We are so thrilled that WHITE WALLS author Judy Batalion agreed to answer some of our questions about her moving, funny and brilliant memoir. She started with one from a person who goes by the name of “Mayim B.,” in the USA.
Do you feel your book is contributing to helping people understand mental illness in a new way or do you see it more as just a memoir (which is also fantastic)? (Mayim B., USA)
I didn’t set out to write this book to teach, but to offer my friendship to anyone who might be struggling with similar family and identity struggles. Also, I wrote it to help myself understand my heritage, my mother, and my own impending motherhood. I desperately wanted to make neat the complicated, messy relationships of my youth. Having said all that, if I’m able to help people understand mental illness, all the better. Mental illness can be so complicated, for those who experience it and those who love people who suffer. There are no defining blood tests; diagnoses are subjective and can fluctuate so much with time. Mental illness is real and should not be taboo, but is a mentally ill person ever culpable for their behavior? What are the boundaries between pathology and personality? How do you love someone who is only, in mind, partially there? How do you accept their love? I still have so many questions.
And you also had questions, Grokites who committed to #readwithMayim! Here are (some of) the questions you asked us to pass along to Judy, on topics ranging from the writing process to navigating her family’s reactions. (Some questions edited for length.)
I love the format of back & forth in time, were there other ways you thought of writing it? (Lisa S., USA)
Oh good, I’m glad it worked! Before writing for the page, I was writing for the stage. In 2008-09 I’d written and performed a one-woman show that flipped between an A and B story, and this back-and-forth helped me keep up the energy of the piece. Plus, it allowed me to swim in and out of seriousness; i.e. some parts could be funny and others, more cerebral or sad. Reading isn’t the same experience as watching a live performance (as my book editor reminded me on several occasions!), but I still felt the back and forth structure gave the stories energy and allowed me to transition between the light and the heavy. It also helped me focus each section on a particular theme or question (even if they weren’t that evident to a reader).
What is your relationship with your brain now? There is a series of questions in chapter 8 that resonated with me — like “Who would I be if I was no longer known for my brain?” — and I have been wondering since then if you still feel that way and why? (Marion C., France)
Really my major every-single-day fear in that first pregnancy was that I would lose “my brain” and thus identity. I came of age in the 1990s; I knew myself as a thinker and critic and worker, and these activities had structured my whole life. (As I’ve said, I hadn’t seen a kid since I’d been one.) But two kids in, and it’s still my brain. The realm of my identity expanded, and certain things having been particularly hard (losing control of my space and time) but I also think these challenges have helped me hone my thinking. When I only have three child-free hours, I don’t waste them! Motherhood has also made me more confident (I can do this thang) which has helped my work.
When did you decide that you wanted to write this memoir? And do you ever think about sharing it with your girls when they’re older? (Courtney E., Nova Scotia)
I’d been writing about my life for many years, but in 2011 I wrote an essay about my mom’s hoarding (my first intimate, non-comedic and “exposing/confessional” piece) and it was well received – by the media, readers, even my mom. I sensed (and was further encouraged by mentors) that there was a book “in there.” It took me a while to find that book (see below) but that’s really when this project began. As for my girls reading it, yeesh! So embarrassing. I’m a bit ashamed of my dysfunctional romances, and also, I’m such a self-conscious parent. I’m not sure I want them to know that!
Speaking of Family…
How did you manage to get your mother to agree to be filmed for the Today Show which aired last week!? (Mayim B., USA)
My mother’s been (shockingly) extremely supportive of this project. I mention in the book how my first essay about her hoarding did not appall her (as I worried it might) but instead helped her understand my running away. I’ve written before about her generous and gracious response to my manuscript. Since the book came out, she’s read it several times, and offered her thoughts and analyses. We’ve always connected through literature, even when it’s by me, and about her.
Like most things, the media request process was gradual. As soon as my book came out, a radio show was interested in interviewing us both. (It didn’t pan out). I’d assumed she never say yes, but when I nervously asked her, she was actually quite excited by the prospect of telling her side of the story. A newspaper wanted to run photos of mom’s house, and again, she was surprisingly OK with that, as long as her face wasn’t shown. So when the Today Show showed interest in having her on air, I immediately told my publicist it would never work. But the wonderful producer, Jennifer Long, was really keen to hear from her, and knew that including her take would make the story so much stronger, especially for others’ suffering from the illness. Jen was ultra-sensitive and flexible around my mother’s demands – it was very important to her that Mom felt comfortable. So she went to Montreal solo, didn’t bring a crew, and even recorded Mom on my iPhone as Mom requested (so she’d be able to delete any parts she didn’t want exposed — she didn’t.) When Jen arrived in her home, Mom began to talk – for over an hour. She told so many great stories – I would have put them in the book had I known. Only a few seconds made it on the Today Show, of course.
