“It didn’t matter where I was, or who I pretended to be. I would always be the girl who grew up in garbage.”
Out in the world, the Millers seem like a normal family, going to school and work, and out to dinner together. Out in the world, they don’t have to think about, or be weighed down by, the disaster that awaits them at home. Piled with bags and stacks of decaying paper, infested with fleas and rats and, unbeknownst to the family, harbouring a squatter in the attic, their house is falling apart beneath the sludge of her father’s hoarding compulsion. Kimberly Rae Miller grows up in the midst of this garbage, in conditions that would surely cause Child Protective Services to remove her if they became aware of the situation. Miller learns early on to hide her home life, never inviting friends over, and always being picked up or dropped off around the corner from her house. The shame and the squalor in which she grows up contrast sharply with the deeply sympathetic and humanizing portraits of her otherwise loving parents, and have a profound impact on her life even after she escapes her parents’ home.
This book has a very strong opening, because Miller does a wonderful job of humanizing her father before getting into the details of his hoarding. She drives this home by describing a scene where her father is buckling her into the backseat of their car. His wife is berating him for letting his daughter sit in filth because he didn’t clean out the car before coming to pick them up, but as he buckles her in, Miller’s father is singing to her about the importance of wearing a seatbelt. The evidence of his love for her entirely overshadows his problem, and starting off on this note is so important, because it would be easy to see him as a horrible person when Miller fully reveals the depth of the filth she grew up surrounded by.
The filth was so bad that Miller prayed every night for almost two years that her house would burn down so that her family could start over without having to face the monumental task of cleaning up all the garbage. And one day, the house did burn down in an electrical fire, killing all but one of the family’s many pets. What seems like a clean start for Miller is a horrifying tragedy for her father, who loses his entire treasure trove in the blaze. When he wades into the ashes to try to salvage something, he emerges with pictures of his daughter. But despite this clear evidence of love, forcible separation from their collections can be extremely hard for hoarders, and it’s heart-wrenching to see Miller’s father unravel in the aftermath of the fire to the point where he lashes out at his daughter. Shortly thereafter, he is admitted to a mental hospital, but at time before hoarding was really understood by mental health professionals.
From a burned-down house, to a house sold as-is for a fraction of the value to the later shock of the buyers, to small apartments, a clean start never amounted to a real change for the Millers. Over the years, her father’s hoarding was exacerbated by her mother’s compulsive shopping habit, which began after a failed surgery to correct her spine, which was deformed by scoliosis. The kitchen is abandoned in favour of eating out or from sealed packages, and since no repairman can visit, the family is forced to shower at a nearby gym when the pipes break down. Miller eventually escapes this by going away to college, but when her financial aid is cut off after her first year and she can’t afford to return to the school of her dreams, she is forced back into her parent’s squalid home, and the result is a suicide attempt by an overdose of pain medication. Miller becomes homeless after her recovery, living in her meticulously cleaned car and working two jobs in order to get back to school.
Although Miller struggles all her life to keep her father’s problem a secret, when her mother has a botched surgery and comes home with an open stent leading directly into her abdominal cavity, she finally has to ask for help. Loyal friends step up to shovel out the garbage and scrub the house clean so that Miller’s mother can come home without risking her life. This transitional eventually leads to a vague happy ending, where her parents have managed to keep a clean house for over a year, and her father has promised to go to therapy. However, I was still left wondering about Miller’s own mental health, and hoping that she, too, would get the help she needed.