Dirty Secret

A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding

Dirty Secret

A fascinating look at compulsive hoarding by a woman whose mother suffers from the disease.

To be the child of a compulsive hoarder is to live in a permanent state of unease. Because if my mother is one of those crazy junk-house people, then what does that make me?

When her divorced mother was diagnosed with cancer, New York City writer Jessie Sholl returned to her hometown of Minneapolis to help her prepare for her upcoming surgery and get her affairs in order. While a daunting task for any adult dealing with an aging parent, it’s compounded for Sholl by one lifelong, complex, and confounding truth: her mother is a compulsive hoarder. Dirty Secret is a daughter’s powerful memoir of confronting her mother’s disorder, of searching for the normalcy that was never hers as a child, and, finally, cleaning out the clutter of her mother’s home in the hopes of salvaging the true heart of their relationship—before it’s too late.

Growing up, young Jessie knew her mother wasn’t like other mothers: chronically disorganized, she might forgo picking Jessie up from kindergarten to spend the afternoon thrift store shopping. Now, tracing the downward spiral in her mother’s hoarding behavior to the death of a long-time boyfriend, she bravely wades into a pathological sea of stuff: broken appliances, moldy cowboy boots, twenty identical pairs of graying bargain-bin sneakers, abandoned arts and crafts, newspapers, magazines, a dresser drawer crammed with discarded eyeglasses, shovelfuls of junk mail . . . the things that become a hoarder’s “treasures.” With candor, wit, and not a drop of sentimentality, Jessie Sholl explores the many personal and psychological ramifications of hoarding while telling an unforgettable mother-daughter tale.


Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Dirty Secret includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jessie Sholl. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding, Jessie Sholl offers her readers a vivid look into the life of a hoarder’s family. Her mother’s curious disease, said to affect millions of Americans, causes Jessie to feel shame, embarrassment, and an unending desire to “cure” something she cannot fix. Through her mother’s battles with compulsive hoarding and colon cancer, her father’s serious heart attack, and a particularly stubborn scabies infestation, Jessie Sholl weaves together a new picture of a previously misunderstood disorder.


1.      “Maybe this time it’ll work. Maybe this time it’ll stay clean” (page 10). Throughout the memoir, Jessie’s hopes are repeatedly raised and dashed as she tries to “fix” her mother’s illness. Find a moment in the book in which Jessie is particularly hopeful, and one in which she is see more

About the Author

Jessie Sholl
Kate Lacey

Jessie Sholl

Jessie Sholl's essays and stories have appeared in national newspapers and journals. She is coeditor of the nonfiction anthology Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic and a contributor to EverydayHealth.com. She holds an MFA from The New School University, where she currently teaches creative writing.