Everyone has a dirty secret. Jessie Sholl’s Dirty Secret is that her mother is a compulsive hoarder. This memoir shares an inside look at what it’s like to deal with a parent’s hoarding as an adult, as well as recollections from childhood. Sholl is a professional writer with a background in health articles, and she artfully weaves the occasional tidbit from her research into the narrative. This book is a must-read for children of hoarders. It would be a particularly fantastic read for those who struggle with attachment to stuff, because of the insight it gives into how it affects family members.
Sholl begins by quoting her mom, who asked that this book be written with radical honesty. She says that her mother read most of it before publication and enjoyed it. This is important to know going in, because many people feel intense shame around hoarding and squalor. Sensitive readers might worry about guiltily consuming an “unauthorized biography” type of book. This was written with love and respect.
Also annoyance, frustration, and the full range of emotions anyone experiences in a complicated, challenging relationship with a parent.
I work with hoarders, and Sholl’s description of her mom’s hoarded house sounds pitch-perfect to me. The enthusiasm with which my people acquire craft supplies, books, clothes, and random treasures shows here, as well as the chronic inability to keep any of it organized or complete the projects that had been initiated. There’s the same fixation with buying “gifts” for various people, gifts that rarely manage to be sent. Compulsive accumulators poignantly interpret their feelings of affectionate regard through purchases. The warmth I feel toward this object is a feeling I associate with you, so I’ll get it for you, even though you probably won’t understand why when you see it (if ever). Hoarding is a really lonely issue to have.
It shouldn’t be, though; it’s a lot more common than people seem to realize. Sholl herself may not have known this yet when she wrote the book. She was very surprised to learn that a couple of her friends also had hoarders in the family. Based on my gut instinct and experience, I think it affects about one in five households in the US to some degree. Hoarding is so prevalent that there must be literally millions of people who grew up in a hoarded home. Many of my people are buried in clutter basically because that’s how they were raised, and it never occurred to them that there was any other way.
Sholl rebels against her childhood by moving frequently as an adult. She’s also a compulsive minimalist. She describes purging objects so ruthlessly and so frequently that she may have thrown away her grad school diploma. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat while reading this; Sholl and I are the same age, have the same first name, and yeah, we both tend to move our furniture around a lot and feel allergic to clutter. My interest in minimalism has renewed and deepened every time I’ve done a photo consult, much less a home visit. Just reading this book made me grab a donation bag and start chucking things into it. Our restless desire for clear surfaces and white space is probably similar to a hoarder’s preference for a crowded nest.
Sholl asks her mother what it feels like when she buys something new. She describes it as feeling like this particular object might change her life. I call it ‘swirly eyes.’ Maybe that’s the same feeling many of us chase as we strive for a pure minimalist aesthetic: the feeling that if we can get the space designed just right, it might change our life, too. Ultimately, we can only change ourselves.
I found this book gripping, disquieting, provocative, and sometimes pretty funny. It was particularly funny when I read through certain scenes and started scratching at myself, feeling like my skin was crawling! It’s a good read, one that would make a solid introduction to hoarding for the uninitiated. There’s an extensive bibliography, as well as a reader’s guide. Dirty Secret may well be the definitive guide to having a parent who hoards.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.