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

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

by Jessie Sholl


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439192528
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 12/28/2010
Edition description: Original
Pages: 318
Sales rank: 566,418
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt


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.


* * *

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

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Dirty Secret includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jessie Sholl. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding, Jessie Sholl offers her readers a vivid look into the life of a hoarder’s family. Her mother’s curious disease, said to affect millions of Americans, causes Jessie to feel shame, embarrassment, and an unending desire to “cure” something she cannot fix. Through her mother’s battles with compulsive hoarding and colon cancer, her father’s serious heart attack, and a particularly stubborn scabies infestation, Jessie Sholl weaves together a new picture of a previously misunderstood disorder.


1. “Maybe this time it’ll work. Maybe this time it’ll stay clean” (page 10). Throughout the memoir, Jessie’s hopes are repeatedly raised and dashed as she tries to “fix” her mother’s illness. Find a moment in the book in which Jessie is particularly hopeful, and one in which she is plagued by hopelessness. What feelings does Jessie associate with each instance?

2. Though Helen and Jessie have always had a tumultuous relationship, Jessie quickly makes her way to Minneapolis when she finds out about her mother’s cancer. What does this say about their mother/daughter relationship? How does it relate to any mother/ daughter relationships you’ve been personally involved in?

3. “Clearly, Roger’s death had triggered my mother’s true hoarding. And what disturbed me most was that she couldn’t even tell” (page 16). Helen acknowledges that she is a hoarder, yet Jessie suspects she does not see the full extent of her disorder. Do you think there are moments when Helen feels remorse for her actions? If so, cite specific examples and discuss what may have triggered Helen’s awareness.

4. “Also, like many hoarders, my mother reports feeling safer when she’s surrounded by her possessions . . .” (page 27). Has there ever been a material object that you felt close to, one that made you feel safe? Discuss your feelings with the group. Why do you think this particular object drew so much of your attention? Can you imagine feeling that way about all of your material possessions, the way Helen does in the book?

5. What does each person in Dirty Secret fear the most? How do these fears affect his or her life, and do you think anyone has overcome his or her fear by the end of the book? If so, how?

6. One of the symptoms of compulsive hoarding is extreme indecision, a symptom Helen suffers from continuously throughout the book. How do you make difficult decisions? Discuss your decision-making tactics with the group. Has there ever been a time when you had difficulty making an important decision? How did you feel?

7. Sandy and Helen have some obvious differences, but are there any ways in which they are similar? Discuss with your group to see if you can find any hidden similarities.

8. “I liked having rules. I liked knowing that someone was aware of my whereabouts, that an adult was paying attention” (page 42). Teenage rebelliousness is common in our society, yet Jessie admits to craving structure. How do you reconcile her simultaneous desires to rebel as well as to adhere to a set of rules?

9. According to Jessie, she first became rebellious when she turned thirteen. To what extent do you think her rebellion was a reaction to her mother’s disorder? To what extent do you think it was natural teenage inclination?

10. “There’s no demonstrable link between hoarding and early material deprivation. But there is a link between hoarding and emotional deprivation. . . . Her cold and chaotic childhood home was the perfect breeding ground for the mental illness that would end up affecting us all” (page 81). Look back on the passages in which Helen’s childhood is depicted. Did they change the way you felt about Helen? If so, how?

11. “I get a thrill each time I discard something. Getting rid of things is liberating. It’s invigorating. It’s easy” (page 150). Do you think that Jessie’s need to throw things away is a reaction to her mother’s disorder? Discuss how your parents’ actions when you were a child affected your behavior today; in what way does your behavior mirror or reject your parents’ behaviors?

12. When Jessie and David’s potential subletter calls their apartment “dirty,” Jessie has a very strong reaction. Why do you think this was the case?

13. “I thought she’d finally understood the effect her behavior has had on me. I thought she even felt bad about it. I was wrong” (page 270). To what extent do you think Helen is aware of the pain she causes others, particularly Jessie? Are there moments in the book in which Helen is more acutely aware of her actions and their repercussions?

14. “And then I recognize it: Like stumbling upon the remains of a village buried by lava, the evidence of my last cleanup attempt lives on underneath. . . .” (pages 13–14). Why do you think Jessie continues to clean her mother’s house after numerous failed attempts? In the end, what is it that finally causes Jessie to separate herself from the house for good… at least, for now?

