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Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding

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Overview

To be the child of a compulsive hoarder is to live in a permanent state of unease. Because if my mother is one of those crazy junk-house people, then what does that make me?

When her divorced mother was diagnosed with cancer, New York City writer Jessie Sholl returned to her hometown of Minneapolis to help her prepare for her upcoming surgery and get her affairs in order. While a daunting task for any adult dealing with an aging parent, it’s compounded for Sholl by one lifelong,...

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Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding

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Overview

To be the child of a compulsive hoarder is to live in a permanent state of unease. Because if my mother is one of those crazy junk-house people, then what does that make me?

When her divorced mother was diagnosed with cancer, New York City writer Jessie Sholl returned to her hometown of Minneapolis to help her prepare for her upcoming surgery and get her affairs in order. While a daunting task for any adult dealing with an aging parent, it’s compounded for Sholl by one lifelong, complex, and confounding truth: her mother is a compulsive hoarder. Dirty Secret is a daughter’s powerful memoir of confronting her mother’s disorder, of searching for the normalcy that was never hers as a child, and, finally, cleaning out the clutter of her mother’s home in the hopes of salvaging the true heart of their relationship—before it’s too late.

Growing up, young Jessie knew her mother wasn’t like other mothers: chronically disorganized, she might forgo picking Jessie up from kindergarten to spend the afternoon thrift store shopping. Now, tracing the downward spiral in her mother’s hoarding behavior to the death of a long-time boyfriend, she bravely wades into a pathological sea of stuff: broken appliances, moldy cowboy boots, twenty identical pairs of graying bargain-bin sneakers, abandoned arts and crafts, newspapers, magazines, a dresser drawer crammed with discarded eyeglasses, shovelfuls of junk mail . . . the things that become a hoarder’s “treasures.” With candor, wit, and not a drop of sentimentality, Jessie Sholl explores the many personal and psychological ramifications of hoarding while telling an unforgettable mother-daughter tale.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this peculiar exercise of catharsis, Sholl, a journalist in New York, reflects on her frequently mortifying experience growing up with a pathological hoarder. When her 63-year-old mother informed the author that she had to undergo surgery for colon cancer, Sholl was compelled to return to her hometown of Minneapolis and sign papers assuming ownership of her mother's house—a problematic place, which was already an alarming repository of junk in her grade-school years when her parents divorced and Sholl decided to live with her "normal" father and stepmother instead. Fired for being too slow at her job at a nursing home, Sholl's mother, Helen, is a troubled character with abandonment issues from her own parents, suffering from extreme indecisiveness and probable depression. Over the week-long visit, Sholl attempts to clean the house and contracts scabies, which subsequently spreads to her father and husband. Sholl's portrait of her mother is one of the most unflattering of recent memorable accounts; it's unflinching in its determination to reveal her shameful secret for the emotional liberation, one hopes, of both mother and daughter. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"Sholl explores the psychological reasons why being merely a pack rat can erupt into full-blown hoarding. By the end you're sympathetic to both mother and daughter and understand how a parent's obsession can become a child's."
People magazine, 3.5 stars (out of 4)

"With her bold prose and ceaseless courage, Jessie Sholl tells a mother-daughter story like no other. Get ready for a visceral read: just a few pages in to DIRTY SECRET, you'll be scratching your ankles, dabbling your eyes, and — when you're finished — frantically cleaning your house."
- Stephanie Elizondo Griest, author of "Around the Bloc" and "Mexican Enough"

"Mining a story of damage inflicted and damage sustained, Jessie Sholl conjures a narrative of surprising interconnectedness, even uplift. Wry and illuminating, Dirty Secret is an empathic and insightful memoir."
—Dave King, author of THE HA-HA

"When a grown child tells the story of a troubled parent, three things are needed: exacting detail, unflinching honesty, and - most of all - unconditional love. Jessie Sholl's "Dirty Secret" beautifully contains them all."
- Dan Koeppel, author of "To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, A Son, and A Lifelong Obsession"

"Suspenseful and novel-like, Dirty Secret is a wonderful, respectful introduction to the world of a hoarder and the tribulations suffered by both the individual who hoards and their family members."
— Fugen Neziroglu, Ph.D. author of Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding: Why You Save and How You Can Stop

