Growing Up with a Hoarder

My mother was a hoarder. It didn’t start out this way, but it became more pronounced and more disturbing once she hit middle age and she started locking her bedroom.

We all knew that hillocks of clothes and bulky boxes of once-used items were being piled needlessly high on any spare inch of floor space behind that sealed entrance: an increasing sign that my mother did not have her life together and, in hindsight, a telltale indicator that she could not care for us.

She collected things much as she collected people: there was the initial delight followed by an ephemeral interest, followed by swift abandonment and a failure to finish what she had started. I was so unnerved by my mother’s packrat tendencies that I developed an anti-materialist lifestyle in which I assiduously avoided the accumulation of baubles. But I still held onto my notebooks and any creative scraps I generated. And I still wonder to this day if this is an entirely healthy tendency. I didn’t develop the confidence to buy a third pair of shoes without guilt until I was in my early forties and I only recently purchased a waffle maker, even though I have long possessed the desire to cook jolly breakfasts for friends. The greatly underrated writer Jessie Sholl has written about the way our parents pass along these deeply humiliating conundrums in her book, Dirty Secret. The shame of understanding or even remotely mimicking who our parents are causes us to take several serious missteps in our own lives. Our parents’s personality traits scar us in ways that we don’t often realize until we’re well into adulthood ourselves.

Perhaps my mother’s desire to cleave to doodads represented her need to take up space entirely on her own terms and no one else’s. This is very often what motivates a narcissist: a lack of mindfulness intertwined with a solipsistic impulse that is fragile and frangible enough to transform into self-destruction. But whatever the underlying psychological motives, my mother’s hoarding transformed from a manageable obsession into a monomania so suddenly and so unnervingly that I have only just realized, as I am in middle age and I am trying not to repeat the mistakes of my parents (with mixed results), that this was indeed hoarding and that much of my life was shaped by it. (Thankfully, I have mostly confined my “hoarding” to the more than three thousand books I live with, regularly purged and repatriated to ensure spare shelf space.)

In the early stages, in the comparatively innocent days, my mother bought clothes and her closets filled up. The dresses crunched up together so that fur and taffeta were flattened, resembling unassembled cardboard boxes in look and in texture and often never worn. The more space we had, the more it became devoted to my mother’s hoarding. Our garage was especially frightening. You had to climb over and leap across all manner of bric-a-brac just to get the mail. There were rats nesting in the crevices, rats that later set up camp throughout the house and scratched into the walls and scurried around the attic and nothing would be done about this and I would often stay up late and watch movies to drown out the noise of rats scraping loudly, relentlessly into the night. It is why I may be more terrified of rats than most people, although I have summoned the bravery, when called for, to dispose of rats like any bona-fide Brooklynite.

The weird thing is that, while my mother was inveterate in the way that she held onto things, she was completely incompetent in knowing when to go regular grocery shopping and replenish the cupboards. I have long wondered how someone who was supposed to be responsible for us could be so stunningly irresponsible. But examining the motives of a narcissist usually results in the same thrumming singular chord. What I did do was cultivate a fierce loyalty for my friends and anyone or anything I have ever loved. And I know that my exuberance can be scary, scary because it is both incredibly sincere and incredibly intense.

I have been afraid to own things. And that includes being afraid to own who I am. Because to do so would be to hoard, to succumb to the same myopic impulses that fueled my mother and to shamble through detritus, even though wading through the muck of one’s failings is the only way we grow stronger. My answer to this has been to embrace a state of existential obliviousness and hope for the best. It is not exactly hoarding, certainly not in the material sense, but it does represent a quality that is just as insalubrious.

The Bat Segundo Show: Jessie Sholl

Jessie Sholl appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #378. She 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: [List forthcoming]


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.

The Bat Segundo Show #378: Jessie Sholl (Download MP3)

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