Judy Bolton-Fasman, ASYLUM

Judy Bolton-Fasman, ASYLUM

Zibby is joined by Judy Bolton-Fasman to talk about her debut memoir, Asylum, and the different threads throughout her life that led to that title. The two discuss the unique dynamic that existed between Judy’s parents and how it fostered a number of secrets she sought to uncover throughout her childhood, as well as the different iterations this project has taken over the sixteen years it took her to write. Judy also openly shares her experience living with panic attacks in the book and in conversation with Zibby because she wants to destigmatize mental illnesses and the different ways we can manage them.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Judy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets.

Judy Bolton-Fasman: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I’ve been so looking forward to this.

Zibby: Yay! I loved getting a deep dive into your entire family history. I feel like I know so much about you. I love how memoirs bring people together before they’ve even met. Tell listeners a little about what Asylum is about. Was it the fact that you grew up on Asylum Avenue that you were like, this has to be a book?

Judy: I have to say the title of the book, since you mentioned it, was a gift from the universe. To grow up on Asylum Avenue, everything sort of flowed from there. My mother in particular was a storyteller. I always heard stories from her. As you know from the book, she was very charismatic. She was very dramatic. Sometimes she was very traumatic. All things flowed from that. I’ve been around stories all my life. Growing up in an intercultural house was also an inspiration for stories. Since you mentioned the title, I did grow up on Asylum Avenue. I grew up at 1735 Asylum Avenue. My mother is from Cuba. Although she immigrated here in the late fifties, her family came here with refugee status in the early 1960s and did indeed seek asylum here. That’s another level. Then there’s the level of the commentation of insanity. There’s was a lot of, anecdotally — I use the word anecdotally not at all clinically. There was a lot of insanity going on here. I just thought of this the other day. Writing the book was a form of asylum for me, of taking asylum, of having a container, of having a place to make sense of these stories. It was a form of asylum for me to write the book.

Zibby: I bet. There was so much from your relationships with your siblings to your parents to how you came to terms with this period of time that was missing from your father’s life. I feel like that was the genesis for everything that came after. This man who you loved had this blank space that you could never really fill in. You were trying so hard even through the narrative all the way to the end trying to figure out, who is this woman? What was this part? Asking everybody. You were obviously so thorough about it. My heart went out to you because you were clearly so in need of this information which ultimately is not retrievable.

Judy: Ultimately, it was and it wasn’t retrievable. I’m going to back up a little bit and say that, for me, writing Asylum kind of yielded a speculative nonfiction. What I mean by that was that I had to speculate and project what I thought what was going on. For me, the speculative nonfiction mixed in with the facts that I have, it yielded this truth that, for me, was absolute. I never doubted it. I never doubted what my hunches were.

Zibby: There was obviously stuff that you uncovered. I really wanted a conclusive — not to give things away. This is how we all make sense of our lives, how we make sense of our families and our histories and what information we remember and what we can glean from others and how it makes us feel along the way.

Judy: Everybody in a family has a part to play or is assigned a part to play. I was the curious one to the point that my father would say to me, “Curiosity killed the cat.” I was always asking questions. I wanted to know things. Another gift from the universe, my name is Judy Bolton. Judy Bolton was a girl detective in the early thirties and forties who was the subject of a series of books. She was sort of the equivalent of Nancy Drew, though not as famous. I think I lived up to my name or felt like I had to live up to my name, even if it was subconscious sometimes, of being that detective. I remember when I first saw a Judy Bolton book. I was maybe six years old. I was so thrilled to see my name on the cover of a book. I just sort of went with it and used that mantle and did my detective work. I will say that the serious first stirrings of Asylum were when I was writing a fiction thesis for my master’s in fine arts. I went back and read that thesis over the years as I was working on Asylum. I really saw the first stirring of Asylum in that, particularly in the title story which I call “The Ninety-Day Wonder.” I explain what a ninety-day wonder is in the book. Young men from college were the officers in the second world war, learned how to do everything in ninety days. At the end, they ended up commanding men who had socks older than they were. At first, I thought, ninety-day wonder, that’s such a wonderful term. Wonder, my father was a wonder. It really was a pejorative term during the second world war. Nevertheless, that is what my MFA thesis was called, my short story collection, The Ninety-Day Wonder. Clearly, I was obsessed with finding out my father’s secrets and finding out who he was that early.

