Dirty Secret by Jessie Sholl

Dirty SecretDirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding by Jessie Sholl
Published by Gallery, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the author

Upon her mother’s diagnosis of cancer, New Yorker Jessie Sholl returns to her childhood home in Minneapolis to help her prepare for the upcoming surgery.  What would be a difficult task for anyone becomes an overwhelming situation for Sholl as her mother is a compulsive hoarder.  Her home is full of stuff she doesn’t need, and cleaning it out becomes one of Sholl’s main goals.  This memoir flips between past and present as Jessie Sholl recounts for the reader what it is like have a mother afflicted by the disorder of compulsive hoarding.

The success of A&E’s hit TV show Hoarders is clear evidence that Americans are interested in the disorder of compulsive hoarding.  I personally don’t watch the show, but I have seen a few episodes and I have to admit it’s sort of like watching a car accident.  I turn it on, don’t want to watch, but end up sitting glued to the screen and watching until the end – I just can’t look away!  With that in mind, and adding to the fact that I quite enjoy memoirs, I decided to read Dirty Secret.

This is a very well-written memoir that is difficult to put down.  Sholl delivers a compelling story about a mother whose hoarding is absolutely out of control and a daughter who feels it is her responsibility to control it.  The relationship between Sholl and her mother is a complex and interesting one, with Sholl almost parenting her mother as she cleans her house for her, takes her to doctor appointments, and lectures her about the importance of not buying things she doesn’t need.

But it wasn’t always this way.  Dirty Secret traces Sholl’s own history to show how her mother became who she is today.  Her mother was never the cleanest or neatest person in the world, but her hoarding was brought on by specific life circumstances which are outlined in the book.  The memoir swiftly alternates between past and present as Sholl both shows the reader her family’s history and the details of what’s going on today.  This was an excellent method for the reader to get the full depth of her mother’s disorder – it worked very well in painting a clear picture of what was happening.

Jessie Sholl is a person a reader can really relate to – she loves her mother, she wants to protect her mother and save her from herself, but at the same time she almost can’t stand to be around her mother.  Many people have parents we alternately love and can’t be in the same room with, and most readers will relate to these feelings Sholl can’t help having.  She takes care of her mother at the expense of herself, and it takes a long time for Sholl to understand that she can’t just clean up her mother’s house and everything will be okay.  There is a disorder at play here, and Sholl slowly begins to see that cleaning the house will not cure it.

Dirty Secret interested and captivated me from the first page.  It is a compelling memoir written by the extremely likeable Jessie Sholl.  It is a unique memoir because hoarding is one of those things people don’t want to admit to, but it’s a very complete look at what the disorder has done to this person and this family.  I would definitely recommend Dirty Secret.

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14 thoughts on “Dirty Secret by Jessie Sholl

  1. I have seen the show on A&E and also find it difficult to turn the channel once I begin watching. There are some cases that are ultra-extreme and I definitely don’t think one quick purge over a three-day timeframe is going to fix the deeper problem, but I root for everyone on the show – something has made them who they are and I want them to overcome the fear of losing things, getting rid of things, or giving them away.

    This is definitely a book I would love to read – it sounds like a wonderfully well-written memoir – fantastic review!

    1. Yes, you are so right! So many people on the show (in the episodes I’ve watched, anyway) seem so “normal” except for the hoarding, that you just know there is something going on beneath the surface that is causing them to hoard. I think that’s what is so fascinating about Jessie’s memoir – her mom is such a regular person, but with this huge issue that is way beyond cleaning a house. SUCH a great book. 🙂

  2. I saw this at the bookstore, and I’m just not sure I can face reading it. There’s hoarding in my extended family so I’ve seen the whole mess firsthand. Awful.

    1. I know how you feel – there are 2 members of my extended family with this disorder as well. What I loved about the book is how honest Jessie Sholl is about it – this is something that most people try to hide, try to pretend isn’t happening, but she told it like it is. I loved that.

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