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NAMI Bookshelf: February 2011

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Dirty SecretDirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding
Jessie Sholl
Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books (2010)

Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding, a memoir by Jessie Sholl, unlocks some of "why" and "how" behind the mysterious compulsion to hoard. More broadly, however, it is recommended for anyone seeking to understand the dynamics of a parent's mental illness on the entire family.  

In Dirty Secret the mother's compulsive hoarding (and possible other undiagnosed condition) becomes the responsibility and ultimately the obsession of her daughter,  sometimes pulling the author into the losing battle against the mother's cluttered yellow house, while at other times she disengages from her mother or thinks the problem is solved.

In a disturbing twist, the physical pile of stuff that at times stands between the mother-daughter relationship literally gets under the daughter's skin and becomes communicable. This skin condition that the daughter and her husband can't shake is a visceral metaphor for how many families pass along anxiety, pain and trauma. (Sensitive readers may find that the second half of the book, which deals with the skin problems that color—and scent—their airplane rides and overseas vacations, to be a little upsetting.) Ironically, the infection brings the author to a new level of empathy with her mother because, like the stigma of mental illness, it made her feel like she herself had a secret to mask under her skin.

The book re-creates a suffocating feeling of battling against a huge pile of belongings, exacerbated by the relentless turning back upon itself that is the mother's illness and family history—or any family history.It is with facts, a support group, and the emotional support of her husband and family members that the author ultimately carves out a truce with her mother and her mother's stuff, a peace that grows out of a compassionate journey in which she shrinks herself down into her mother's mind, which will always equal her mother's house.

"The more I shared the secret the smaller it became," she decides after working through her feelings about her mother. The actual mess remains in the house at the end of the book, postponed until the next archeological dig into her family's emotional heritage preserved knee-deep in a yellow house.

Reviewed by Kim Puchir

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Henry's DemonsHenry's Demons: Living with Schizophrenia, A Father and Son's Story
Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn
Scribner (2011)

This unique memoir, written by a father and son, tells two sides of the same story: the process of falling apart and putting back together a life and a family touched by schizophrenia.  Patrick Cockburn is a journalist who described surviving as a correspondent in Baghdad as "a diversion from the strain" of dealing with his son Henry's schizophrenia. The book benefits from Patrick's background—he searches for answers about his son's illness by looking at journal articles, history and social forces such as stigma and deinstitutionalization. Since the society where he is searching for a place for his son in Great Britain, American readers will be interested to find that there are a great many similarities—homelessness, cumbersome privacy laws, stigma—even while learning about Britain's particular mental health treatment system, the National Health Service.

Henry's writing skills and memory are intact despite years of chronic and painful psychosis, which he describes with clarity and dignity in his chapters. If readers get a sense of the isolation that schizophrenia has caused him, they may be surprised that his ability to reach out to people brings a cast of extras into his story—homeless people, junkies, Irish travelers, fellow patients, the couple that saved him from near-fatal hypothermia. After years of dangerous escapes from hospitals, Henry finally begins to take his medication as a way of avoiding what he calls the "polka dot days" of his acute illness.

His father never seems to lose sight of the creative efforts such as music and painting that Henry is sometimes able to pursue. In the face of his son's deep denial that he is ill, Patrick is able to see that "Henry has been baffled but also brave in withstanding the miseries so unjustly inflicted upon him." One of the most valuable contributions of Henry's Demons is the opportunity to watch Patrick assemble a new vision of a life for himself and his family in which schizophrenia does not negate the possibility for happiness.

Reviewed by Kim Puchir

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