Considering its grim subject matter, Coming Clean is a surprisingly upbeat memoir. Kimberly Rae Miller takes us back, as much as she may be able, to a home raised by hoarding parents. Growing up, the kitchen was often too messy to eat in, and the family (Miller, her mom, and her dad) would gather on the parents’ bed, the only clear space in the house, to eat a family dinner. At times the water and plumbing would break down and fights with neighbors were constant. As a girl Kimberly picked another house near her own, and had her friends’ parents drop her off their after playdates so no one saw the disrepair of her yard. As an adult, she has dreams where she is back in the squalor of her childhood home, where “wet mashed newspapers, between [her] toes, not so different from the way sand feels as you inch closer to the ocean.” When the living conditions became too much for the family, abandoning homes entirely seemed an easier choice than cleaning the mess they’d created.
Despite the neglect Miller suffered as a child, and the responsibility she takes on for her parents’ hoarding issues as an adult (repeatedly attempting to help them clear out stuff so they don’t literally die in their own filth), her parents are both portrayed as sympathetic, loving, and likable people. I think this is part of the memoir’s charm–above all, this is a story of a family’s struggle with mental illness. As Miller grows into a more self-aware adult, her role within her family is able to change. She broaches the subject of hoarding with her seemingly oblivious parents (her father continually implies that she is just very clean, rather than him having any sort of issue), passes along a book on hoarding, and eventually takes it upon herself to write this book. These choices make ripples, and these ripples can make waves: near the end of the book, another young woman sneaks up to Miller at a party, and asks if she is writing about hoarding. Miller is sort of panicked, still not sure if she is “the kind of person who regularly told people that my father is a hoarder.” The young woman quickly says that her mother is a hoarder too, and the two women compare stories “like grizzled war veterans.”
There are always bunches of memoirs of notable or unremarkable life experience, and one thing I appreciated about Coming Clean was Miller’s restraint when it came to self-analysis. Right at the start, she admits she may not be fully over her traumatic childhood, and I don’t think this book was written as an attempt to find herself or better herself. I’ve had to stop a few memoirs because I felt so bogged down by the author’s moody, indulgent pontification on their upbringing.
I also liked that Miller acknowledged, at the end of the book, that this was (to a great extent) her parents’ story. Many memoirs cover the area of childhood and upbringing, and many do it well, but these stories can skip dangerously close to biography–who are these mothers and fathers that children have assumed to know so well? Do mom and dad wish to chime in? Maybe Miller was able to acknowledge and have the support of her parents in writing Coming Clean because of their still strong relationship, despite all the stuff accumulated between them. Miller notes that upon finishing Coming Clean, her father said: “Wow, that’s quite a story. I’m sorry that it was yours.”
A quick note here: Coming Clean is available to borrow from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, if you have a Kindle and are an Amazon Prime member. One of the perks of Prime/Kindle I often forget about, but there are some gems available to borrow amidst all the rest!
- ‘Coming Clean’ About Growing Up In A Hoarding Household (npr.org)
- ‘Coming Clean’ is a window into hoarding (dailyherald.com)
- Book Scene: ‘Coming Clean’ (yakimaherald.com)