"From a literal mess of a childhood, Sholl has emerged to tell a compelling and sparkling-clean story that will captivate anyone who has ever tried to let go of the past."
-Elisabeth Eaves, author of "Bare" and Wanderlust"

"Sholl coaxes tragicomic elements from the depressing proceedings—as when everyone contracted a seemingly incurable case of scabies, courtesy of her mother’s hellhole, or the time she discovered the cremated remains of her mother’s longtime boyfriend buried under a pile of yarn, two lava lamps and a stack of old newspapers. Most poignant, though, is the secret shame and embarrassment of her mother’s strangeness that Sholl lugged around for so many years. Eventually, she found sympathy and understanding... Affecting and illuminating."
- Kirkus Reviews

"[Sholl] offers a compelling and compassionate perspective on an illness suffered by an estimated six million Americans that has only recently been explored through reality television programs."
- Booklist

Kirkus Reviews

Freelance writer Sholl (Creative Writing/New School Univ.; co-editor: Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic, 2006) humanizes her mother's disorder of hoarding.

When the author received a phone call from her mother, Helen, who told her she had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to sign her house over to Sholl due to rising medical expenses, she was saddened by the news but also appalled at the idea of owning the house, which was filthy, grease-caked and dust-choked, clogged to the eaves with "just so much junk, so much worthless, heartbreaking junk." But Sholl, her mother's keeper since childhood, dutifully went to care for her and clean up her mess. While there, the author took a long look at her mother's unsteady mental state, reliving episodes of outlandish behavior that now found expression in hoarding, a lack of self-awareness, immunity to criticism, disorganization and neglectfulness. And there was more in her Helen's past, deeper, darker stuff like abandonment and physical abuse that spilled over into Sholl's life. Meanwhile, the author was looking for a reliable, nurturing mother under the moth-eaten, knee-length sweaters, of which there were 130 more at home. In a pleasant surprise, Sholl coaxes tragicomic elements from the depressing proceedings—as when everyone contracted a seemingly incurable case of scabies, courtesy of her mother's hellhole, or the time she discovered the cremated remains of her mother's longtime boyfriend buried under a pile of yarn, two lava lamps and a stack of old newspapers. Most poignant, though, is the secret shame and embarrassment of her mother's strangeness that Sholl lugged around for so many years. Eventually, she found sympathy and understanding. "The more I talked about my mother's compulsive hoarding," she writes, "the weaker my secret became. Until it was gone."

Affecting and illuminating.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439192528
  • Publisher: Gallery Books
  • Publication date: 12/28/2010
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 318
  • Sales rank: 491,509
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jessie Sholl

Jessie Sholl's essays and stories have appeared in national newspapers and journals. She is coeditor of the nonfiction anthology Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic and a contributor to EverydayHealth.com. She holds an MFA from The New School University, where she currently teaches creative writing.

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Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE

DON’T KICK ME OUT!” MY MOTHER SAYS WHEN I PICK UP the phone. It’s a little hard to understand her, though, because she’s laughing so hard.

“What are you talking about?”

She can’t be considering inflicting a visit on me. That is not going to happen.

“I’m putting my house in your name,” my mother says. “You have to promise not to kick me out after it’s yours.”

“I don’t want your house,” I say. “You couldn’t pay me to take your house.”

“You have to take it.” She stops laughing. “I have cancer.”

My first thought: My mother is going to die.

My second thought: I can finally clean her house. She hasn’t let me inside in more than three years, not since the last time I cleaned—or, rather, gutted, it.

David, my husband, is standing in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen, watching me. I mouth the words Cancer, my mom has cancer, but he doesn’t understand. And why would he? I don’t understand what’s happening myself.

“Mom, please. Just tell me what’s going on.”

“Okay,” she says, sounding suddenly drained of all energy. “I had a colonoscopy and they found a polyp and it’s malignant. I have colon cancer. I want the house in your name in case the bills are higher than my insurance—that way they can’t take it away.”

“What did your doctor say? Tell me exactly what he said.”

