Growing Up in a Hoarding Household
Kimberly Rae Miller's new memoir lays bare the reality of compulsive hoarding, and how it's very different from what we see on TV.
When Kimberly Rae Miller was growing up, she seemed to have an all-American family life, just like any other kid in her Long Island neighborhood—her dad drove an MTA bus, while her mom worked in the city. On nights and weekends, her parents cheered her on at theater classes and sporting events. But Miller was hiding a gigantic secret: "My friends lived in clean houses," she writes in her new memoir, Coming Clean. "I lived in a dirty one."
Miller's father was a hoarder. He collected "piles of junk"—mountains of papers, broken appliances, old clothes, newspapers and yard-sale finds. Occasionally, the family would abandon a house to its "squalor" and try to start fresh—but the mounds of debris would always creep back in to overwhelm them.
As Miller grew older and her parents weathered a series of physical accidents and medical mishaps, the hoarding reached epic proportions. Few visible surfaces remained clear from clutter. The rugs were buried under inches of soggy, rotting trash. Vermin scurried through the floor-to-ceiling mess. Miller resorted to showering at a local gym and telling her friends that she lived in a "decoy house" so her family's secret would be safe. "The older I got, the more obsessed I became with maintaining the illusion that everything in my life was perfect," she writes, "and as the years passed, I depended upon it to fly me under the radar of friends and family long enough to get to college."
Ahead of the publication of her book, out July 23 from New Harvest, The Daily Beast talked to Miller about her astonishly honest and heartfelt book, and about her own journey realizing that her family was not alone.
The Daily Beast: Can you start out by talking about the difference between the hoarding that we see on reality television, versus the actual experience of it?
Kimberly Rae Miller: I feel like it’s really important to start out by saying that I’m not a trained mental health professional. I did research while I was doing the book, and I have a very personal connection to it. But in terms of the actual research and statistics, it’s not my forte. But I have a double-edged relationship to those shows. They bring such awareness to an illness that has for so long been swept under the rug and the people who lived with it and didn’t know there was anyone else out there like them. And in that way, I’m really grateful for those shows, because now that they know there are so many other people—I think the last statistic is something like 12 million Americans—are living with this disorder. So the more interest there is in it, the more research that will be done, and people who will be trained to handle it.
But I also feel like with those shows, we only see the reality-television show version of the disease. And those people are chosen for their dramatic persona. It’s for television, it’s for ratings. And we really only see a glimpse of people with this disorder—and usually it’s during their worst-case scenario. This is a nightmare for them. These are people who have a mental illness and their attachment to objects and to things is compulsive, and it’s an emotionally rooted thing … It’s not a rational disease at all. And we’ve only ever seen hoarding through that lens. But hoarding is something that progresses and changes over time.
People with the illness go through varying stages of understanding and acceptance of the fact that they have a behavioral disorder. My father, when we were living in our house at its worst, couldn’t see the squalor around us. He just thought everyone lived like that. And now that he’s out of that situation, and he understands what hoarding is now, it doesn’t mean he’s cured, but he understands it more and he can look back and see how bad it was. Because he understands that it's rooted in, for some people, genetics, and for others, their emotional background and how they were raised. He understands that it’s something he has to always be conscious of.
What struck me is that there’s a spectrum for people—and even for one person, there can be a spectrum that they slide on over the course of their life.
Absolutely. There’s a hoarding scale, it’s one to five. I think the layman way of describing it would be that one is maybe slightly messier than normal messy, and five is just absolute squalor.
Is it often triggered by a life event or by trauma? For your father, was it triggered by his accident?
Well, he was a hoarder before the accident. But it really spiraled out of control after his brain injury. So I can’t blame the brain injury completely. But it’s certainly exacerbated by trauma. What I’ve read, and especially stuff by doctors Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, who are great resources for people who are learning about the illness from an expert’s standpoint—they talk about how they’ve recently found … a marker on the 14th chromosome, and they’re still researching what that means, but it’s present in a high percentage of people with hoarding tendencies. But for those who don’t have a genetic mark, it’s oftentimes rooted in childhood and being [emotionally] neglected in early development.
