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DIRTY SECRET by Jessie Sholl

DIRTY SECRET

A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding

By Jessie Sholl

Pub Date: Dec. 28th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4391-9252-8
Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

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.