At this, my husband comes over and sits down next to me on the couch. He lifts our dog, Abraham Lincoln, onto my lap, thinking his presence will comfort me, but I shake my head and allow the dog to squirm off. I already feel myself floating away from here, already mentally searching for a way to fix my mother, like always.

“They won’t really have a prognosis until the surgery,” she says. “But with the house in your name, it’ll be yours no matter what.”

She says it as if she’d be bestowing the most spectacular palace upon me, rather than what her house really is: the source of so many years of frustration, embarrassment, and grief. I can’t imagine anything worse than being legally responsible for that house. Except my mother having cancer.

“Jessie, will you do it?” She pleads. “Will you let me put my house in your name?”

“Will you let me clean?”

“Yes.” Her lack of hesitation makes me even more worried. She must not think her chances are good.

“Okay.”

*
• *

MY MOTHER IS a compulsive hoarder. She’s one of those people who dies because the firemen couldn’t get through the piles of newspapers and clothes and books and shoes and garbage, whose junglelike lawn makes the whole block look shoddier, whose friends and neighbors are shocked when they finally see the house’s interior: They had no idea their friend/daughter/nurse/teacher lived that way. They had no idea anyone could live that way. Yet an estimated six million Americans do.

I’ve long searched for the perfect concoction of begging, conniving, and bribing that would finally make my mother throw out the trash and keep her house clean. Because I know that if I could get her to unclutter her house, her cluttered mind would follow: Somewhere under all the filth is a reliable mother, a consistent and compassionate mother; somewhere under the heaps of moth-eaten sweaters and secondhand winter coats, the cardboard boxes kept because they’re “just such good quality,” the jar after jar of unopened jumbo-sized facial scrubs and green clay masks and aloe vera skin creams, the plastic forks and dirty paper plates and gum wrappers and dried-out pens and orphaned Popsicle sticks. Every surface covered, crowded with layer upon layer of stuff. I know she’s in there; I just have to find her.

I make the preparations to fly to my hometown of Minneapolis from New York City, where I’ve lived for most of the last decade. I tell no one that while I’m in Minneapolis for my mother’s surgery the majority of my time will be spent filling up garbage bags and hauling trash from her house, that my muscles will ache so badly I’ll barely be able to lift a coffee mug to my lips, that only an hour-long soak in a scalding-hot bath at my dad and stepmom’s house at the end of each day will erase the layers of filth and grime from my skin. Only my husband knows that part. I tell no one else because it’s my secret. And I tell no one at all that in spite of our complicated relationship, the thought of her dying is absolutely unbearable and that if that happened I would be shattered into a million pieces and there would be no way, no one, to put me back together.

© 2011 Jessie Sholl

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 80 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(32)

4 Star

(23)

3 Star

(15)

2 Star

(6)

1 Star

(4)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 80 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 12, 2011

    A Must Read for Every Daughter

    Five stars for Jessie Sholl's moving memoir, Dirty Secret. Not only does this book shed light on the psyche of a compulsive hoarder, it does so with intelligence, wit, and incredible compassion. This is more than a "tell-all" about what it's like to grow up with a mother who has a clinical condition; it is also a story about the incredible love, patience and understanding that is necessary for any relationship to survive: daughter and mother, daughter and father, and wife and husband. The author describes what she went through to hold all of these relationships together when her world seemed to be caving in around her, triggered by having to confront her mother's life-long hoarding problem following a cancer diagnosis. And in the end she shows us that sometimes in order to keep someone dear to us in our lives, we must hold them a little further away from us, so that everyone has the space they need to live... and continue to love. She is a talented author who bravely writes about some incredibly difficult and personal challenges in her life, and in doing so reveals what a sensitive and compassionate human being she is as well.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2010

    Brilliant and haunting

    This is no ordinary mother-daughter tale. Sholl's brilliant writing hooks you in the first sentence, and doesn't let up even after the last page (How could I ever stop thinking about this book?) A true tale of her mentally-ill mother's compulsive hoarding, the book is fierce, funny, deeply compassionate, and impossible to put down. I cannot wait for her next book, but right now I'm still compulsively thinking about this one.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2012

    Not for everyone

    If you do not have a hoarder in your life I can understand how this may seem like the author is just bashing her mother. As the daughter of a hoarder there is no way I could ever explain how relieved I was to find out I am not the only adult child that has to deal with this dirty secret.
    This book gave me the tools to deal with my own mother, and finally be able to stand up to her. Now she knows I will no longer be the one to clean up all her messes.
    I only gave it 4 stars because I know it is not for everyone, but I have recomended it to others who deal with a hoarder in their lives.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 23, 2011

    I think this is my mother!

