Archive for May, 2010

Real Life Horrors: Hoarding

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Hoarding has always fascinated me, probably because there but for the grace of God go I. A hard bump on the head or a reaction to medication might channel what I call collecting into hoarding. (My wife thinks it’s hoarding now, I might add.)

But though there’s a compulsive quality to it, and with some 4,000 books a good case could be made that I don’t ever need to buy another one, there are still a couple of major differences between what I do and what I see on A&E’s Hoarders and The Learning Channel’s Hoarding: Buried Alive. First, I am picky about the condition of my books and lobby cards and will 9.8 times out of 10 pass up something I may really want if it is in substandard hoarding7 400x319 Real Life Horrors: Hoardingcondition. True hoarders seem to not care anything about condition or rarity; in fact, filth seems to be a prerequisite for advanced practitioners.

Second, I (mostly) discriminate in what I buy. I don’t buy ALL books, just books within a pretty narrowly defined range; I don’t collect ALL lobby cards, pretty much only those from serials. Hoarders, though they may have a broad focus like food or cats, just as often  “collect” random crap, often broken, dirty, useless to anyone else but themselves.

Yet another difference: though no one will ever accuse me of being a neat freak, I do keep my books on shelves, organized by category, etc. If the stories I’ve read and the shows I’ve seen are indicative of all hoarders, organization is not even on the list of random thoughts.

But what staggers me is the sheer chaos of the hoarders homes. Walking three feet in any direction is generally impossible without walking over and around piles of newspapers, empty liter bottles, broken toys, odd pieces of clothing and furniture, trinkets, knick-knacks, cans of food (or just cans…or sometimes, just food), and other similar stuff. Hoarders just cannot bear to get rid of anything, and always have a rationale for why they hold onto objects.

They  always seem to have a plan to do something with each thing, often very specific, but what I want to know is, if they ever actually decide to follow through on those plans, how would you find any one thing? Digging for humanoid fossils in Tanzania would be highly productive by comparison.

And they keep bringing in new stuff! With no place to sit, or stand or lie down, there is nothing to do but go up, stacking things higher and more precariously each day. Living in any comfortable sense of the word is not remotely conceivable.

And the filth! Many hoarders don’t take their trash out, sometimes not even bothering to bag it up. Used coffee filters and uneaten bananas lay and fester beneath piles of garage sale clothing and bags of half-eaten chicken dinners, stacks of  pizza boxes and sacks full of scrap wrapping paper. In the worst cases, it is hard to believe the hoarder hasn’t infected him- or herself with outrageous new strains of drug-resistant bacteria.

Of course, in this day and age you can make a reality television series about anything (from Ice Road Truckers to The Housewives of New Jersey) but it still makes my jaw drop that there are enough hoarders in just the U.S. to supply two subjects for two different programs once a week for however long a reality ‘season’ is. Figure, at a minimum, there are 13 episodes. That means the producers need  52 new hoarders for every season. Assuming that not every hoarder wants their fifteen minutes of fame, and that not every hoarder has sought help or has a family member that is actively seeking to solve the problem, the production assistants must go through, I’d guess, at least twice to three times that number to find suitable subjects. (As the shows are obviously cheaply done, there can’t be much if any payoff for the hoarders beyond getting some free organizational and psychiatric help.)

One lady hoards food. She doesn’t eat it necessarily, she just wants to have it around, even when it has long since, uh, moved on. Multiple refrigerators are packed with rotting meat and  decayed vegetables, years-old yogurt and cottage cheese; pumpkins turn to goo sitting upon the floor, cheese floats in pools of unknown, dark liquids. The flesh of roast chickens have gelled, recognizable only by the label on the package.hoarders 400x300 Real Life Horrors: Hoarding

One poor guy (the disease afflicts men and women pretty equally, it seems) met a really terrific women, established a relationship and finally got up the nerve to take her back to his apartment. Wrong move. She really cared for him, but after clambering over the piles of crap in the entry way and taking a look at the view of the house, she walked out. Can’t say as I blame her.

A recent Hoarders focused on animal hoarding, a lady who felt the need to care for stray cats.  Noble goal. But her floors, when you could see them beneath the hundreds of stacked, un-emptied litter boxes, were covered with up to two inches of cat feces. When animal control finally took charge, they found 35 live cats and the skeletons or decaying remains of 41 more, ranging in age from kittens to adults. They had starved to death, suffered from serious illnesses, been crushed by tumbling debris, and so on.

Cats were found in the attic, the garage, in the bed stuffing, in the weeds out back. You really have to see it for yourself. A swatch of the 35 had to be put down due to a respiratory ailment. And the lady still wanted to keep 13 of the cats! How does such good intent go so wrong? The cats would have been better on their own in the wild, and yet there is little doubt that the lady did actually love them. Strange and perverse, this life thing.

Obviously, this is an illness, and having dealt with my own obsessive-compulsive disorder all my adult life, I have some sympathy.  And I understand that hoarders see a value in what they hoard, and I don’t have to agree with that perceived value. (There are lots of people who think first editions of H.P. Lovecraft are a ridiculous thing for a grown man to seek. Go figure.)

But sadly, there isn’t a lot to be done for people who suffer from it.

collyer hoard 400x302 Real Life Horrors: HoardingOne real problem with the shows, of course, is that ‘reality’ shows are anything but. The camera crew just can’t possibly be there for all these extraordinary moments, catching all the relevant reactions and interactions. And just the presence of a camera crew affects how people act. The ideal way to do these shows would be via hidden cameras and interviews only, because too much is obviously staged. (Ok, it’s not as bad as say, Operacion Repo or Dawg, Bounty Hunter. Those are horrors of a different order.)

Hoarding is not a new phenomenon. The Collyer brothers are probably the most famous. I can’t do justice to their story in the space I have, so let me strongly recommend the Wiki article, but the end result is that when they died, the city of New York, after hauling out several trucks worth of what any of us would call garbage  just to get inside the brownstone house, they finally opted to burn the building down.

It’s spring, and that means spring cleaning. I think I’m going to set aside a little time and cull my library a bit. Just to prove I can.

I hope.