"Coming Clean" by Kimberly Rae Miller.

"Coming Clean" by Kimberly Rae Miller. Credit: Handout

COMING CLEAN, by Kimberly Rae Miller. Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, 256 pp., $25.

What's it like to live with hoarder parents? In Kimberly Rae Miller's memoir, "Coming Clean," the writer doesn't minimize the destruction the disorder causes families. But she paints a much more compassionate and nuanced portrait of the illness than is shown on reality TV shows such as "Hoarders."

Growing up an only child, Miller knew her family was different. Her father spent most of his time listening to NPR and inspecting pieces of paper out of his vast collection, while her mother ordered unnecessary items online and then let the boxes sit, unopened, to collect dust.

Their house was covered with paper and disused objects. Couches, floors, tables -- eventually whole rooms -- were lost to junk. Pipes break, causing floors to turn into a soggy swampland. Rats skitter between piles of junk and fleas infest the house. The boiler breaks and there is no heat or hot water.

The mess causes constant fighting within the family and a constant fear of being discovered. Miller finally escapes to go to college, and her parents move to other homes to escape the mess, but their hoarding always 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 about her parents. She describes them as "doting, fallible people that gave me everything they had, and a whole lot more." Eating out, or doing anything away from home, they instantly became a laughing, loving, nearly functional family.

Her parents seem aware of their problems, but powerless to make changes.

"How am I crazy today?" her father says affably whenever the adult Miller calls to talk about treatment. Her mother is more regretful. "One day you aren't going to be able to pretend everything was okay, and you're going to hate us," she says.

It's to Miller's credit that she 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."

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