accumulation and ended with suicide threats and psychiatric hospitals. Batalion examines not only how the lack of physical space in her childhood home impacted her life, but also the sense of loss that lived in the spaces between “credenzas piled next to each other like Tetris blocks.”
Because of the shame she felt over her mother’s hoarding, Batalion rarely brought people home. Only now do her former classmates and friends know why.
“I have heard from some old friends. Someone even wrote an apology to me saying they didn’t realize what I was going through,” Batalion said. “As children we aren’t always aware of the dysfunctions of the families around us.”
‘As children we aren’t always aware of the dysfunctions of the families around us’
As a result of her upbringing, Batalion became obsessed with minimalism and cleanliness.
When Batalion left home to study the history of science at Harvard she brought nothing more to college than her computer and some clothes. She was a “sophisticated minimalist” someone who tried to “make sparse seem chic.” When she moved to London to pursue a PhD in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art she insisted her apartment have open shelving so she could see everything she owned.
While living in London she also worked as a curator, researcher, editor, comic, MC, actor, writer, and Yiddish translator. She also met Jon, a Jewish man who turned out to be a child of hoarders. Unlike Batalion, he seemed unfazed about the dozens of frozen kosher turkeys that stuffed his parents’ refrigerator and the myriad of dining room tables stored in one room.
The pair married and moved to New York City. Today the secular Jewish couple is raising their oldest daughter Zelda, named for Batalion’s grandmother.
Zelda’s birth and toddlerhood changed Batalion’s perception of her mother. While her mother was hands-off, using objects to create emotional barriers, Batalion also realized her mother gave her space to make her own decisions and mistakes. That’s something she strives to give her daughter Zelda.
Batalion realized that as much as she tried to not become her mother, she is like her in many way including her hoarding inclinations. For example, she writes about finding it hard to throw away Zelda’s arts and crafts scraps and onesies. Moreover, she finds herself understanding the importance of stepping back as a parent.
“The older I get the more I empathize with my mom,” Batalion said. “I understand her more. And the more I experience parenthood the more I appreciate elements of her parenting. She gave me the space to make my own mistakes, she gave me space to grow.”
In “White Walls” Batalion invites readers to share her journey as she unpacks complicated feelings about her role as mother and as daughter. She also hopes readers respond to the way her unvarnished view of the way mental illness in a family affects everyone in the household.
“I had an ability [through writing] where it helped other people,” she said. “As soon as I started writing this people connected to it, somehow they don’t feel so alone and strange.”