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Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding by Jessie Sholl is a memoir concerning Sholl's life as she attempts to cope with her mother's hoarding behavior. Sholl writes from an adult perspective but includes memories and events that happened to her as a child. Her story is therefore also told with focus on events that preceded her mother's hoarding and begins even before she realized that her mother was a hoarder. Sholl also talks about events that she thinks encouraged or lead up to her mother's collecting behavior that then escalated into hoarding. The book openly talks about physical abuse, substance abuse, neglect, divorce, physical and mental illness, and secrecy and stigma.
The main bulk of the book takes place as Sholl's mother Helen is diagnosed with colon cancer and begins treatment. Sholl struggles emotionally with the request to legally have her mother's house signed over to her together with all the heavy feelings of her mother's sudden cancer and ongoing hoarding behavior. The book effortlessly goes back and forth through events in Sholl's life and discusses her own physical health struggles together with the constant worry about her mother's health and well-being. Sholl also includes short pieces of information about hoarding and makes this information fit very well within the story. These short informational pieces discuss commonalities found in individuals with hoarding issues and are very interesting to read. These pieces discusses facts such as what has been called the Wonderful Stranger (a person that the hoarding individual often idolize) and the fact that many hoarders are, or have been, nurses, that they often rent or own properties that are solely used as storage, that they are often extremely indecisive and simultaneously suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Sholl also mention different categories of hoarders such as animal hoarders or clean hoarders.
A strong component of the book is stigma and shame as Sholl often talks about being ashamed about the state of her mother's house, the physical abuse she sometimes experienced, as well as the fact that she feels unable to control her mother's behavior or control the house that her mother lives in.
For individuals who have seen reality television shows such as Hoarding: Buried Alive or Confessions: Animal Hoarding, this book is a great and interesting read. Dirty Secret, however, removes the entertainment factor from hoarding and instead provides the reader with personal information concerning hoarders and family members of hoarders. It fills in the gaps of shows such as Hoarding: Buried Alive and provides insight to the complicated and stressful life that hoarding can lead to.
The memoir includes very few characters apart from Sholl and her family and it therefore becomes a very personal book that is honest, easy to read and very engaging. In contrast to other memoirs that I have read, I do not get the sense that Sholl is portraying herself as anything apart from who she is. She is very clear and honest about her feelings and her shortcomings. She has had many struggles in her life and she is not afraid to tell the reader about them. Such insight into the author's life engages the reader while providing a perspective that feels 'real'.
It is difficult to criticize this book because it truly is a well written and interesting memoir. Ideally, Sholl could have included more clinical information about hoarding and disorders that are closely connected to hoarding. Sholl briefly does this throughout the book but could benefit from using a clinical perspective more often because the contrast between personal experiences and clinical evidence and information is powerful and can contribute to a greater understanding of hoarding.
This book is well suited for a general audience since it is easy to read and does not contain difficult language. It is also easy to relate to since many individuals probably have known, or do know, someone who qualifies as a hoarder or displays hoarding tendencies. This book would probably also be very well received by children of hoarders due to its sincerity and honest approach.
© 2011 Elin Weiss
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor's degree in psychology and a Master's degree in women's studies from University College Dublin, Ireland.