15. Toward the end of the book, Jessie remembers old advice she picked up during her mother’s time at The Club: “You can’t change anyone else. You can only change yourself ” (page 299). After numerous attempts, do you think Jessie is successful in any way in changing her mother? Similarly, what changes do you see in Jessie over the course of the book?

16. While hoarding is a specific disease, does it remind you of other illnesses such as alcoholism or drug addiction? Do Helen and Jessie’s struggles seem similar to those in a parent-child relationship when the parent has an alcohol or drug problem? In what ways are their struggles unique because of Helen’s hoarding?


  1. As a group, watch some of the popular television shows that focus on hoarding. Then, re-read the generally accepted definition of hoarding found on page 21. Discuss: In what ways do you think hoarding is depicted accurately in pop culture? In which ways to do you feel it is falsified, or sensationalized?
  2. Split your discussion group into two sections. Have one section make a timeline of the major turning points in Jessie’s life and the other make a timeline of the major turning points in Helen’s. After both timelines are completed, look for the major similarities and differences between the two. Then, discuss: Did the timelines add to your understanding of Jessie and Helen’s relationship? Of Helen’s disorder? If so, how?
  3. If you’re feeling particularly brave, do a Google search for “scabies,” like Jessie did. Warning: The results are not pretty. However, they may add to your understanding of the family’s bout with the disease.
  4. On page 239, Jessie offers a beautiful description of the village where she and David lived outside Rome. Try to find more information about and pictures of other villages that surround the city of Rome. If you were to create an “Italian self,” like Jessie does on the plane, what would your “Italian self” be like?
  5. To learn more about author Jessie Sholl and read her blog, visit her website at www.jessie-sholl.com.


In her review of Dirty Secret, author Stephanie Elizondo Griest applauds you for your “ceaseless courage.” Where did you find the courage to begin writing such a personal book? Did the project become emotionally overwhelming at any point?

First of all, I don’t feel particularly brave, and I’m very flattered by the idea that I had ceaseless courage. I wish it were true! The book began—in my head, anyway—about six or seven years ago; one day I happened to tell my husband about how I used to stare out the windows of my elementary school when I was ten and gaze back and forth between my mother’s house and my dad and my stepmom’s, and about the very different visceral reactions I had when I looked at each house. It was just a short anecdote, but as soon as I was done he said, “You know you need to write about this, right?” which of course I laughed off. But it ended up being the first scene I wrote for Dirty Secret.

It wasn’t until I started writing health articles that I began to really think seriously about working on a book about hoarding. Especially after I joined the Children of Hoarders support group, because the shame and embarrassment that we all carry/carried around is just so ridiculous and unnecessary. Also, what helped while I wrote Dirty Secret was to push aside the thought that anyone was ever going to read it. Anytime I’ve written about myself I do that. I find it freeing and extremely helpful. In terms of the project becoming emotionally overwhelming, it did, but only after I turned it in to my editor. The next day a serious exhaustion hit me and all I wanted to do was sleep for weeks.

Were you concerned at all about how your mom would react to the book?

I wasn’t concerned because I asked her permission before I wrote a word of it—if she’d objected at all, I wouldn’t have written it. Thankfully, she was absolutely supportive of the idea. She read most of the book before it was published and loved it.

Dirty Secret is the first memoir to be written by the child of a compulsive hoarder. How do you feel about breaking into uncharted territory?

I’m proud to be the first person to write a memoir about it, but I don’t feel particularly groundbreaking—I’m sure that if I hadn’t done it, someone else would have sooner rather than later. I’m just happy to get people talking about how hoarding affects families, and I’ll be thrilled if my book allows others to feel freer about exposing their secrets.

In recent years, the concept of “hoarding” has gone mainstream; people have familiarized themselves with the term through popular television shows like Hoarders, CleanHouse, and Clean Sweep. What are your feelings about the presence of compulsive hoarding in national media and pop culture? Do you think it is accurately depicted?

