Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding
by Jessie Sholl
Trade Paperback Original, $15.00
This is a book about a dirty secret, the kind families try to hide behind the closed doors of a home. Jessie Sholl's memoir Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding captures the sense of shame that accompanies such secrecy. The secret could be substance abuse, alcoholism, or mental illness; in the case of Sholl's mother, the secret is inside the house, where even family members don't cross the threshold for years at a time.
The secret of Jessie Sholl's mother (Helen) reverberates through the writers' life, finally reaching a crisis when the writer receives a call from her mother. The news is bad: Sholl's mother has cancer. The reaction Sholl has is startling:
My first thought: My mother is going to die.
My second thought: I can finally clean her house. She hasn't let me inside for more that three years, not since the last time I cleaned--or rather gutted it.According to Sholl, an estimated six million Americans live this way, so trapped by clutter and junk that they live lives of isolation, sometimes endangering their health. It is a disturbing phenomenon that has become familiar to American viewers through various television programs that bring cameras into the homes of hoarders. If you've ever seen one of these shows, you know what the home of a hoarder looks like. As Sholl describes it, "every surface, every potential spot to sit down, is covered with junk. There's just so much junk, so much worthless, heartbreaking junk."
Hoarding was once thought to be the result of deprivation, then considered a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. There doesn't seem to be much agreement about the causes of hoarding, but brain scans show that hoarders have decreased activity in the areas related to memory, decision making, spatial orientation, and emotions. There may be a genetic component; often hoarding is triggered by a traumatic event.
For Helen, the trigger seems to have been the death of her boyfriend of ten years. Always something of a packrat, Sholl's mother seems to have responded to a devastating loss by hoarding. In her memoir, Sholl depicts Helen with humor, frustration, and finally with compassion. I can see her so clearly: a little roundish woman wearing a sweater coat, looking a little rumpled, laughing at the oddest things. The portrait of Helen is ultimately an affectionate one, although there are moments of frustration, anger, and despair. Sholl recognizes that her mother has "a mystifying mental illness that happens to have a depressingly low rate of recovery." And this memoir doesn't have a happy ending in the sense of a makeover show with a "reveal." At the end of Sholl's memoir Helen hasn't changed much, and her home is still in a state most of us would consider unlivable. What does change is the attitude Sholl has toward her mother and the towering problem that causes Sholl anguish, shame, and physical illness.
As I read this book I kept wondering what Sholl's mother would think of this memoir. Many of the memories Sholl writes about are sad, painful, and don't reflect well on her mother. And most of us would feel a scalding embarrassment and shame at the story of how Helen infects Jessie, Jessie's father and stepmother, and Jessie's husband with scabies from a pillow picked up at a consignment shop. The whole extended family goes through a traumatic bout of itching and futile attempts at treating the insects, while Helen vacillates between denial and self-punishing treatments, including bleach baths.
Dirty Secret is a memoir that faces painful truths. Sholl writes about her life without self-pity or blame. As she comes to terms with her mother's illness, Helen's often unintentionally cruel attempts at humor, and the far-reaching effects on the lives of those around her, the writer comes to view her mother with a measure of compassion. Toward the end of her memoir, Jessie Sholl imagines herself as a microscopic being, entering her mother's mind. In this scene the writer comprehends her mother's isolation, her confusion, and her fear. Without this scene Dirty Secret would have been a harsher book.
Sholl is a graceful writer, and she tells her story with enough humor and lightness that the reader isn't overwhelmed by the subject. Sholl's relationship with her husband, writer David Farley, acts as a counterbalance to her difficult relationship with her mother. Farley was a fellow-sufferer for many of the worst incidents of the book, and he comes across as the kindest of men. Sholl's father and stepmother, while they too have their problems, seem like beacons of sanity. And Sholl's dog, Abraham Lincoln, is a canine character in this memoir--the story of his rescue is one of the more compelling incidents of the memoir.
Hoarding is a strange and fascinating phenomenon, and Sholl gives the reader a sympathetic glimpse of the world of a hoarder. For readers who enjoy well-written memoir, and those interested in how a mental disorder can impact the lives of the sufferer and her family, Dirty Secret is well worth your time.