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Hoarders on A&E

We are now TV-less since the switch over to satellite, and I don’t mind so much. If I’m going to watch something, I really have to think about it, decide what the movie is going to be, whether I’ll be absorbed enough in the story line for two or so hours, and so on. No longer do I switch on the set for the tapioca-like comfort of white noise–TV commercials, Judge Judy, and the endless Law & Order episodes.

The last couple of weeks, I have been juggling two assignments–the copyedit of an erotica novel and the proofread of a nonfiction book on Theodore Roosevelt. Neither were particularly difficult assignments, but together I needed to sit and edit for about eight hours a day, while being incredibly focused on fine details during every minute of that time. I had to build in breaks that didn’t involve reading. I used my sister’s faster computer to go to the A&E Web site and find some quick entertainment in a three-inch by three-inch window.

One of the new episodes that had been added was the pilot of Hoarders, a reality show that explores the world of compulsive hoarding, a topic I’ve been fascinated by since I don’t when–probably birth. www.aetv.com/hoarders/

My first novel The Collectors tackles this subject, but back when I was doing research on compulsive hoarding a few years ago, I could find barely anything: Ghosty Men by Franz Lidz, a memoir/biography of the author’s hoarding uncle combined with the story of the Collyer brothers–probably the best-known hoarders of all time; a two-page story on the Collyer brothers in New York: An Illustrated History; and a few homemade Web pages with so many typos and errors that I doubted the stories’ veracity.

How I wish Hoarders had existed then, which goes to the heart of hoarding, the why?, and treats the subjects humanely, not as crazy cat ladies. In the pilot episode, two people are treated–Linda and Steven, both highly intelligent individuals who have become trapped by their stuff. Steven seems to be crippled somewhat by disability, and most of his garbage appears to be recyclables (compulsive hoarders usually have a theme with their stuff). He’s paired with the better of the counselors, I think, and she and Steven come up with a mission statement for his clean-up: to have a home that will also be a spiritual place where Steven can nurture his soul. Steven has been homeless at times and wants to write his life story. Most of his day is spent outside of his apartment, where he has made friends with coffee shop patrons, storekeepers, and library clerks. He loves to read and learn and is shamed when his counselor/organizer finally makes it to his bathroom, discovering "stuff" covered in defecation, which must be disposed of by people wearing sanitation masks and using gloves and shovels.

Linda is divorced, her husband no long able to cope with her hoarding ways, and as part of their divorce settlement, the family house must be cleaned of her stuff and sold. Linda is shown interacting with her children, where she puts blame on them for leaving items at home when they moved and adding to the problem. The daughter recounts the shame she felt growing up and never being able to have anybody over. As Linda starts sorting through her stuff, she has breakdowns when confronting old possessions (an old baby outfit of one of her children), and her emotions, her memories, are attached to the object, making it almost impossible to get rid of anything.

Very rarely is there a success story with compulsive hoarding–and the follow-up text for each of these episodes show this. I would say that maybe two out of every ten participants are able to make any progress in their compulsive hoarding, and these are out of the hoarders that willingly seek out help. After watching each of these episodes, I feel a major depression come over me. Compulsive hoarding springs from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it’s tragic to see these people with such potential choked by their possessions and only having relationships with things rather than others. I guess the things have never hurt or abandoned them like people have.

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