Jessie Sholl (BSS #378)

Jessie Sholl is most recently the author of Dirty Secret. Ms. Sholl will also be appearing at the Barnes & Noble Tribeca on Wednesday, February 2nd, at 7:00 PM.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Packing his rats before they rat his pack.

Author: Jessie Sholl

Subjects Discussed: The genetics behind the hoarding impulse, being a material minimalist, the insides of Jessie Sholl’s apartment, trying to rationalize a hoarder’s explanations for hoarding individual items, information processing deficits, how a hoarder’s work environment affects the home environment, hoarding and nurturing, the Children of Hoarders support group, the high rate of nurses among hoarders, patterns of abuse, being tormented and teased by snakes, fondness and love, acceptance and forgiveness, contracting scabies because of another’s uncleanliness, sharing parental personality traits, being terrified by a terrible sense of direction, competing standards of cleanliness, contending with a potential subletter’s judgment, attempts to find monoglot pride, Clean House, why American culture doesn’t want to talk about hoarding, how thrift shopping serves as a false therapy, anonymity and layers of shame, Susan Nathiel’s Daughters of Madness, giving up privacy and personal identity when disseminating a shameful quality, the drawbacks of cleaning frenzies, doorbell dread, Homebodies, and apartment stints.


Sholl: Her job was affected by her hoarding in the way that her brain was affected by her hoarding. In the way that her brain causes the hoarding. Because she just wasn’t able to keep up. She wasn’t able to organize the tasks. And so she wasn’t able to complete them on time. So she would clock out when her shift was done, and she would continue doing the tasks. She would keep working for an hour or two off the clock. She kept getting into trouble for that. And also, in the book, I think she’s 63 at that point. She’s about four foot ten. And she weighs about 200 pounds. So she’s very cumbersome. And she was slow. She was just really slow. So most of the people she was working with were in their twenties and thirties. She just couldn’t keep up. So I don’t even know how much of it was the organization problems in her brain or how much of it was just, physically, she was just old and slow.

Correspondent: Absolutely. But there wasn’t any real disparity between the hoarding impulse at home and the nursing impulse at work? Being a nurse and all that.

Sholl: Yeah. That’s one thing that I found really interesting when I started doing this research. And also when I joined the Children of Hoarders support group. It’s amazing how many hoarders are nurses. And that just blew me away. I feel that it has something to do with — okay, another statistic about hoarding is that many hoarders were abused as children. And a lot of times, when someone is really abused as a child, they get something called a caretaking syndrome. Where they like to take care. This happens quite a lot with animal hoarders. That’s what animal hoarding often is. They want to take care of something that’s helpless, something that cannot reject them. Because they got no care as a child. They got just coldness. Which is what my mother had. And so personally — now I am not a doctor. This hasn’t been studied that I know of. But that’s my own theory. And I think that that’s the reason for the high rate of nurses. When they go to work, they are caring for someone. So these are people that, they can’t really take care of their children. But they can take care of a person in a hospital.

Correspondent: You mentioned abuse earlier and how that tends to be a way, that it carries on. Late in this book, you have a situation where your mother confesses to you that her own parents abused her with dogs. She, in turn, I would say, abused you with the snakes. You have a fear of snakes. She sent you down to the basement, pretending that there were snakes down there. She sent you packages with fake snakes. She put rubber snakes in your Christmas stockings. You know, this strikes me as something that is tremendously abusive. The question is: Even though she can relate to the abuse in terms of her own abuse, from years before, do you think she really understands the nature of what she’s doing when she taunts you with the snakes? Is it abuse?

Sholl: No, I don’t. I think she truly believes that it’s funny. And that’s one of the things about my mom. She’ll have a moment of clarity — and this is why it took me so long to finally just give up and throw up my hands. I mean, we still have a relationship. But I’m done fixing her. Trying to fix her. I’m done cleaning our house. All of that. But one of the reasons that it took me so long to do it is because she’s a smart woman. She has a good sense of humor a lot of the time. She’s well read. We talk about books. And she’ll have a moment of clarity where I’ll feel a connection. And so it was those moments of clarity and those moments of connection that gave me this taste of what it could really be like. And that made it hard to stop. But eventually I did. Anyway, back to your question about the snakes. I have seen tiny glimmers of “Oh, wow, maybe I should not tease Jessie anymore about snakes.” But you know what? If I got a package in the mail tomorrow from my mother, I would make my husband open it. Because I could not be sure that it wasn’t another snake.

Correspondent: Well, on that subject, there’s a moment in the book where you say there are still things about her that make you happy. It seems to me that these are related to these glimmers. But reading the book, I was almost at a loss sometimes to determine what it was about your mother that made you very happy. Because she’s constantly abusive. I haven’t even brought up the scabies situation, which I’ll get into in just a bit. It’s almost that by writing the book, you’ve got a challenge here. Because you’re depicting her problem and it may come at the expense — there’s one moment where you say that there are things she does that make me happy. But what are those? I didn’t really get that from the book.

Sholl: Well, you know, we can have very lively fun telephone conversations. She really is a charming person. I mean, when my husband first met her, I was so terrified to introduce her to him. I was just terrified that he would judge me and decide that he didn’t want to be with me, and whatever. And he said, “She’s cute. She’s adorable.” And there is that side to her.

Correspondent: But just these telephone conversations? Just this charisma? Isn’t it actions that make you happy? Because happiness for another person, or fondness for another person, or love for another person comes down to gesture and action. Not necessarily words.

Sholl: No, that’s a good point. You know, I think a lot of times the love is there. Because she’s my mother. And I just can’t help it. I just can’t help but care about her. We have a very unusual relationship. Definitely.

Correspondent: You’ve used the word “acceptance.” But what about forgiveness? Do you forgive your mother?

Sholl: Yes, I do.

Correspondent: You do?

Sholl: Well…

Correspondent: It’s okay if you don’t. I don’t forgive my mother, if you want to get down to it.

Sholl: I’ve never even thought about that before. I don’t know why I’ve never thought about that. You know, I can point to individual things. The scabies. I have forgiven her. I have never been so angry in my life when we got them the second time. And she refused initially to help. To get medicine. But I did eventually forgive her. Some of it was just time passing. I guess, for me, forgiving my mom is just accepting her.

1 Comment

  1. Treatment For Scabies

    I hope that Jessie Sholl can come down to Australia because Dirty Secrets was absolutely amazing!

    I keep replaying the podcast – you put a lot of effort into it and Jessie really opens up about the book.

    Thank You,

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