Zibby: I have to say, when I googled you after I read your book, the first thing that came up were screenshots of the covers of the Judy Bolton series. I had never heard of those books, actually. I was delighted to see what you meant right away.

Judy: Margaret Sutton’s daughter wrote to me and told me she was delighted that I had kind of revived her mom’s work. It was really sweet.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love that. You had one line that I absolutely loved. The page was open, and then of course, this closed. It was on the left. It was about you in college. Maybe I won’t find it. I can talk about something else. Give me thirty seconds. Yes. You said, “In school, I searched for what I didn’t have, but at home, I searched for what I didn’t know.” I just loved that, how you operated through the world and how what you needed to know at home affected everything. How did you feel at that time?

Judy: When I was a kid, no one really talked to me. I sort of had to fend for myself in terms of finding out stories even in terms of, at points, making up history. My parents were a very unusual couple. My mother was from Cuba. My father was this all-American guy from New Haven, Connecticut, who went to Yale. There was almost seventeen years between them. In that seventeen-year gap, there’s a lot of room to find stories, to mine stories, to even make up stories to fill in the holes. My parents were a very glamorous couple. They were a very dramatic couple. Everything stopped with them on Saturday night. No matter how upset they were with each other, no matter how much they were fighting, on Saturday night, there was a truce. They went out as this very glamorous couple. I loved that. I still have very fond memories of watching my mother dress because it was one of the few times she seemed to have been happy in my childhood. That’s a very happy memory for me. Yes, I wanted to know because, as I said, there was this age gap. There was this cultural gap. I wanted to somehow make sense of it and fill it in with stories, fill it in with suppositions that I had about them.

Zibby: I feel like there should be a collection of little essays, not even full-on essays, maybe a little picture with essay about how it felt to have your mom get dressed up. I feel like that is so clear in my mind, when my mom would get her ballgown on. I would be so young. Now I think of that when I’m in my closet crying trying to find something that fits. I’m like, is this what my kids are going to remember? My mom, the crinolines were being fluffed out and all this. It’s just funny.

Judy: My kids definitely do not have a memory of me being glamorous and going out on Saturday nights.

Zibby: I feel very unglamorous at the moment. Your father going to Yale was a big part of the story. I went to Yale myself, so I felt like every time it said Yale, it was a little, oh, great. Then I realized that was happening like every other minute in the story. The fact that there was such an expectation of him — I think there was some line in there where your mom said, I married the poorest man who’s ever gone to Yale, or something like that.

Judy: Yes, Yale was a very big part of my family lore. My grandfather graduated from Yale in 1913. He was an immigrant. He came here when he was two years old from Russia. I like to say that my grandfather fiddled his way through Yale because he had a card from the musician’s union, and he played at all of the debutante balls and fraternities up and down the East Coast that he certainly would never have been invited to as a Jew. His classmate, although I’m sure that they did not mingle in any way, was Cole Porter. My grandfather was a wonderful musician, as was my father. My father was what they would call a legacy at Yale. It was very important to him. He was obsessed with Yale football. I can tell you stats from 1970 and 1969 Yale football. I’m sure I’m the only person my age that can do that at this point because he was absolutely obsessed. He was very proud of it. It was a very big part of his story. I think I’m not giving too much away by saying that it became an even bigger part of his story after he served in the navy because Ivy League recruits were very important to government operations post-World War II.

Zibby: It’s amazing, the history of the university. I don’t know if you know another author, her name’s Margarita Gokun Silver.

Judy: I know Margarita very well.

Zibby: Oh, you do? I literally just interviewed her this week. She’s from Russia and went to Yale. There was so much in common. Anyway, I thought if you didn’t know each other — it’s a little off topic, sorry. Then I won’t give away what happens to your dad or what you discover towards the end in that regard. Why don’t we talk about your panic attacks if you don’t mind? Let me just delve right into your…

Judy: Actually, I like to discuss mental health things because I think it gives people hope. I think it gives people a way to identify with people. I’m happy to talk about that.