    Jessie lived a horrid life like many of us children of hoarders have. This book is simply written and so easy to relate to. I'm sure this book with not only encourage young people who are still living in these grim situations, but give them hope to know there is light at the end of the tunnel. One day you can leave and no longer hide your parents dirty secret and the shame that comes with it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 30, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    I loved this book and I am telling all my friends that they should make a point of reading!!! It tells us a story about hoarding from the daughters perspective and how it has influenced her life. LOVED IT!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 30, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    An intriguingly intimate look at the effects of hoarding

    As I deal with my own "collecting" tendencies,I find morbidly fascinating the topic of hoarding. I watch TV programs and read articles related to the behavior to better understand, monitor, and regulate my own impulses. I ran across this book while on a Nook search. After I read the synopsis, of course I downloaded it.

    I wasn't disappointed.

    Jessica Sholl lets us into her tormented experience, and allows us full access to her feelings about herself and her relationship with her mother, the hoarder. For most of her life, despite her best efforts to get away from them, Sholl's mother's problems were the guiding force in her life.

    It's difficult to understand how we can continue to love someone who causes us so much pain and brings so much difficulty into our personal lives with their confounding behavior. Most of us have been there. Sholl manages to admirably illustrate this most human phenomenon in her book.

    There were places where I felt the story meandered a bit, but sooner or later Sholl usually managed to let me know why the side trip had been necessary one. She's good at wrapping up the important loose ends. Definitely NOT a hoarder- any more anyway.

    A very worthwhile read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 26, 2011

    oh god..This is awful

    I can understand writing about your mother and her hoarding. This was just awful. The author did nothing but whine about her problems and to tell you the truth I didn't finish the book. Let's pin all lifes problems on others and not deal with what lfe throws at us. I'm not sure who has the worst problem, the author or her mother. The author needs to seek counseling for her issues in life. Don't waste your time.

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 23, 2011

    great read

    i really liked this story, and learned alot about the disease. makes me want to read other books on the subject.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2011

    Great book, couldn't put it down

    Having very little personal exposure to mental illness, I found this book fascinating. The mind is a mysterious thing, and the insight the book provides into how and why some people hoard and live in such filthy environments (including a bad case of scabies) was eye-opening. The writing is very good, and I was captivated by the author's struggle with her overwhelming desire/need to clean her mother's house and, in at least that way, to "fix" her mother. Despite the fact that her mother clearly lacked your standard motherly skills (understatement) and their relationship is very complicated, the author clearly loves her and wants her to be happy.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2012

    Spirit

    Glares at her s l u t

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2012

    Mystery

    Watches jackson

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2012

    Sadie to girl

    * pushes u agianst wall and winks*

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2012

    a funny and gentle commentary on hoarding

    The author's journey from a child embarassed by her mothers odd behavior to an adult trying to help her mentally ill parent without losing herself and without harming her mother. Well written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2011

    a very long monologue of problems

    As much as I sympathize with Ms. Sholl, this is a lot of problems to hear about in one book. I was so thankful when she finally had a breakthrough and realized she couldn't fix her mom. Honestly, I wasn't sure she was ever going to get there. I really think I could have lived a very full life without this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 28, 2011

    Very readable!

    I have zero connection to hoarding but a friend whose taste I trust recommended Dirty Secret. It reads like novel--smooth, intriguing with a captivating narrative arc--and is educational. Sholl proves to be an amiable narrator as she--kind of a spoiler alert!--comes to terms with her mother's mental illness and accepts her for how she is.

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    Posted January 2, 2011

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    Posted October 7, 2011

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    Posted March 20, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2011

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    Posted February 19, 2011

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