For years Jessie Sholl had a secret—her mother, Helen, was a compulsive hoarder, stuffing her house with secondhand sweaters and broken appliances. In her memoir, Dirty Secret, Sholl reveals her struggle to clean her mother’s house while coming to terms with her turbulent childhood. Kirkus recently talked to Sholl about how her life has changed since she let out her “dirty secret.”
In the book’s dedication, you wrote that your mother asked you to use “radical honesty.” Now that the book’s complete, has your mother read it?
I sent her a galley, and she really liked it. I was very relieved to hear that. I got permission from her ahead of time, but I was still nervous.
Throughout the book, you try to get your mother to acknowledge how she treated you as a child, such as scaring you with toy snakes. Was she apologetic after reading about what she had done to you?
My mom is just kind of who she is. I just have to accept her and her reality, which is a little bit different from mine and a lot of people’s. It’s so hard to explain because she’ll have moments of clarity where she’ll say, “Wow, I really see how I affected you, and I’m really sorry,” but then the next minute it’s, “Well, my childhood was so much worse.”
What is life like now that the secret of your mother’s hoarding is out?
The reactions from people have just been incredible. I’ve had friends come forward and tell me, “My mom’s a hoarder, too.” I had no idea. All of us have been hiding it from each other all these years.
My fear was always that people would think I’m mentally ill because my mother is. There’s also something about hoarding that conjures up such images of filth and squalor. I was just terrified of anyone finding that out.
One of the things you struggled with was the urge to clean your mother’s house. Have you been back to clean it?
I have not gone back in. It’s the bugs—getting scabies the second time—and my husband having them on his face. I can’t even fathom going in.
I know, like I say at the end of the book, I will have to go in at some point, hopefully very, very far in the future.
Hoarding is now the focus of several reality shows. Do you watch any of them?
I watch them all the time. I got into the habit of watching them while I was writing the book, because I felt like I had to for research.
How do those shows compare with your experience?
I think the A&E show is a lot more sensationalized because they go in and they have two days to clean up. There’s always something at stake, like a woman’s husband is going to leave her.
The one on TLC is a lot better I think because it spans weeks, sometimes months, and you actually see the person getting counseling. But in general I think the shows are good because they have brought hoarding into the national spotlight. When I first started working on the book I would say, “I’m writing about my mother being a compulsive hoarder,” and sometimes people didn’t know what that was.
Is there anything you learned about hoarding while researching that surprised you?
One thing that surprised me, and was a turning point for me in the writing of the book and understanding my mom on a personal level, is that there’s actually a chemical basis for hoarding. It shows up in brain scans of hoarders that their metabolic activity rates in the parts of the brain that have to do with emotion and decision-making and memory are slower. Just knowing that helped a lot because it made me realize that this is a disease. It’s similar to schizophrenia or even cancer.
I want people to realize that hoarders are beyond being just crazy cat ladies. They’re real people with families, and they’re sick and need help and understanding.
Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding
Gallery Books / January / 9781439192528 / $15.00