Zibby: You wrote, “The first time I had a panic attack, I was sleeping next to my boyfriend Michael when surges of adrenaline and waves of panic suffocated me. I was afraid to wake him, so I rocked back and forth in bed as if in prayer until the sun came up, and then I dry-heaved the rest of the day. The panic attacks were exhausting, and hiding them from Michael, more so. I desperately wanted to be the perfect girlfriend, composed and supportive. Above all, I tried to will myself to be strong. I could not tell my boyfriend how disabled I felt.” Talk to me about that. That must have been really difficult to feel — panic attacks really take over your whole body. It’s a very physical manifestation of the anxiety. Talk about how it felt and then how you simultaneously had to hide it. That must have been very challenging.

Judy: It was very challenging. I think that panic attack was a before-and-after moment for me. Panic attacks have defined my life. I have been very, very lucky that I have gotten really good care subsequently, but it took twenty years to really figure out how to deal with them. It took twenty years to figure out that I needed medication to deal with them. I remember when I first met my husband, who is not Michael, decidedly not Michael, I remember telling my therapist, “I really want him to meet you so you can tell him what’s wrong with me.” He said, “There’s nothing wrong with you. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to tell your husband-to-be that you need fixing because you don’t need fixing.” Panic attacks are human. Mental health issues are human. We all have them. We all need to talk about them. We all need to be kind to each other about them. I would say that that moment was a defining moment for me. Until I took medication at the age of forty, I struggled at times. I struggled particularly after the birth of my kids, particularly with my daughter. I had a postpartum reaction. The thing about panic is it’s a very sneaky thing. You really feel like you’re going to lose control and you’re going to die. Those two things don’t ever happen. You don’t really lose control. You don’t die. It just feels awful.

For years, I kept it secret. I never told anybody about them because I was ashamed. Now I feel like I have to tell people. I feel like it’s almost a public service announcement so that people understand that they’re human and that there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s brain chemistry. It’s the emotional currency of your life. It encompasses your history. I just feel like it’s really important for people to know that. Anytime, anyplace, I’m happy to talk about mental health. In fact, my daughter — I have permission to say this because I wrote about it — also takes an antidepressant for panic attacks. She comes by it naturally. She took a gorgeous picture. There was a project that went to her college about mental health. There’s a beautiful picture of her with the word Lexapro written across her forehead. That picture just says so much. It says who she is. It says who her salvation was. We’re so lucky to be living in this day and age where we can be helped by these things. I write in the book about mental health. My Grandmother Bolton had a nervous breakdown and subsequently had what I’m certain was electroshock therapy. I think she had panic attacks. Nobody understood what they were in the 1920s and 30s.

Zibby: Don’t you wonder what they’re going to figure out in the next thirty years?

Judy: Yes, I do. I think about that all the time.

Zibby: By the time my kids have kids, they could be like, so your Grandma Zibby had anxiety and this and this and this. We’re going to test you for this. Now you just put this patch on you, and you don’t have to worry about it ever again. Wouldn’t that be great?

Judy: You’re good to go after that.

Zibby: It’ll be great to see what innovations come because just being able to manage something that makes you feel so isolated is huge. Think about a whole universe of people entering the world feeling okay versus feeling ashamed and terrible. It changes everything. I also think it’s super important to speak out about mental health stuff because it’s so pervasive anyway. We might as well.

Judy: Which is why I love that picture of my daughter with Lexapro written across her forehead. I think it’s so brave. It’s so wonderful that she can express that.

Zibby: It would be really great if she could just walk into the pharmacy and they could scan it so she wouldn’t have to get refills all the time. My dream. How long did it take for you to write this book? Was there a particular part that made you very emotional reliving?

