There are some books that go down with a lick and a swallow, and this was one of them.
For those who haven’t yet heard of it from television or a few recent newspaper articles, compulsive hoarding is either an anxiety disorder, or a symptom of an anxiety disorder that consists of excessive accumulation of material possessions to the point that it negatively impacts the life of the hoarder. As Scholl describes in her short but very powerful autobiographical story, the disease also negatively impacts the family of the hoarder, especially children, who are near-powerless to do anything about the situation.
Let me give a little detail, without spoilers, in case you don’t understand the ramifications of hoarding. It’s so much more than just clutter or packratting. It’s having nowhere to sit because every piece of furniture is covered with junk. It’s not having “rooms” so much as having paths around the junk. In some severe cases, it can mean having moldy food lying around, used diapers and maxi pads on the floor, and garbage that never gets taken out. For most hoarders, it means never having friends over for coffee. If you’re a child, it means not understanding why your house never looks like any of your friends’; it means if you try to clean, you may be berated; it may mean that when you clear a space in your own room, your parent mentally processes it as a place to store more stuff, so that your room is never really your own. Scholl depicts all this and more in her depiction of life at her mother’s house.
Reading the first 30 or so pages, I worried for a bit that events were progressing rather quickly and that the last half of the book would drag after Scholl had exhausted all her juicy material. I should have known better. Scholl has so much material to offer she could have made the book twice as long, and it’s a testament to her writing ability that she didn’t. She knows when to slow a moment down and give us details and dialogue to hang on to, but she also knows when to simply move us from one place to another. Though it’s autobiographical, Dirty Secret is a highly-focused and cohesive account of one pervasive aspect of the author’s life.
Aside from giving a very clear impression of what it’s like to grow up as the child of a hoarder, Scholl is very good at giving the reader an idea of the warped way a personality might grow when shaped by a mentally ill parent. In this respect, I think anyone raised by a parent affected by any type of mental illness could find strong emotional resonance in this book. In fact, Scholl points out that hoarding is almost always comorbid with other mental illnesses, such as borderline personality disorder, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
And if you’re lucky enough not to fit into the above category, the book is worth reading just to watch the shitstorm of insanity escalate. And oh, man, does it escalate.