When Jessie’s cancer-stricken mother makes a phone call asking her to fly out to sign the legal paperwork that would give her possession of her home when she passes, Jessie comes face to face with the reality of what has plagued her mother for years: hoarding. Although she knew her mother hoarded, nothing could prepare Jessie for what she was about to face head on — piles and piles of stuff, much of it in bags with tags still attached. While sitting in the lawyer’s office, Jessie debates whether or not she even wants the responsibility of the home in the future. Is the time and effort worth it?
As you may be aware, I have an interest in hoarding. In reading Sholl’s book, I found a unique take on the mental illness — here, the hoarding isn’t really at the center of the book nor is it made glamorous or hideous (as it has been on certain television shows). Instead, we have an honest exploration of family dynamics and relationships, many of which have little to do with the hoarding itself.
Sholl is an honest and, at times, perfectly snarky narrator: we see her ups and downs right along with her mother. What I found refreshing about her was her voice and her ability to not wallow in her sadness nor seek pity for what she’s dealt with in her life. As the child of divorce with a brother who has all together left the family, it’d be easy for her to go the pity route, but she doesn’t. Instead, she’s fair in her treatment of her mother and her mother’s problem, supplementing her impressions and experiences with research.
While cleaning her mother’s home, Jessie begins to notice a few mysterious bumps on her ankle. She ignores them, but when she flies back home to New York, it’s not long before they’re getting bigger and itchier. Then she passes them on to her husband. She thinks she may have been bitten by something while cleaning, and when she calls her mother, she says it’s entirely possible that the used pillow on her bed may be the culprit. But rather than get rid of the pillow, Jessie’s mother has kept it. It takes years of different treatments before Jessie and her husband are able to rid themselves of the bites.
I bring this aspect of the book up because I think it spoke well to how the memoir is structured — much of Jessie’s experience with her mother is like her experience with these bites. It’s an issue she can only ignore so long before it sneaks back up and demands attention. Although I thought this particular issue dragged on a little too long in the book, the parallel itself was done well while also giving a vivid picture of what her mother’s living situation is. Mom knows she lives among bugs and knows precisely where they’re coming from, but she cannot let herself let go of the object where they reside.
The fusion of fact and experience in this book is seamless; in fact, this may have been one of the most seamless memoirs of this ilk I’ve read. We learn, for example, that her mother is a “clean” hoarder, differentiated from those who are “squalor” hoarders, food hoarders, or animal hoarders. Clean hoarders don’t live among putrid water, piles animal or human feces, and generally don’t keep rotting food in their homes. Squalor hoarders are often so ashamed of their homes they don’t let repair people in when issues arise and thus often do not have running water or sometimes even gas or electricity. Another fact that struck me was that hoarding isn’t an American-based problem which many assume given our culture’s obsession with consumption; it’s a condition found on every continent on Earth, except for Antarctica. In fact, the illness might not be most prevalent in America — in Melbourne, Australia, it’s reported that 1 in 4 people who die in a house fire are hoarders. These bits of research further contextualize Jessie’s mothers problem and they help us as readers understand where she and her mother come from.
Dirty Secret is a must read for anyone who has an interest in shows like Hoarders or Clean House. The voice is honest but offers enough humor to make the sad situations (because this is extremely saddening to read about, particularly through the eyes of a family member impacted) easier to read. This isn’t a quick read nor one that offers a lot of conclusions. At times, the off-topic issues such as Jessie’s repetitive stress injury challenge compete with the bigger picture, but this is still a book worth reading. There is sensitivity in discussing a mental issue that has become a bit of a perverted interest in the last few years.
Readers interested in psychology will find this a satisfying read, as well those with an interest in well-written and approachable memoirs that stray from the trope of addiction and recovery. I found this to be an excellent companion to my reading experiences with Omololu’s fictional account of a daughter of a hoarder and Frost and Stekee’s non-fictional explanation of hoarding — this is where those two come together.
* Book accepted for review from author pitch.