Overall, I think the television shows about hoarding are good thing. Occasionally they can feel exploitative, but I like the fact that now when I say “my mother is a compulsive hoarder,” almost everyone understands what I’m talking about. Before Dirty Secret was published and when the television shows were just beginning, I’d have people who didn’t know what hoarding was—they’d never heard of it. After a while of me trying to explain they’d say something like, “Oh, right, a crazy cat lady!” Now people are beginning to understand that hoarding is a mental illness, just like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

In general, I think the shows accurately depict hoarded homes, although it’s important to remember that they usually show the most egregious cases. Hoarding itself is a difficult disorder to accurately depict in a one-hour show because, in my opinion, it’s very rare to find a person who is just a hoarder. There are so many mental illnesses that go along with it—and each individual is unique in their afflictions and levels of the afflictions—so to really delve into the psychology of each hoarder on the show would require a mini-series at the least.

At the end of the book, you mention that other people reacted positively when you told them about your mother’s disorder; many of them said they had a personal connection to hoarding as well. Did this surprise you?

This absolutely shocked me. I would say that the most rewarding part of writing the book so far has been those moments when someone tells me about their mother, brother, cousin being a hoarder; every time I hear it I feel less freakish, and it seems the person does as well. I also really appreciate the fact that no one has ever judged me harshly for being the daughter of a hoarder. No one. Maybe that expression is true: all our secrets are the same. I only wish I’d known it earlier, because I spent way too long being ashamed of something that didn’t warrant it.

On page 225, you describe your feelings of hesitation as you considered joining the Children of Hoarders online support group. What advice would you give to someone who was experiencing similar hesitations?

I would say that I understand the hesitation, but to go for it. You can always join under a pseudonym and lurk until you feel comfortable posting. There’s so much to learn and it’s just an incredible feeling to find people who understand exactly how you feel. It changed everything for me.

Did you have to do a lot of research for this book, or did most of your knowledge of the disorder come from years of having been in such close proximity to it?

I did a lot of research for the book. I read everything I could get my hands on: books, academic articles and studies, interviews with experts; I also interviewed one of the most renowned specialists in the field. I enjoy the research process, so it didn’t feel like work at all. I think having been in such close proximity to hoarding helped in terms of recognizing parts of it—for example, the information-processing deficits that most hoarders have—but otherwise, before I began the writing and the research I really didn’t know much more about the disorder itself than, say, a viewer of "Hoarders" or "Hoarding: Buried Alive."

You’ve written numerous articles about health-related issues. Do you find that your research process is different for an article about an issue that hasn’t affected you personally? Similarly, which did you find easier to write—a work you could distance yourself from or one that was so inevitably tied to your own life like Dirty Secret?

That’s a good question. The process of writing Dirty Secret compared to an article (besides the obvious fact that my health articles are not book-length), was different in that I had to think of it in terms of scenes, with information about hoarding worked in throughout. I started out as a fiction writer, so I’m used to thinking in terms of arc and story, and I think (I hope!) that helped in terms of the narrative structure. And being part of the story, rather than writing as an outsider looking at a disease I’d never encountered, probably made it a little easier overall. But in terms of the research, it was pretty much the same: search for articles and studies, contact experts for interviews, hope they’ll get back to you, and so on.

Could you recommend some books or websites for people who want to learn more about compulsive hoarding?

I highly recommend a fascinating documentary about a daughter dealing with her mother’s hoarding called “My Mother’s Garden,” by Cynthia Lester. There’s also a wonderful young adult novel called Dirty Little Secrets by Cynthia Omololu— the hoarding details are spot-on, plus it’s suspenseful and well written. The book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Drs. Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee uses case studies to explain hoarding in easily understandable terms.

As for websites, I would recommend starting with Children of Hoarders (www.childrenofhoarders.com). Even if you aren’t the child of a hoarder you can look at the main page where they have an extremely thorough list of links and lots of information that’s fitting, no matter where you fall on the spectrum—a child of a hoarder, a sibling, or maybe someone who’s just curious about it and wants to know more. If you are the child of a hoarder I also strongly encourage you to look at websites for adult children of alcoholics. In terms of aftereffects, the overlap between children of hoarders and children of alcoholics is huge.

What project are you currently working on?

I’ve just begun working on a literary thriller- type novel about two sisters. I’m also really fascinated by phobias—their history and potential cures—and hope to write about them someday.

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Dirty Secret 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 80 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
SaraMurphyNYC More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
lynn11 More than 1 year ago
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.
wendyric More than 1 year ago
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!
motorcityghurl More than 1 year ago
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.
Kellie Gaunya More than 1 year ago
i really liked this story, and learned alot about the disease. makes me want to read other books on the subject.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
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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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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.
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