Book of the Week: "Dirty Secret"

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Jan. 28 2011 12:50 PM

Book of the Week: "Dirty Secret"

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Some readers may recognize Jessie Sholl, author of Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding (Gallery Books, $15) as the author of a poignant, brutally honest 2007 New York Times " Modern Love" column about breaking up with a best girlfriend. Dirty Secret will appeal to many because of its prurient details-the heaps of trash and bug infestations and countless fruitless interventions that have lured viewers to shows like Hoarders . But Sholl’s strength in the memoir, her first book, is the same as in the Modern Love column: It’s her ability to pry under the mountains of useless thrift-shop refuse to the issues beneath, and to gently and compassionately bring them to light. And that she is as reflective and frank about her own behavior-even at its worst-as she is about her mother’s, without veering into self-pity or squishy sentimentality.

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Sholl’s also done her homework. She reports on how childhood trauma has been linked to hoarding, how adult trauma can trigger it, and how it’s more common than you might think, with an estimated 6 million cases in the United States alone. She describes different types of hoarding, from "clean" (what her mother does), to "squalor" (which involves retaining human waste, among other things), to "animal" (which can lead to the amassing and mistreatment of sometimes hundreds of "pets" at a time).

Dirty Secret has plenty of drama: illness and struggle and stigma and frustration and redemption; central to the book is the humiliating battle Jessie and her husband, father, and stepmother wage against the scabies they contracted from her mother’s house, a condition they hide from friends, isolating them socially while they try ever-more-unusual treatments. But at its core it is a story about what happens when we or the people we love are sometimes unlovable: when baggage threatens to sink not only its owner but anyone willing to help bear it. It is about our darkest secrets and coming clean.