What’s it like to live with hoarder parents? In Kimberly Rae Miller’s new memoir, the writer doesn’t minimize the destruction 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 such reality TV shows as 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. 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 mess causes constant fighting within the family and a constant fear of being discovered. Miller finally escapes 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 apartment with harsh chemicals.
But Miller, who became an actress and writer, doesn’t write vindictively. She describes her parents 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 they were eating out, they became a laughing, loving, almost 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 to talk about treatment.
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 Miller 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.
“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.”
Mae Anderson reviewed this book for the Associated Press.