Judy: It took me, on and off, sixteen years because it started out as a very different book. It started out as a book about the year I said the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, for my dad. I worked on that for probably about four years. I realized that the book didn’t have, really, an arc. It wasn’t of interest to anybody but me and my family. What was I going to do with that? I was with a friend visiting her in Israel. She said, “Sweetie, you have to go out and find someone who knew your father and really figure out these holes in the story that have you so perplexed and have you so obsessed.” That’s exactly what I did. On and off, it took me twelve years. I was doing things like raising children, freelancing. It took me a while. I think that I needed every minute of that time to finish it. I learned so much about writing itself. I learned so much about myself. I learned so much about myself as a mother and juggling this very emotional story. It’s funny you ask about parts that moved me. One writing teacher once asked me, “Did writing this make you cry? If it didn’t make you cry, then I think you need to go back and rewrite until some of it does make you cry.” There were moments that certainly made me cry as I revised. I thought about when I was pregnant and my father put his hand on his stomach. He was so ill. His hand was shaking from Parkinson’s. The Miami chapter sort of made me cry too because my parents were separated that summer. I remember, and it all came rushing back to me, how much I missed my dad that summer. That was also a very primary summer for me because it was the summer that I felt very Latinx and understood my mother’s culture. It was a summer of growth and it was a summer of sadness for me, but mixed in. I guess those two things are not mutually exclusive.

Zibby: It’s true. A lot of emotion comes with growth, any big change. I thought of you the other night. I read your book a week or two ago. I went and saw The Lehman Trilogy. Have you seen that play?

Judy: No.

Zibby: It’s closing soon, so you better hurry. I think they’re moving it to LA. It’s about the founders of Lehman Brothers. It’s really about immigration and identity and family and all the stuff. The Kaddish is said throughout the play. There are only three men in the play. The Kaddish is the soundtrack. It starts in the beginning. It goes throughout. They weave it through. It sort of reminded me of the way you wove the Kaddish — you still have a lot of the Kaddish in here. It echoed that same trajectory through the story. You might like it.

Judy: It sounds great. It sounds like something I would definitely like.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Judy: I have advice for women my age. This is my first book. This is my first published book. There are a few that are still in desk drawers, in the metaphorical desk drawers. I’m sixty. It happened at sixty. I know it’s easy and facile to say, don’t give up, but don’t give up. The notes that you’re taking on your phone in your notes app for whatever ideas you have for writing a book or an essay or even just a paragraph are important. They’re art. They count as writing. If you’re an artist and you’re sketching on a napkin at Chuck E. Cheese while your kid’s at a birthday party, that’s art. Keep making your art. There’s no expiration on it. There’s no expiration on your dreams. I speak for myself, but also, I’m in a writing group. A friend of mine who has been working on her memoir forever as well had an aha moment. We saw the umpteenth version of her — she brought it to writing group — the umpteenth version of her memoir. We thought, oh, my gosh, you hit it. You did it. The other thing is, be patient with yourself. These things take time. Art takes time. Getting your thoughts and sculpting them into some sort of shape, that takes time. Be good to yourself. Keep doing it. There’s no expiration. Another friend of mine published her first book at the age of eighty-one. I can’t say that enough. Just keep doing it. Keep taking those notes. Keep sketching on those napkins because it is going to count. It is going to be part of whatever art project or final project or book or painting you are going after.

Zibby: I love that. That is great advice. By the way, we have a publication on Medium called Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. I think you should write an essay called “It Happened at Sixty.” I think you should tell what you just said.

Judy: I would love to do that. I would absolutely love to do that. It happened at sixty, but it was happening all along. I was in the carpool lane making notes on the back of an envelope. It happens. Just keep doing it. There’s no conventional way to do it. There’s no right way to do it. There’s no formal way to do it. Just keep doing it. If the spirit is there, it will move you. You will achieve what you want to achieve.

Zibby: Perfect. I love it. Judy, thank you so much. Thank you for taking me along and teaching me about your family history and everything from your mom’s moods to your dad’s secrets to all of it. It was so interesting. I’m really glad you shared your story. For however many long years it took, as one of your many readers, I found it really fascinating. Thank you for doing it.

Judy: Thank you. Thank you for having me. It was really wonderful to talk to you, Zibby.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day, Judy. Buh-bye.

Judy: You too. Bye.

Judy Bolton-Fasman, ASYLUM

ASYLUM by Judy Bolton-Fasman

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