This is a tough episode. We have two mothers who hoard and two sons that have come to the end of their patience with them, but for completely different reasons (and motivations.) A&E wasn’t kidding when they said this season was going to crank it up to 11.
Becky, Collegeville, PA
Becky has a lot of antiques. She grew up in a house filled with 19th Century furniture, games, books and tools. And when her grandmother died, she continued to fill the house with more and more. Eventually she was evicted from her home for non-payment (I assume she refinanced the house, or didn’t pay the taxes on the land, as the home was built in 1837) and all of her things went to storage.
To the tune of 16 storage units. It is unprecedented. Walter, who manages the storage facility, feels for her plight, but feels the sting to his wallet even more. Becky has not paid for the use of her units for a year and has accrued $20,000 in storage fee debt. Walter has reached a breaking point: she has a matter of days to clear out, or he’ll serve her with papers and everything will be carted off to the landfill.
Becky moved in with her only surviving son, Ken. Ken and Michelle are engaged to be married and live in Michelle’s tidy and spare town home. Becky immediately began hoarding her room, and now her things spill out of her doorway, collect in hodge podge piles on the stairs and are mounding up in little corners of the town home. She contributes nothing toward her living expenses. Michelle will no longer allow this continue. Becky will need to sell anything of value to earn money to pay off her debts.
At first glance, it seems she might be able to make some money. Old colonial and Victorian furniture are in all 16 units, including boxed up china, crockery, and glassware. A closer look, however, shows the real story: broken chair legs, chipped plates, shattered vases held together with bubble-wrap. Becky only sees the enchanting items of her grandmother’s house where she came to live as a young child.
Her back story is one of the sadder ones we’ve heard on the show. Her parents simply didn’t want her. At age seven, she contracted pneumonia. Her father ordered her off her couch. The grandmother, visiting, decided to take Becky home with her, and there she stayed. Flashes of her childhood in old black and white frames show her to have been a pretty little girl, with a loving and affectionate grandmother. She doesn’t expound on her parents, other than to say that she never lived with them again.
Two decades ago, Becky’s older son Bill was killed in a car accident. Becky says when it happened, she not only lost a child, but her future. She detached from everyone and – according to her son Ken – her hoarding intensified.
Ken grew up in chaos, and seems to have found the order and structure he’s craved with his fiancée. Because long-term living with Ken and Michelle is out of the question, and because Becky seems unwilling to look into other living arrangements, Ken doesn’t know what will happen to his mother once they move her out. He says with complete frustration, “she’ll probably become homeless.”
Dr. David Kutz (oh, he’s new!) is a psychologist that specializes in OCD and hoarding. There is an unassuming and friendly manner to him. Becky seems to connect with that and immediately begins to tell him her story and in a raw and frank manner. Dr. Kutz tells us that she is a very complicated patient – neither parent appreciated her (which is a lovely way of presenting her story in a way that reminds us to be sympathetic) and having her grandmother’s (and great-grandmother’s, etc) things are a way of making her feel whole. It’s the family that didn’t throw her way, these things.
When the doctor asks her what she thinks she’ll keep and what she’ll throw away, and what about things that are broken, she shows us how intelligent she is by responding, “like people – just because something is broken – you don’t always throw it away.” She says this pointedly to the doctor, her voice wavering from emotion. It is one of the few times that Becky pointedly remarks on her situation. She is masterful at redirecting conversations away from addressing her problems.
Dorothy Breininger – one of the producers of the series – is Becky’s organizer. She breaks it down in no uncertain terms: with 16 units and two days to work, 8 units must be cleared by the end of each day, which puts it at one unit per hour that will be emptied. A monumental task. Becky immediately is distracted by a small box of doo-dads.
Dorothy stops her for a moment, “Are we really gonna be talking about soaps?” Becky doesn’t answer her, she reaches across Dorothy’s arm to grab another mini-soap from a box that’s been pulled out of a larger box, mumbling about where she got the soap in the first place. She refuses to see that this is a make-or-break scenario for herself.
Michelle quickly loses her cool. She barks out a time limit (“Three minutes and we’re moving on!”), argues with Becky about why they’re focusing on various things, and then walks off to regain her sanity. You can tell that they fight like this often. Becky maintains a level demeanor, as if she’s learned that “he who yells first, loses.”
