When Olivia Judson’s father died in 2011, she and her brother were tasked with the overwhelming job of sorting through a 30-year-accumulation of “stuff” that filled her parents’ Baltimore home.
But the collection of objects that brimmed from every room wasn’t just the standard collection of books and furniture. Instead, it included diaries, professional memos from the ’60s and ’70s, Russian propaganda posters, dishes purloined from high-end hotels, Crick and Watson’s original DNA model and so much more.
Judson joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss what she calls “The Task.”
Interview Highlights: Olivia Judson
When she first started going through her parents’ belongings
“The first thing that happened is I felt incredibly overwhelmed. I cried, I said to my brother we’re never going to get out of here. It’s going to take us 200 years to leave. You know, getting rid of people’s possessions is partly getting rid of them… My mother had died extremely suddenly in May of 1993 and none of us had ever gone through her letters or her personal papers or her photograph albums, and in fact I left that until the last, even once we started doing the task. And I discovered things about her I really hadn’t known. I mean, she had kept at the bottom of an old trunk I found all of her party invitations from when she was a teenager. You know, she died when I was only 23 and so in many ways I feel that I never really got to know who she was, between two adults.”
On going through her parents’ letters and diaries
“It’s very difficult to go through someone else’s letters. I mean, it feels quite intrusive and reading somebody’s diaries, even more so… I did end up reading the diaries. It was something for a very long time I just kept them. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read them and I had a dialogue with myself about why I kept diaries, because I thought if I could understand why I was keeping them, I would have a clearer idea of how to read someone else’s. And so I thought a lot about the fact that sometimes when I’m writing in my own journal it’s because I’m in a bad mood, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect who I normally am. And so I decided to read them with as much openness and non-judgementalness as I could generate. And actually they were fascinating, and the thing that I really discovered is that she was a lot more like me than I realized. I think you could my diaries and read hers and not be sure who had written them.”
On feelings of regret after a loved one dies
“I think one of the biggest causes of melancholy is this feeling that there are conversations that you would like to have that you can never have. And yet at the same time, you do have them. They kind of go on in your head. But I think there are certainly things that one ends up regretting. I mean, there was a moment when my father wrote a letter to a friend talking about how lonely he was and I realized that I could’ve gone to see him at that particular moment, for example. And so you also want to say, hey look you know I’m really sorry. There are things that I would have done differently if I could have.”
- Olivia Judson, evolutionary biologist and writer.