September 11, 2012

Dirty Little Secrets: A Psychtember Review

Patient: Dirty Little Secrets by C.J. Omololu


"Everyone has a secret. But Lucy’s is bigger and dirtier than most. It’s one she’s been hiding for years—that her mom’s out-of-control hoarding has turned their lives into a world of garbage and shame. She’s managed to keep her home life hidden from her best friend and her crush, knowing they’d be disgusted by the truth. So, when her mom dies suddenly in their home, Lucy hesitates to call 911 because revealing their way of life would make her future unbearable—and she begins her two-day plan to set her life right. 

With details that are as fascinating as they are disturbing, C. J. Omololu weaves an hour-by-hour account of Lucy’s desperate attempt at normalcy. Her fear and isolation are palpable as readers are pulled down a path from which there is no return, and the impact of hoarding on one teen’s life will have readers completely hooked." (from Goodreads)


Axis 1. Characters

Lucy's a sympathetic narrator with a lot of admirable qualities: a great survivor's instinct, an ability to push on, and strong self-reliance. But she's also obviously suffering from the effects of her mom's hoarding, paying the price with a limited social life and low self-esteem (not to mention the house situation itself, which is a whole separate issue). We're shown how much Lucy fears the stigma of living in such a house — she was called "Garbage Girl" and bullied before she transferred schools — and she must keep everyone at a distance. I don't blame her for feeling ashamed; I'm sure I would feel sick, mortified and stifled living the way she does.

She has a pretty poor relationship with her mother, not surprisingly. I think I would have felt sympathy for the mother if in every way, except for the hoarding, she was a wonderful mom...but she's not! She's always yelling at Lucy and blaming her for everything, spending all of her kindness on her patients and treating her family like crap. Since it's told from Lucy's perspective, I admit I couldn't feel a lot of sympathy for her mom, although I did feel a little sorry for her at one point when she starts crying, and it seems like she does get really stressed about her job. It's sad that she doesn't have a better relationship with her daughter, but I suspect that it's due to more than just the hoarding, since the mom seems to have other issues.

The romance is cute — I really liked Josh, since he's so obviously into Lucy (the coffee shop scene is adorable!). His mom has problems too, which helped Lucy realize that she wasn't the only one with parents who have problems, but also that her mom's hoarding is different from more common disorders (like an addiction). I liked Lucy's brother Phil and I wish she'd opened up to him, because he understood what it was like to live that way; it's a shame that he wasn't there for her.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

As the presentation of what it's like to live with a mom who hoards, Dirty Little Secrets is very effective. As a story, though, it doesn't really work, because it doesn't have much of a plot. There are basically two major plot points (one at the beginning, one at the end) and the middle is all Lucy cleaning the house. We get flashbacks about the mom, Lucy's siblings, and what it was like living in this house, but it's very slow and lacks momentum. The fact that Lucy has a deadline helps a little, but seriously, she spends most of the book cleaning. If you are the kind of person who loves to have a huge mess to clean up, and that makes you happy, then you will love this book, because you can clean vicariously through Lucy. There are a few gross scenes in here, so if maggots and the like make you squeamish, you might want to be aware of that before reading this one. 

I appreciated that Lucy took initiative, first with trying to clean the house up, and then with the final action she took to try to free herself (although I don't necessarily agree with what she did, so I ended up feeling kind of mixed about this choice). The ending was very abrupt, and I was left feeling somewhat dissatisfied; I wanted more resolution with Josh and Kaylee, Lucy's siblings' reaction, and just a glimpse of Lucy's future generally.

Axis 3. Writing Style

Some of the descriptions in here are quite appallingly disgusting (which they should be, given that stuff is going bad), so the author does a good job with the grossing-out-the-reader side of things.

Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

This is a very realistic portrayal of a girl who has lived for years with a mom who's a hoarder in a house that is completely suffocating her with stuff. It's gotten to the point where things are molding and it's unlivable, really. There's a lot to do with the stigma of hoarding in here, and since stigma is a very important aspect of mental health I was pleased to see that brought in.

However, I would have liked more detail about the psychological explanation of the mom's hoarding behaviour. I really wish that this had been clearly explained to the reader; there's so much blame put on the mom in this book, and while I can understand that the author wants to validate how people with hoarding parents feel, and that's perfectly reasonable, I think it also needs to be pointed out that hoarding is caused by a mental disorder and that these individuals need help, and may not be able to stop without help. After all, some types of hoarding are classified as subtypes of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), but that's not mentioned here. At times it sounded like Lucy's mom was choosing to be like this, like she could have stopped at any time, and we never get to see what's going on in terms of the complexity of the mom's mental state, so I was disappointed about that. There are some oblique references to the cause of the hoarding behaviour (like the fact that it's genetic) but we never actually get told straight out that the mom has a mental illness.

Still, kudos to the author for picking an unusual topic that needs to be highlighted more in YA, and for doing her research about what it's like to live with a hoarder, and believably portraying the emotions one might experience in that tough situation.

"Fast Facts" about hoarding: Did You Know?
  • Some people hoard animals without giving them appropriate care. 
  • There's a specific term for the hoarding of books: bibliomania. (I wonder how many book bloggers have this?)

Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was Dirty Little Secrets?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous

There's actually an additional final chapter to this one, posted online (thanks to Bonnie from A Backwards Story for alerting me to this!). 

Patient shares symptoms with: The Opposite of Tidy by Carrie Mac

Patient's statement:

The phone's display shone brightly as I opened it to dial 911, the numbers blurring through the tears that had started to form in my eyes. I blinked hard. My fingers hovered over the first number as I looked down the hall at the piles of magazines, newspapers, clothes, plastic bags, and boxes of her stuff that choked all but a few narrow, winding paths through the house. I knew it smelled like rotting garbage in here, remembered it in one of the recesses of my brain. It was the same smell of decay I always worried would follow me out of the house, clinging to my clothes like a sock to Velcro. I'd lived with it for so long, I didn't even notice the smell anymore.

But the paramedics would.

Diagnosis: 3.5 shooting stars. 

For more information about hoarding, see here.


  1. This was the first book I read this year and I really ended up enjoying it. Even though at times the situation was a bit unbelievable or I didn't really agree with it (like the ending), I thought it was well done, and the characters were interesting. Like you pointed out, more could have been done to discuss the causes of hoarding (although they did talk about what doesn't cause it - just being messy or lazy, etc.) instead of just the stigma around it. But overall, I thought it was a good read, and like you said, this is a pretty rare topic in YA. I found your psych analysis really interesting too!

    Oh, and I loved the coffee shop scene :)

  2. Great review, Danya! I've heard of the author but haven't heard much about this book. It sounds good but perhaps some more background info would have been even better


I love comments, so post away!

Related Posts with Thumbnails