She is completely unwilling to work, she must touch everything that is being pulled out. Everything. Each box is opened, she lifts everything out of it to decide what to do with it. (It’s all to be kept, everything has potential.) She spends 15 minutes on a plastic box of soiled doll clothes. They’re modern doll clothes, not antiques. They’re essentially worthless.
Michelle tries to explain things to Becky again. Becky smarts off to her, and Michelle loses it. Because she’s not been conditioned as Ken has, she sees Becky’s behavior as pure manipulation to get her way. It is, but not solely. Michelle yells at Becky for being ungrateful for her help: for Michelle paying Becky’s bills, providing her with a home, providing her with food. She has a point.
Dorothy calls Walter, asking him to please come to the location and lay it out for Becky. If she doesn’t act today and tomorrow, she will get no choice. Nothing will be looked at, salvaged, saved, or set aside. It will all be loaded into trucks and taken to a landfill. Becky says softly, “Okay,” over and over, but you get the impression it’s just a trained reaction.
When Ken comes over to remind her of what their goals are and what the consequences of not acting swiftly will be, she starts snapping. Her quiet, thoughtful, hurt-bird demeanor is replaced with a snappish meanness. They struggle over a box of marbles that Becky insists on sorting. While there are rare marbles that can be valuable, she has items that are worth more – an upright Chickering & Sons piano, for example. (It is the first American producer of pianos. Restored, it should bring about $10,000. Before restoration, she should be able to get at least $4K, minimum. Sorry, I’m the daughter of a piano tuner and rebuilder.)
Dorothy has brought an auctioneer to look at the plethora of ephemera that is jammed into each unit. (Becky had a 5000 sq. ft., 3 story home that was filled to bursting.) Unfortunately, there is so much that has been crammed into these storage units that most things have lost value. The world is full of chipped Windsor chairs, if they had been cared for and properly stored, she may have a different outcome.
The auctioneer lays it out: maybe $50 – $75 for the contents of one entire unit, maybe $1500 for the one with the complete bed set and dinette set, but that would be lucky. On and on the picture of her “valuables” becomes more and more bleak. They don’t mention the piano, which frustrated me. Those are big ticket items unless the sound board and action were gone from the interior.
On Day 2 Becky says she’s ready to just leave the country. Too little levity, too late. Michelle puts it out there: “What’s more important, security or stuff?” That’s the million dollar question for hoarders, though, and one they never answer correctly. Michelle does get Becky moving more efficiently, though, by being a relentless task master.
Becky gets distracted by another box of small things, however, and everything grinds to a halt. There is no way the “unit per hour” benchmark is being met. This also makes me wonder about Attention Deficit Disorder as related to hoarding. I’m no psychiatrist but doesn’t it seem like they go hand in hand often? I know from my own experiences that OCD and ADD fall under the same umbrella, so it doesn’t seem unlikely that there is an inability to picture the outcome, set goals, and focus on the task because of a physical inability to do so.
Walter comes to see the progress as Day 2 comes to a close. He tells Becky that the massive pile of trash (packing materials, emptied boxes, papers) will not be allowed to be piled up by the facility’s dumpsters at day end. Everyone on staff busts their buns to get it all broken down and hauled off. Everyone but Becky.
The 16 units are condensed to 4. (Which means Walter will own the items after he files papers against her – 30 days from date of filing. He will toss them all without batting an eye.) Dorothy says that they had a massive roadblock: Becky. She was simply unwilling. Dr. Kutz says that Becky didn’t learn anything from this experience. Ken and Michelle are exhausted. They’re completely burned out and are done with Becky and her illness.
After the show:
As of airing, there was no indication that Becky is using her aftercare funds for either therapy or to work with an organizer. She has moved in with a distant relative, has taken back most of her items from the auctioneer and only earned $650 ultimately. Barely a dent in her $20,000 of debt, debt accrued by simply storing her things. The fees were more than the items were worth.
Walter, however, has yet to file against her. He really does feel for her, but you know he’s grateful to have her (and her things) gone.
I’ve messaged both Dr. Kutz and Ms. Breininger regarding aftercare, when I hear back, I’ll update this portion of the post.