Did you find that when you moved out of your parents’ home, your physical health improved? (Lisa S., USA)
That’s a good question. Ultimately, the most dramatic improvement to my health (and I assume you mean my ulcerative colitis here) was due to major surgery. Having said that, in 9th grade, my school offered a summer trip to Israel. My disease was active and my father was dead-set against me going but I pleaded hysterically all the way to the airport and at last, he relented. Within days of arriving in Jerusalem, the improvement was dramatic. Was it environmental? Psychological? Climatic? Who knows, probably a combination of all.
When you visit your parents in Montreal now, has Zelda ever asked why their house is so different from yours? (meaning, that yours is “almost empty” compared to your parents’)? (Sarah S., Austria)
Zelda has asked about the mess at Bubbie’s house (or “Bubs” as she calls her), but truthfully, I think it’s because she hears me talking about it. Zelda loves Bubbie’s house – it’s so full of stuff, of opportunities for excavation and surprise discovery. We were there a few weeks ago, and before leaving to drive back to New York she presented me with a still-wrapped set of children’s cutlery from the 1980s. I have no idea where she found it, but we use it now every morning, and think of Bubs. As I’ve said before, now that I’m a grown adult (with my own home), I’ve begun to appreciate Mom’s “stuff” as her vehicle for giving and connecting.
Can you imagine a life in which your mother would have been different, more like ‘the other moms’? How do you think those differences would have changed the person you have turned out to be? (Aurelie H., Belgium)
It took me a long time to start writing seriously; I only really committed and dedicated myself to writing once I was married and my life had real stability and structure. I often wonder: if I’d had more confidence as a child or a more emotionally-supportive and calm family situation, would I have begun my career earlier (and saved myself years of job-related anguish)? Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have had a writer’s temperament or perspective, or things I so urgently needed to write about. So who knows?! But yes, I do think about this. Life is so fragile, but right now I feel so insanely lucky and blessed and my past is part of my present joy, so at this second, I don’t feel regret or longing for a different history. Though, as I edge in closer to the big 40, it would have been nice to know more about make-up…
Do you still feel the same need to create the perfect home? Is your home still minimalistic? Or has that changed since you started a family? (Kate M., UK)
Interesting. I don’t think about mine as a need for a “perfect” home, but one that is neat and ordered. But perhaps you are right… In short, I still feel calmer and more at ease when my apartment is arranged with each object in its place, excess expunged, and those little souvenir ashtrays filled with key chains, random screws and mini-crap that mysteriously collect in corners, sorted through. This is harder with 2 kids! I still clean my apartment almost every night – usually I spend an hour tidying up around and after my kids’ bedtime. But I don’t clean everything, or everywhere. I’m OK with some mess, as long as it’s contained within boundaries. Some nights, the den where my kids play is a doll-strewn disaster, and often, my desk is a war zone. But as long as these are particular areas (of creativity) within an otherwise ordered home, I’m OK!
What would be your advice to a kid (or a teenager, young person, or adult) who has to go through the same kind of situations you had to deal with living with your mother? (Aurelie H., Belgium)
The good news is, today there is much more awareness and specific help for hoarders and mental illness in general. When I was growing up in the 1980s, the term “hoarding” didn’t even exist; I just sensed disarray and disorder. I encourage people to find whatever (good, trustworthy) professional help they can access – for the sufferer and for themselves. Admit problems, when you can. “Be brutally honest — with yourself,” is the main value I’d like to pass on to my own children, FWIW.
For hoarding in particular… it’s not easy to get a hoarder to “clean up.” You can’t just organize the house for or with them; it’s like telling someone who suffers from depression to go see a movie and cheer up. Therapies are complex, multi-faceted (behavioral, medical, occupational, emotional), slow and very long-term. Most hoarders do not have insight about their disorder; they do not realize they are living in a way that might be considered abnormal. It’s so, so, so heartbreakingly hard to help someone who does not want help. Sometimes you can’t. [Editor’s note: if you need help dealing with someone who suffers from mental illness, reach out to an organization like NAMI.org for support. – EK]
How would you advise writers to find their own “memoir story”? (Esther K., USA)
What’s the story you really want to tell? Or NEED to tell? I spent a lifetime running away from my mother, and here I am, making a career out of her! SIGH. The story was just so in me, I couldn’t get away from it, I couldn’t not write it. Where is your core conflict? What have you learned in your life and how did you get there? What makes you you? There are so many styles of memoir, ranging from the all-confessional to comedic to more researched works around a subject that you have a personal connection to. At the end of the day, the heart of the project has to be your heart; you have to write what excites you. (Excitement can also include fear.)
On more of a crafty note – it’s very hard to find the structure and arc around which to base a book. It took me over a year to do this (WHITE WALLS was first driven by a search for home, then it was a love story, and only later did it become a parenting tale). Even when I sold the project on proposal, my editor wanted me to refocus my narrative. I had to jettison a lot of material to get to this book, but I kept reminding myself that it would all eventually go somewhere else. For me the trick was remembering that this was one memoir, one project, not my whole life story.