And I can’t diagnose my dad, I’m not sure, but I think it’s probably the latter. He came from an abusive background, his parents were both alcoholics, and I’m sure that had a big role in what caused his hoarding. So when he was emotionally out of sorts, the hoarding always got worse.
What really comes through in the book is the deep love you have for your parents. That’s so prevalent. Can you talk about what your relationship was like growing up and what it’s like now?
Honestly, it’s not that different now from when I was growing up. In many ways, I had a really normal childhood. I had parents who were there for everything—every soccer game, every dance recital. My parents wanted me, and I always felt that. And they loved me. And I always knew, even before I knew there was a word for hoarding, I knew that whatever drove my father to collect compulsively was beyond his control. I never felt like he loved things more than he loved me. We have a really close relationship. I think, in one way, possibly closer than most because we went through these really, really trying times together. My family as a whole was [dealt] this rough [hand], but we went through a lot together. And I think for some families, that breaks you apart, but for mine, we were always so close and there was always love and there was always laughter, and that made us even closer. And I guess I always felt like I had to protect my parents, which made me almost love them more.
What was the hardest part about growing up in that environment? You mention there were bugs and rats, even though you managed to not be fazed by the bugs, which is pretty brave.
For me, it was my normal. I grew up with it. And it developed gradually over time. Even though I always knew there was something wrong with us, and wrong with the way we lived, it was still home for me. It was still where we lived. So it was my normal. The hard thing was in knowing my normal was really, really abnormal for the rest of the world. I always felt this compulsive need to hide who I really was from the rest of the world. So no one would ever see my house or see our car because there were things in our car. I was incredibly shy as a child because I just didn’t want to be noticed. I didn’t want to bring attention to me or the way we lived.
Can you talk a little bit more about this feeling of having a secret—did it affect your friendships as a child? Or when you went away to college?
I was very lucky that I had two really close friends growing up. They never asked questions. I think over the years they figured out something was wrong. There wasn’t a word for hoarding then, but they knew something was wrong. And they never asked questions but they were always there. They never looked at me strangely if I had to shower at their house after school or if I slept over on a weeknight during the winter because there was no heat at home. It was amazing for me that I had such amazing friends at such a young age. A lot of kids don’t intuitively understand when other people need help, and they did.
But as an adult—it’s one thing for the people who grew up with me, because they saw me grow up and they accepted me and my family, and they knew my parents and they knew what good people they were. Growing up and having an adult life, I always felt like people would realize that I wasn’t the person that I was pretending to be. That I come off as this really normal woman but once they found out that my parents live in squalor, that they would want nothing to do with me. Shame is one of those feelings that never quite goes away, I think.
Do you ever talk to your friends from childhood about it now—about what it was like to grow up and what their memories were—or as you were writing the book?
Absolutely. The thing that is different with those relationships than my adult friendships is that, over the years, when I graduated from college, they actually came in and helped me to maintain my parents in their homes over the years. So they knew. They had an idea. I don’t think they ever really knew how bad it was when I was a teenager. And I don’t think there was any real need to bring it up and be like, ‘Well, let me tell you how bad my childhood was.’ Because I don’t think I had a bad childhood. So I think they knew but they didn’t. It’s something they always accepted. The fact that they knew my parents made it easier, because they understood it was an illness, not something to judge.
You decided to write this book and then you had to have a conversation with your parents. Can you tell us how that conversation went?
I was originally writing a different book and then I went to go meet with my agent and I was telling her how that book was going and a few other ideas I had for other things. And I was like, ‘By the way, I don’t know if this would work, but…” and I [brought up the] hoarding. And she was like, ‘Wait, what?’ And so I gave her the five-minute life story. And she [said], ‘That’s your book. That is what you’re working on.’ And I immediately left and started bawling in the middle of the street and called my mom. And she [told me], ‘We owe this to you.’ And I never felt like that. And she said, ‘If this is going to help you work your way through emotions, then you absolutely should do it. Because there are so many people who feel alone. And you just happen to be a writer.’ So my parents were incredibly supportive.
