Judy Batalion: How I wrote about my mother's hoarding

Since escaping her parents' overstuffed Montreal home as a teenager, Judy Batalion's driving goal in life was to not become her mother. Until she found herself about to become a mother. In White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between, Batalion unflinchingly recounts the experience of growing up in the home of a hoarder - and the complicated legacy we unwittingly pass down to our children.

In her own words, Batalion talks about opening up her life story - with a healthy dose of "if you don't laugh, you'll cry" humour.

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I was taking a class where our assignment was writing a "humiliation essay." My teacher was pushing me to get more serious, and I wrote an essay about my mother's hoarding and how it led to me having a big problem with intimacy in my relationships. I sold the essay to Salon and it got a lot of response from everyone, but I was most surprised when my mother contacted me about it. She just said, "Judy, I Googled you and I found the article." I was so scared of what she would say, because the article really exposed what had been a secret. But she said, "Thank you so much. I now understand why you needed to run away, and I never understood how deeply my hoarding affected you." In the end, writing the piece allowed me to have a conversation with my mother, and she was strangely fine with it. 

Most of this book was written from memory. I did look at some photos to get a sense of what my house looked like in my earlier years. That was the confusing part, because my mother's hoarding encroached slowly over the years. There was one shot of me and my brother on the bed and there were about 500 books on the bed, and I was like, "It WAS like that!" Most of it is really memory writing, and memory is very flexible and complicated. I think often I'm remembering the specific sensation and emotion, and I'm sure a number of the details are wrong - which is why I wrote a whole author's note to this effect.

My mother did read the book before it came out, but she had hardly any factual comments for me. She didn't ever really say that my memory was wrong. I also went to my brother, Eli, a lot. I would send him an email saying, send me ALL YOUR MEMORIES about this or that. It was good to have him around, because at times I did wonder if I had made stuff up. I would check in with him about certain things and he'd corroborate, often telling me that I was actually being quite tame in the way I described the event.

While I was writing the book, I came back to Montreal and stayed in my parents' house for a few days. That was a good reminder of the feeling of being there, around the clock, in that space. It's not the same space as it was 30 years ago, but it helped me get in the zone. The hoarding has gotten worse, way worse. My childhood bedroom is now just covered. There's a mountain of stuff on my bed. I can't bring my kids there - there's choking hazards galore, garbage, it's not particularly hygienic. The whole house has deteriorated dramatically, and my mother doesn't let anyone in to repair things, so things are falling apart.

That's why it's hard for me to separate the writing from the living of my life. It's not like the relationship happened, my mother died, I waited 10 years and then I wrote about it. This book was so entwined with my life, and I didn't know what I was going to find. 

There were certain moments in writing this book that just knocked the wind out of me when I sat down and put them to paper. There's one scene about a fight my parents had that I remember being particularly difficult to dredge up. When I was a child, I got a hangnail on my thumb and it was painful. I told my mom about it, but told her not to tell my dad. When I was growing up, my father would get very upset when he knew I was hurt, so I didn't want him to know. As a child, his hurt over not being able to do anything about my pain translated to what felt like anger to me. Well, my mom told him anyway, and he bellowed at me from the other room, "Judy, what happened to your thumb?" And I was so hurt in that moment. 

Little moments like that - they were indeed little moments, but they had such big feelings. Even when I relived them for two hours, that childhood feeling of disappointment came back. The thing that was so uncomfortable about my childhood was feeling so out of control and so disappointed. The painful thing is feeling it again, but the healing part is that I'm now able to step away from it. Nonetheless, I felt bad for the childhood self who couldn't step away.

Judy Batalion's comments have been edited and condensed.


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