I’ve finished Kimberly Rae Miller’s Coming Clean: A Memoir, a well-written book about her unusual childhood spent with father with a serious hoarding problem and a mother with a related compulsive shopping problem. I have never seen any of the TV shows about this lifestyle so it was a shock to find out how bad it can get:
The third upstairs room was by all accounts the master bedroom; it was the largest in the house, but my parents had moved out of it when I was born, taking over a downstairs bedroom closer to my room. The only things that lived there now were a bed frame, a broken mirror, some newspapers from before I was born, and cat feces. It was the cleanest room in our house.
Shortly after we moved into the new house, my parents stopped sharing a bedroom. My father took over the guest room, where he slept on a trundle bed. Because of his piles of paper, the trundle bed could only half extend. He slept on that lower bed, with papers on the floor piled to upper-mattress level and surrounding him on all sides. The upper mattress became a desk of sorts, with its own stash of newspapers, catalogs, and documents preserved above the tides of trash. My mother stayed in the master bedroom, and checking in with her was my first stop each morning. “Morning, honey. Come sit down,” my mom said. She seemed far more upbeat than was normal for a postfight morning.
The downstairs had become a relative swamp ground. It never seemed to dry out from the flooding, so when we did walk through it, the inches of trash would squish beneath our feet, creating an unsteady terrain.
We gave up the kitchen and survived solely on fast food and hermetically sealed snacks we could keep in our bedrooms.
My parents’ home is something else entirely. The papers are the easy part, but once they’re bagged and off to the dump, next comes the stuff. They have so much stuff. My father loves electronics, the more broken and useless the better. And office supplies. Bundles of Post-it notes, pens, pencils, scientific calculators, hole punchers, and staplers can be found in every room. While my mother’s postsurgical depression has certainly lessened over the years, her compulsive shopping for things they do not need with money they do not have did not. She will never admit that she is part of the problem now, insisting that she will return most of what she buys. But things don’t get sent back; they have a habit of being engulfed by the stuff surrounding them. Each new box added to the house becomes a new surface to put things on.
[being away at college] felt like my reward for the years of shame I’d logged. No one there knew about the hate-fueled letters our neighbors left in our mailbox. They didn’t know how much I appreciated cafeteria food after having spent most of my teenage years eating hermetically sealed, chemically laden foods, because our kitchen had been left to rot under cobwebs and maggots. I no longer had to plan meetings with friends so they wouldn’t know where I lived.
When I returned to New York [from college], the things that had been so normal to me before—the rats, the sludge, the ubiquitous smell of mildew, the feeling that this was my home—were glaringly wrong. I couldn’t get used to them again.
Can people who can live for decades amid clutter and filth teach us anything about relatively normal lives? Miller pokes around in the academic literature to figure out why her parents might have hoarded:
In my reading I found that many hoarders have similar stories to my dad. Maybe they weren’t the children of abusive alcoholics, but they were emotionally neglected at some point in their development. One of the more popular theories behind the triggers for hoarding indicates that people who were neglected emotionally as children learn to form attachments to objects instead of people. When they do connect with others, they then keep any object that reminds them of that person as a way of holding on to those attachments.
In going through some of the people I know, the ones who had the happiest childhoods, with the best connections to their families, seem to be those who have spent the lowest percent of their income on stuff. By contrast, those whose parents separated or whose parents were prone to heavy drinking and other irresponsible behavior, are more likely to be shopaholics. The divorce litigators that we’ve interviewed for our forthcoming book relate experiences consistent with the psychology research reviewed by Miller. Divorce plaintiffs who came from the lowest social class and most dysfunctional families were the ones most motivated by money as litigants. Compared to people from middle-class and upper-class families, people whose own childhood was spent living on welfare and/or who were themselves children of divorce were more likely to insist that they couldn’t survive without designer clothing, imported German cars, and deluxe housing and pushed cases through to trial in hopes of squeezing the last dollar out of their former romantic relationship and their children.
What if you think you might be at risk of falling too deeply in love with stuff? Miller’s family experience suggests sticking with the smallest possible apartment:
“My parents never threw anything out,” my mother later confessed on the train ride back. “They had someone in regularly to clean, but there was always stuff everywhere. I remember thinking how great it was that they had a room reserved for junk.” “Your parents were hoarders?” I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that my family tree was messy down to the roots. “I grew up with it,” she said. “I guess that’s why I didn’t see it in your father until it was so out of hand.” “Was Daddy always like this?” “Oh, no. When we first moved in together, long before you were born, he was the complete opposite. We had this light green carpet that he obsessed over keeping clean. If anyone stepped on it with shoes on, he was there with a sponge, washing up their footsteps.” “When did he start collecting things?” I wondered how different my life would have been if my father was still obsessed with keeping things clean. “When we left the Bronx,” she told me. “It was like he had too much space.
What do readers think? What kind of person is most likely to become a hoarder? And is buying a lot of stuff on Amazon good clean American fun or does it place on the “hoarding spectrum”? And what is the best way to push back against the temptation to hoard?
The book also contains some pretty horrifying medical stuff. The mother was a victim of scoliosis starting in childhood. She endures crazy amounts of surgery that is of no value:
All the tests my mom had taken hadn’t revealed to the doctors that her spine had started to fuse to itself where her curvature was most acute. Putting the rods in would have pulled her vertebrae apart, potentially paralyzing her. “Come on,” he said. “The anesthesia should wear off soon. Let’s go wait for Mom to wake up.” There was nothing else to be done. My mother would be sent home in a few days to heal. Her abdominal muscles had been cut open during the first surgery and she could no longer walk on her own—she would spend the summer in bed, and then the fall, winter, and following spring. Her body was fitted for a plastic brace that would be used in the few instances she needed to be wheeled outside of the house. The brace would do the heavy lifting of keeping her upright until her own body was once again capable. The government job she’d had for years didn’t wait for her to recover; she lost her job while her body struggled to once again become functional.
Then she needs a relatively routine gall bladder operation but it goes awry and she is nearly killed.
The surgery, Dr. Abdallah explained, took a turn for the worse when he accidentally severed the vein going to her liver. Since the surgery was laparoscopic, using small incisions for minimum invasion, they couldn’t find the source of the bleeding quickly enough to prevent massive blood loss. In searching for the vein, they had ended up destroying her bile ducts. The lack of blood had caused her kidneys to go into distress. “Is she going to die?” Apparently this was the only question I was capable of asking anyone, first my father and then the doctor. It’s the only thing I cared about. “She’s not out of the woods yet. We’ll know more in the next forty-eight hours.” Dr. Abdallah looked as rattled as we did. He did these types of surgeries all the time. They weren’t supposed to end like this.
(Mom recovers but it takes about a year.)
The family has to move to hide from social services agencies that might have removed Miller from her parents’ care:
The kids were different in Grandma’s neighborhood. They seemed to be a little bit older than their seven or eight years. I was one of only two white kids in my class, a stark difference from my almost exclusively white classmates on Long Island. It never occurred to me that I didn’t fit in, and I felt the salutation of “new white girl” was as apt a description as any. There were no carpools or play dates to dodge—kids walked home after school and played with whomever they could find loitering the hallways of their building. During lunch they traded war stories in the cafeteria, stories about mothers leaving them with their grandparents and not coming back or cousins who had been killed. I didn’t talk about my dad because I had promised not to, and I doubted many of my classmates would understand what it was like to have too much, but for the first time my secret felt like a good thing. I fit in with these kids and their unfair lives.
Miller takes her own unfair life and, without self-pity, makes it an interesting and thought-provoking story even for those of us who’ve had reasonably fair lives.
More: Read the book.