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Authors: Jessie Sholl

Dirty Secret

BOOK: Dirty Secret
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Family members of compulsive hoarders can often, though not always, point to a particular trauma that occurred right before the hoarding began. It's as if there's a pattern in their brains, awaiting the right trigger to set the hoarding behavior in motion. My mother's trauma that triggered the true hoarding was Roger dying.

Throughout the rest of the day I come across photographs of her and Roger together, as well as (unopened) Mother's Day and birthday cards from me, on the floor under or among the junk piles. For a second I wonder how she could be so careless with these things.

But it isn't carelessness. It's the mental illness of compulsive hoarding. That's why she insists on keeping broken sewing machines and broken coffeemakers and a broken dishwasher hogging the last of the free space in her kitchen; that's what compels her to leave her possessions out in the open rather than on a shelf or in a drawer; and that's what leaves her frozen in place whenever she needs to make a decision—in the bank, in the grocery store, in the middle of her cluttered staircase—while she mumbles to herself, weighing the consequences of choosing X, Y, or Z. It's all because of a mystifying mental illness that happens to have a depressingly low rate of recovery.

I wish there were a magic pill or surgery or something instantaneous to fix her, but there isn't. I wish I could convince her to stop, but I can't. Not that that's going to keep me from trying.

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Some names and identifying details have been changed.

Gallery Books
A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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Copyright © 2011 by Jessie Sholl

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Gallery Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas,
New York, NY 10020

First Gallery Books trade paperback edition January 2011

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Designed by ATTIC

Manufactured in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Sholl, Jessie.

     Dirty secret : a daughter comes clean about her mother's compulsive hoarding / by Jessie Sholl.

         p. cm.
  1. Compulsive hoarding—United States—Case studies. 2. Sholl, Jessie. 3. Sholl, Jessie—Family. 4. Compulsive hoarding—United States—Patients—Family relationships—Case studies. 5. Mothers and daughters—United States—Case studies. 6. Mothers—Minnesota—Minneapolis—Biography. 7. Minneapolis (Minn.)—Biography. I. Title.

RC569.5.H63S4 2011


ISBN 978-1-4391-9252-8
ISBN 978-1-4391-9253-5 (ebook)

For my mother, whose only request when I asked
her permission to write this book was that
I employ “radical honesty.”

In that spirit, here goes.


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.


*   *   *  

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
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.


I TAKE AN EARLY FLIGHT AND ARRIVE IN MINNEAPOLIS IN the late morning. That afternoon my stepmom Sandy and I are meeting my mother at the lawyer's office so I can sign the papers about the house. My dad and Sandy normally have limited contact with my mother, but before I left New York, Sandy called me and offered to help in any way she could; she even agreed to let my mother sign power of attorney over to her, since I live so far away. I wish I could call my brother so he could help, but that's not an option.

When my mom arrives, Sandy and I are waiting for her in the parking lot in front of the lawyer's office. My mom gets out of her giant rusty car and I try to ignore the fact that the backseat is piled to the ceiling with garbage bags, clothes, shoes, and God only knows what else. It's April, and warm for a Minneapolis spring. My mother's in one of her signature knee-length
sweater-coats, the baggy black leggings she's taken to wearing in the last few years, and a roomy pale blue T-shirt, or as she says in her lingering Boston accent, “a jersey.” Her keys hang on an orange plastic coil around her neck. Her curly hair is completely gray now—sometimes she dyes it brown or auburn—and cut in a chin-length bob, with bangs. It looks pretty decent for cutting it herself.

“You look good, Mom,” I say, leaning down to hug her. At under five feet, she's the only adult I know that I have to lean down to hug. “How are you feeling?”

“Not too bad,” my mom says and takes a sip of what I'm sure is coffee from her ever-present travel mug. Right after she called me with the news about her cancer I went online and found out that the statistics for colon cancer are good. Really good. And now, seeing how plump and healthy she looks, I'm even less worried. Then again, both of her parents died of cancer. So I'm worried, but not panicked.

“Thanks for coming, Sandy,” my mother says, sounding shy.

“Of course,” Sandy says and squeezes my mom's shoulder.

Inside the small office, the lawyer: blond, pretty, and hugely pregnant, is waiting for us at the reception desk.

“Right this way,” she says, her Minnesotan vowels elongated as she adds, “How're you guys doing?”

“Good, okay, fine,” we say, and take our seats around a conference table in a windowless room. A small stack of papers sits in front of each of us.

“Does anyone want coffee?” the lawyer asks, and my mother accepts, topping off the contents of her travel mug. My mom drinks two or three pots of coffee a day and nothing else. She hates water, which I've been trying to get her to drink for years. She won't touch it. Just like the vitamins I've bought her, just like the leafy green vegetables I nag her about. And she's the one
who's a nurse. She picks up her travel mug by wrapping both her tiny hands around it and takes a big sip.

I wonder what the lawyer thinks of us. She seems like the most normal of creatures; it's hard to imagine that she's encountered such a strange repackaging of a family. A daughter owning her mother's house? The ex-husband's wife holding power of attorney? Then again, maybe it doesn't seem so strange. At thirty-seven, I have friends my age who are beginning to make choices for their aging parents. Because my mother's and my roles were reversed early on, I probably shouldn't be rattled by this new, official responsibility. But when I glance down at the stack of papers in front of me, it takes all my self-control to keep from jumping up and pacing.

BOOK: Dirty Secret
9.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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