It makes intuitive sense.
If you were born in Europe in 1945, into the ashes of the Holocaust, if you spent your childhood as a refugee, forever looking for home and always moving on to the next one, then when you finally settle somewhere, get married, have children, and live what looks from the outside like a normal life, something will have to give.
Judy Batalion’s mother became a hoarder. Once she didn’t have to travel lightly, throw away her toys, dispose of anything that might hold her back, she didn’t.
It’s not easy being the daughter of a hoarder either, as Judy knows, and as she explores both in her memoir, “White Walls,” and at the Kaplan JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly this weekend, as part of the “Sunday with Strong Women” program. (See the box for more information.)
Judy is a smart and funny woman. (If you need outside validation for her brains, you can consider that she earned her bachelor’s degree at Harvard and a Ph.D. in contemporary art from the University of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. When it comes to funny, well, you can know that she does stand-up, or you can just listen to her or read her. It comes through clearly.)
Her memoir began as a story about finding home, but it turned into a book about hoarding because for Judy, as a child, home was where the hoard was.
“My mom was born in 1945, on the way back to Poland,” Judy said. “She was born a refugee, trying to get back home without knowing what home was.”
Judy grew up in Montreal, amid collections of “tuna cans, swivel chairs, plastic bags, newspapers — everything.”
Her book is a combination of very personal stories and science. “Hoarding is a mental illness that often is combined with other mental illnesses,” she said. “Often it’s depression, anxiety, paranoia, or social phobias. These things are all related.” In fact, the American Psychiatric Association defined hoarding as a disorder only about five years ago, in the DSM-V — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.
“Hoarding is about our relationship to stuff,” Judy said. “It is in the end a disorder of attachment. It’s a dysfunctional relationship to things. A lot of hoarders have complicated social relationships.”
And it seems to have specifically Jewish echoes. “Jews have had to move all the time,” she said. “There is research that came out recently showing that people who moved around a lot as young children have a bigger tendency to become hoarders.” And Jews traditionally have had to wander.
Hoarding, like most mental illnesses, is a condition for which “there is no blood test,” Judy said. “Right now, the most recent study shows that about six percent of Americans suffer from pathological hoarding.”
Hoarding is something that you can edge into, Judy said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not as if one morning we had a totally normal house, and the next morning there were 300 suitcases in the living room. It’s something that happened gradually, over a long period of time.”
Her mother’s illness was triggered by her own mother’s death, closely followed by her best friend’s. “Around that time, the hoarding exploded, with an exponential increase in the shopping and the buying and the storing up,” she said. “And it shifted with time.
“It began with stacks and stacks of books. My mother would go into every library, and take out all the books she could. She read the books — but she didn’t return them.
“And there was a bookstore called Cheap Thrills, that sold paperbacks. She bought incredible collections of books.” She read most of them too.
So far, this doesn’t seem that unusual. Many of us buy books, and they are notoriously hard to get rid of. (Maybe it’s particularly hard for Jews to throw out books, and there are only so many libraries that will take them as donations every year. What do you do with unwanted books?)
“But then, a few years later, in the mid 80s, VCRs became available, and my mom became obsessed with them,” Judy said. “She recorded thousands of movies.” Those she didn’t watch. She just amassed them.”
Did she collect clothing too? “Yes,” Judy said. “Whatever you ask about, the answer is yes.”
So Judy decided that she had to escape what she saw as the dysfunction of her childhood. “Home was a hot Yiddish mess, so I ran away to be a cool, aloof art curator in England,” she said. “I really tried to run away from the Jewish stuff. I called myself a militant minimalist.
“I did a lot of work on contemporary women’s art and design, and domestic theory and domestic design. The hoarding affected all areas of my life.” It all was a question of trying to make sense of the relationship of people and their histories to stuff.
Then she married a British Jew, and eventually the two moved to New York, and “we bought this apartment with white walls and white sofas.
“And then there was the unexpected positive pregnancy test.” Soon, Judy had a baby and the sofas were no longer white, her minimalism became somewhat maximized, and “what I came to realize is that I grew up in a home that wasn’t comfortable.” At its heart, “the book is about the search for home, understanding what comfort really is. Is it possible? Does it really exist? How do I make a home for my kid that is comfortable and stable?”
Judy Batalion will talk about hoarding, home, and mental health at the JCC on Sunday.
Who: Three women — Gayle Forman, Lisa Smith, and Judy Batalion — will talk about their books — Ms. Forman’s “Leave Me,” Ms. Smith’s “Girl Walks Out Of a Bar,” and Ms. Batalion’s “White Walls”
What: For “A Sunday of Strong Women: A Serious Discussion with Three Seriously Funny Authors”
When: On Sunday, March 5, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue in Tenafly
Why: For women to learn about “empowering ourselves in new and exciting ways,” according to the JCC.
Who is invited: Women, either with other women or alone
How much does it cost: $36 for JCC members; $44 for everyone else
For more information or to register: Email Kathy Graff at firstname.lastname@example.org