Edited to add: that Dorothy Breininger replied to my query and said the following:
Good question aboout Becky’s aftercare – she did an accept an organizer’s help (who also is a social worker) and has been working with her since our visit. I don’t recall if she accepted help from a therapist or not.
Regarding the hoard in her sons’s home – yes, this was addressed by Beck and the aftercare organizer. It had to be addressed in that Becky was asked to move out (and take her things with her). Becky’s story was really sad – thank you for acknowledging it. I wish we didn’t have to help people who are facing a crisis and could spend the ample time required to create new grooves in their brains. Their disease gets the best of them – just like alcohol might for an alcoholic — and they have to hit bottom sometmes to get the help the need to live.
She also thanked us for being understanding and considerate of their predicaments.
Clare, West Palm Beach, FL
Clare is a retired millwright, which is pretty outstanding all on its own. She has a Norma Desmond quality about her, a faded flower. They show pictures of her from her hey-day, and she bears a resemblance to Jane Mansfield. She maintains a quiet elegance in her manners. Her home, however, is far from the image her manners portray.
The house is being swallowed up by greenery (which can easily happen in her part of Florida), junk litters the sandy and weed filled yard, and that doesn’t begin to describe the interior. It’s filth, pure and simple. There are layers of garbage and papers and dirty cloth everywhere, hiding the furniture, draped over vases and layered on top of ornate lamps. There is a pool out back, filled with brackish, green water.
She speaks in a very soft and cultured voice. “Now, as we approach the house, I’ve… let things go.” She describes it as being cluttered with magazines and books. Have you noticed how the hoarders use the term “cluttered?” It’s one of those situations that calls for “That word… I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The conditions in her home were so poor that she was removed from it with the Baker Act (it allows authorities to remove someone to be hospitalized for examination, if they give reason to believe they are mentally ill.) She is not allowed to live in her house, and actually is only allowed into her home to clean, period. She must return to either the hospital or to other living quarters after.
When the police came out to the house (which led to her removal) the police blamed her son, Dean. How could he let his mother live in such a manner? There is something…off with Dean. I think the editors tried to give us some indications through the show. Clare says that when the police took her, they took her to the drunk/drug tank of the hospital. Since she was neither, she was released.
Denise is Dean’s girlfriend. They appear to be in their forties, and that it’s been a rough road getting there. They lost their home a few years back “due to the economy” and are now living in the tool shed behind the pool. The tool shed. They’ve run a long extension cord to the house to power their television, they drink and bathe from a hose and use a bucket as a “chamber pot.” Denise indicated that Clare is a “tough ol’ broad,” and perhaps not as sweet as we see, and says the neighbors call Clare the Slumdog Millionaire.
Clare says that she does get angry when people throw away her things, as she “truly needs them.” A close up on a filthy mattress covered in cat excrement is shown. Dean says that if she doesn’t act, he will have her declared mentally incompetent and take over the house. So, in effect, it’s going to be clean regardless. His goal is to move in the house, period. That is your next big warning light.
Dr. Chabaud comes with all of her Creole gentility and she and Clare hit it off instantly. Clare takes her in the home and says quietly, “Please be careful.” It’s not clear if she meant for the doctor to watch her step for her own safety, or watch what she’s stepping on because it’s important to Clare. We learn Clare’s story: her husband, mother, and father all died within six months of each other in 1993. She has recently been afflicted with Guillan-Barre disease, which is an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks its own nervous system. Left unchecked, it can cause excruciating pain, requiring heavy narcotics to combat.
Dr. Chabaud asks if they can meet Dean. Clare softly calls to her son after rapping on the tin door. He tells the doctor that he wants his mother to be better. And his intention is to move into the house. The doctor smiles at him and asks, ‘Did you ask her?” There’s another big warning light.
Matt Paxton has brought a massive crew with him – before they can enter the home, the exterior will need to be brought up to code. Landscapers and tow trucks have been called in. He tells Clare that his sole purpose is to help her, and that they’ll show her the respect she deserves. He tells her that everyone will say “Yes, ma’am” to her, because one, she needs to remember what that feels like to be respected, and two, because she’s old. She laughs at his teasing, he has a wonderful way of connecting with her. You can tell he likes her very much (and that she likes being liked.)