And you read the book to them before you sent it off to the publisher, right?
They’ve seen most of the book. They haven’t seen all of it. But I gave my dad my book proposal before I shipped it off, because I told them, ‘Whenever you say pull the plug, I will.’ And he looked at it and he said, ‘This is an amazing story, and I’m so sorry it's yours.’ But I called my mom every day that I was working on the book, [to ask her], ‘Is this what happened? Let me just make sure.’ She was my fact-checker. But they never asked me to change anything. They were unbelievably supportive in this process.
One of the things I found so poignant was that when you’d talk to your mother about writing it, she would express these fears that you might hate her for the way you grew up. What did you say to her when she would say that to you?
Well, it’s such a preposterous idea, because there’s so much love in my family. But she feels guilty. She feels like as a mother, her job was always to protect me and she didn’t. I always knew she was doing the best she could. My mom has had a really rough life. For much of my childhood, she was bedridden from physical disability or seriously depressed because of it. She did the best she could. She was the breadwinner in our family and she always took care of everything. When she became disabled, that really broke her, in a lot of ways. She struggled through that depression, had always been able to take care of everything. That really broke her in a lot of ways. She’s gotten through that depression, she feels so, so guilty. I don’t. I don’t feel she should. She was going through her own stuff. I didn’t understand as a kid, but as an adult, I definitely do.
Can you talk about the catalyst that made your parents realize something needed to change? It was after you went away to college.
I always say this was the stupidest, best thing I’ve ever done. When I was 18, I lost my scholarship to college. I was devastated because college was my ticket out. And it was late in the summer and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go anywhere in the fall. And if I did, it would be local, and I would have to stay home. And I swallowed a handful of painkillers, because I couldn’t imagine living that way again. And it was the first time I’d ever felt angry at the way I lived, because I’d been away from it for almost a year. And my parents needed that. They needed to almost lose me to get out of the situation they were living in. And they abandoned their house and moved into a new apartment. And to my mom’s credit, she cashed out her retirement fund to help me pay for college, just because she didn’t want me to give up my dreams.
I thought it was interesting that, in the book, you said you started out hoping to ‘fix’ the problem, and then realized you don’t really ‘fix’ hoarding. But it does seem like your parents are doing better?
They really are. I think after their last clean-out, it was a really emotional time, and I basically said, ‘If you ever ask me to do this again for you, I’m done. I’m done with you.’ And I can’t actually imagine ever being done with my parents, I love them. But that was enough. And they really have raised their bar. They have somebody come in regularly [to clean], my father is still trying to find someone who can help him work through [these issues], which is really hard process to find a therapist who understands hoarding, who specializes in it and who also takes insurance. I’m flabbergasted by how few professionals there are, apparently. But they’re doing a lot better. And it’s always going to be a struggle. It’s unbelievably hard for them. It will never come naturally to them. But they want to change now. And they are conscious of it. And I think that’s the difference now [from] before, which is that they see it, and they’re conscious of it. And they also really want grandkids, so [laughs].
The carrot before the horse. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you want to share about the book or the process of writing it and putting your story out there in public?
There’s this great anecdote that I feel I need to share with people, because it got cut from the book. It was in the book, but it just didn’t work, so we took it out. I was starting a new job at a magazine a couple of years ago, and before I left for my first day of work, my dad called me for the first-day-of-work pep talk. And he’s always concerned that I’m not going to make friends, because I was so shy when I was little. And so we were talking about that and he was like, ‘You know, I was really shy when I was little, too.’ I just don’t believe that because my dad, he is the living epitome of Santa Claus. He’s jolly and funny—and I said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ And he said, ‘No, there was so much for me to hide at home, that I didn’t want anyone to notice me.’ And it was in that moment that I realized that my dad had the same childhood I did, it was just a different melody. I think at the end of the day, writing this book helped me understand my parents a lot more, if that’s possible.