What’s it like to live with hoarder parents? In Kimberly Rae Miller’s memoir, “Coming Clean,” the writer doesn’t minimize the destruction that the disorder causes families. But she uses her own experience to paint a much more compassionate and nuanced portrait of the illness than is usually shown on reality TV shows like “Hoarders.”
Growing up, only child Miller knew her family was different. Her father spent most of his time listening to NPR and inspecting whatever piece of paper out of his vast collection happened to be at hand, while her mother constantly ordered unnecessary items online and then let the boxes sit, unopened, to collect dust.
Their house was covered with paper and broken or disused objects. Couches, floors, tables and most other surfaces — eventually whole rooms — were lost to junk. After Miller’s mother has a botched surgery that leaves her disabled and depressed, the squalor grows: at its worst, pipes break, causing floors to turn into a soggy swampland and bathrooms to stop functioning. Rats skitter between piles of junk and fleas infest the house. The boiler breaks and there is no heat or hot water. Unable to call a repairman because of the state of the house, the family showers at a local gym.
The mess causes constant fighting within the family and a constant fear of being discovered. Miller finally escapes to go to college, and her parents move to other homes to escape the mess, but their hoarding always quickly resumes.
Miller isn’t unscathed by her parents’ problems: at one point as a child she stops speaking, later she attempts suicide and still later she compulsively cleans her spotless Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment with harsh chemicals and becomes pathologically afraid of getting bed bugs.
But Miller, who became an actress and writer, doesn’t write vindictively about her parents. She describes them as “doting, fallible people that gave me everything they had, and a whole lot more.”
She recalls how loving and playful her father was when she was a child, and how her mother scrounged together money so that she could spend a semester abroad when financial aid fell through. When they were eating out, as they were commonly forced to, or doing anything away from their home, they instantly became a laughing, loving, nearly functional family.
Her parents seem aware of their problems, but powerless to make substantial life changes.
“ How am I crazy today?” her father says affably whenever Miller calls as an adult to talk about treatment or causes of hoarding.
Her mother is more regretful. “One day you aren’t going be able to pretend everything was okay, and you’re going to hate us,” she says.
But it is to Miller’s credit that she never does. Meeting a new friend who confesses that she also grew up with a hoarder parent, they muse over why people stay with hoarders. Her friend is mystified, but Miller says she understands why.
“ I did know why her father stayed, and my mother stayed and why we, as children, stay,” she writes. “Life without their stuff just wasn’t worth life without them.”