The big work starts immediately. She makes excellent decisions, working well with her team. They don’t encounter any road blocks from her, and she’s very task oriented. She does become upset at the palmettos being cut back, but they’ve been left unchecked for 25 years. (There is a movement in parts of Florida to reintroduce them, as they’re native, so I think she’s coming from that place.) Matt assures her that he is just going to cut enough to comply with code, that’s all.
After lunch, things go downhill. Clare disappears. She’s taken her pain medicine, and has… vanished. The camera finds her stepping carefully and slowly down the sidewalk, coming back to the house. She appears to be in a haze, totally confused. Dr. Chabaud and Matt worry that she won’t remember making decisions from this point on, and don’t want to cause her shock and grief when she becomes lucid.
Dr. Chabaud talks with Denise, who is indicated as the person that got the ball rolling. She’s… not fully there, either. Denise has two goals, to clear the house, and to provide a place for Clare to become healthy. However, she’s just gotten a job (she calls it an “art” job) and must leave, so… sorry. She’ll be around tomorrow, though.
Clare’s meds wear off enough that she’s back to being lucid and decisive. It’s very strange that her house is the way it is, given how she’s able to part with so many things. More on that later. She has a Delorean parked outside, for goodness sake. She wants the garage emptied so it can be put under cover. She has second thoughts about things being thrown out, and goes to pull a few items from the back of the truck. Matt gets on to her for it and she falls over, landing on her face. I jumped out of my seat and gasped, “oh god!” She immediately pops up, smooths her top knot, flashes a grin at Matt and says she’s okay.
Matt’s not the only one impressed with this tough lady.
They’ve not been able to finish the outside, though, so Day 2 doesn’t look promising. She’s told that she’ll need to make sweeping decisions about the interior. And out come the snow shovels. The workers remove such compacted filth, it’s almost like a geological dig. She starts getting nervous, but they only have half a day (6 hours) to really dig in, so to speak.
Dean and Denise have not left their shed. So much for their “goals.” Matt is clearly on Team Clare and sets a trap to get the squatters from the shed. Dean wanted some “weed whackers” if they could be found. Matt calls out that they’ve found them, and Clare tries to raise her son. He comes out, puts on pants (oh, that really should have been reversed, Dean) and looks around, confused and growing angry, shouting about the tools.
Matt and Dr. Chabaud pull Clare aside and ask her to really look at the situation. Do they continue to clean her house just so Dean and Denise can move in and yell at her? They don’t act as if they truly care about her. The doctor says softly to Clare, “I don’t think it’s good for you.”
By the end of the day, the house is still not livable. It’s emptied by a good 75% of its garbage, but it’s still unclean, damaged, and without usable furniture. Matt says they’ve simply put a band-aid on a broken leg. Denise tells the camera that she sold a portrait, so it was a good day. Oh, right, she wasn’t there to help, but still… She wanders off.
After the show
Clare is working with both a therapist and an organizer, with the hope of getting back into her home. Dean and Denise are still squatting on her property.
This was a hard case to watch, because I got the very strong impression that Clare hoarded her house to keep Dean and Denise out. She didn’t exhibit typical hoarder behavior, an over-identification with things, a need to hold on to anything and everything, anger at items being removed without her touching it. I also got the very strong impression that Dean and Denise were users (both users of people and of drugs.) Just a bad situation all around.
Reading Matt Paxton’s blog, he said how much he admired and liked Clare, and how he is not at liberty to say if there were any chemical reasons for Dean and Denise’s behavior. Oho.
We had two mothers, both pushing their sons away, but only one son that seemed to miss having a mother, angry that a hoard was keeping them apart. The other seemed to only come from a place of avarice. I hope that Adult Protective Services (or an aggressive and thoughtful therapist) helps Clare stay away from her son, who seems to not care at all for her well being.
I really liked Clare, and wondered more about her, her past, how she came to be in the place she was. She is quite the character, in the best way. You could tell the crew and Dr. Chabaud really connected with her, as well. Hopefully we’ll learn more about her in one of the reflection/where are they now? episodes they air after the season has wrapped.