MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now. If you watch reality TV, you might have stumbled across those shows like "Clean House" and "Hoarding: Buried Alive."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOARDING: BURIED ALIVE")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, this section used to be clear up until recently. I have things that I want to throw out or whatever. They're - old milk. This one is from May. So that's how many months - it's old. And then I have - I three of them here, which just haven't gotten into the garbage.
MARTIN: Now those shows are popular now, but when Kimberly Rae Miller was growing up, she didn't even know there were other families like hers. All she knew was that something about her family was not like other families and her house, well, that was anything but. She grew up with piles of stuff. Doors wouldn't close because things were in the way, stacks of paper turned to sludge under her feet. The pool was filled with brown muck.
Summers meant flea infestation, and then there were the rats. The mess eventually drove her to take extreme measures. And she talks about all of this in a memoir titled "Coming Clean." Kimberly Rae Miller joined me in the studio and I began by asking her what motivated her to share these secrets.
KIMBERLY RAE MILLER: Well, you know, we've only ever seen hoarding through the lens of reality television. And it's really important for me to tell people what hoarders are really like. I mean, this is one element of a fully rounded person. And it is a mental illness. And so, it was really important for me after my mother almost died a couple of years ago. I was forced to invite people into my home to help me clean it because I was so scared for her health. And it was the first time I'd ever told anyone my secret. And at that moment, when people didn't judge me, I realized that all of the shame I had been carrying for years wasn't necessary and that people would love me anyway. And that they would love my family anyway.
MARTIN: When did you first realize that something just - something wasn't right. Something's different...
MARTIN: ...and it wasn't right?
MILLER: Well, when I was in kindergarten, I told the school psychologist that my parents locked my baby sister in the trunk. My baby sister was a giant Thumbelina doll that I had named Cheryl. But my claim had caused the school to call CBS and have...
MARTIN: Child Protective Services.
MARTIN: Social workers.
MILLER: They came to visit the home. And in the week between my telling the school about the abuse of my doll and when the social worker actually came to visit the home, there was a mad dash to clean the home for fear that I'd be taken away from them. Then I realized that something was really wrong with the way we were living. And after that, I promised that I would never tell anyone about my dad.
MARTIN: It was your dad at this point who was the one?
MARTIN: Or at least he was - your mom said he was the one. Or was he the one?
MILLER: Yeah, you know, I think there is a difference between compulsive shopping and hoarding. And hoarding - there are definitely signs and pathological compulsions. And the way they see objects - the way they put value to objects, I mean...
MARTIN: Yeah talk about that if you would.
MILLER: Sure. You know, I mean people who hoard find connections to things that maybe the rest of us wouldn't. And that's rooted in multiple things. I mean, I'm certainly not a mental health professional, and so I can't speak for it from that element, but from the research that I've done - many hoarders start hoarding as a form - as a form of connecting to other people. And so when they see something that reminds them of someone they love, they hold onto it. If it reminds them of a way they felt good or positive memory in their life, they hold onto it. A lot of hoarders are incredibly intelligent people and they're able to see things in ordinary objects that we wouldn't necessarily see.
MARTIN: I think a lot of people will wonder, well, where was your mom in all of this?
MILLER: Well, I do touch on that in the book. But, you know, my mom has had a particularly rough road in life and, early my childhood, she underwent a surgery that left her bedridden for over a year. And then, afterward, there was such a prominent depression that followed that she really checked out for a long time. And in those years, my father's hoarding was really left unchecked. And in that time, she even said that she started hoarding in kind because she just wanted to make a place for herself in her own home. That my father's things had taken over so much, that she really wanted to find her spot in her home. And I think that's probably not a rarity among hoarding marriages.
MARTIN: You know, your mom - there's some really vivid passages in the book, which is actually very funny in parts - in some ways, if people can believe that - but where your mom keeps saying, she's going to hate us. Trying to encourage your dad to clean up, or at least to stop his behavior, or at least to keep it under control or intervene at some point, she's going to hate us. But you don't.
MILLER: I don't hate my parents. You know, I really do believe that they did the best they could. And, you know, they didn't have easy lives either. And I always know that they were there for everything that they could be there for. They were at every dance recital, at every soccer practice, every school play - they were good parents in the ways that they could. And I never believed that my father loved things more than he loved me. I knew that whatever drew him to compulsively collect things was beyond him.
MARTIN: He sounds hilarious in some ways.
MILLER: He's a wonderful man.
MARTIN: But he also had some moments where his behavior was completely inappropriate. Like, for example, you recount a time when you had - the rare time - when you had a friend over and he went off on some rant about something because I think he thought you'd thrown one of his papers out. Am I right about that?
MILLER: No, it was actually a radio that was broken.
MARTIN: A radio that was broken. And he punched you in the face. So how do you understand that.
MILLER: Well, it's important to realize that my father had undergone a traumatic brain injury shortly before that incident. And I think that definitely influenced that particular moment in our lives. Not only was he suffering from chronic migraines and the repercussions of the injury, but he had also lost his job, his house had just burned down - there was a lot going on in that particular moment and I think that led to that. If I talk to him about it now he only has a very vague recollection of that and he apologizes for it profusely. You know, he was not a violent man. And my father grew up in a violent household, and so I can only assume that, when he lost control, he reverted back to the way he grew up.
MARTIN: Why do you think it is, though, we're becoming more aware of this?
MILLER: I think many of us have always felt a connection to it. And once there was a name for it, and once these shows came out and there was visibility for this disease - people were able to finally connect like I did, and say, yes, that's what my aunt has. Yes, that's what my friend has. Yes, that's what my dad has. And feeling like you're part of something, feeling like - since there's knowledge about it now - people are being trained in the mental health industry in it now. That, you know, life will get better for these people, hopefully.
MARTIN: Is there any one thing you wish people would know about this? I know, again, looping back to where we started our conversation, you're saying a lot of the acquaintance that people have with hoarding is through these reality shows, and you're saying that's not reality. What's the piece of it that people aren't getting?
MILLER: Right. Well, you know, these people who apply to be on hoarding shows are people who are so desperate for help that they will do anything - including humiliate themselves on television. And these people are living out their worst nightmare on TV and it's being filmed. And, I don't know about you, but I probably wouldn't look so great if I were being filmed on my worst day. And, you know, these people have real lives. They have children. They - you know, a lot of hoarders don't have good relationships with their children - I do. You know, but a lot of people who don't hoard don't have great relationships with their children. They're individuals and they have full lives and interests and educations and jobs and friends and we need to see them as full people and as a full package.
MARTIN: Are you angry at them?
MILLER: I don't think I'm angry anymore. I think I definitely was, especially in the writing of this book. There were a lot of moments that I had to relive as an adult and see them through adult eyes. And feeling like that was a really, really unfair way to grow up. But also, in writing this book, I actually gave myself the opportunity to be angry. I don't necessarily recommend everybody work through their issues by writing a book, but it worked for me. And by the end, I was really able to understand my family more and I was able to understand, you know, what they were going through at the time because I only saw things as a child then.
MARTIN: Kimberly Rae Miller is the author of "Coming Clean." It's about her experiences growing up with her father who was a hoarder and her mother was who was a compulsive shopper at one point. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Kimberly Rae Miller, thank you for speaking with us.
MILLER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.