Hoarders 4.12 – Kevin, Mary

A&E, Monday Nights, 9EST

The season hiatus is over, and we start on the second half of the season with one of the most compacted hoards in show history.

Kevin, Manhattan, Upper East Side

Kevin and his brother Paddy grew up in a life of privilege. Their parents were the television couple of the 50s that pioneered talk shows, Tex McCreary and Jinx Falkenberg, who also had a stint as a pin-up girl in the 40s. Every major star of the time could be counted as a friend, they worked hard and played harder, and were each rewarded with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The boys grew up in what appeared to be an idyllic setting of a 500 acre estate run by a large staff of servants, and never wanted for anything. Except maybe more of a connection to their parents.

Now Kevin sleeps on the streets. He has an apartment, quite a nice one with lots of square footage, tucked away on a beautiful, tree-lined street in the Upper East Side. The problem is that he can’t get into it. It’s the most dense hoard in show history.

Kevin has made a nest for himself outside of his apartment building, sleeping on a nice wooden and wrought-iron bench with a crazy-stitch quilt thrown over him. There are bags of “collections” all around him. To look at him, you’d never know that he grew up in the lap of luxury.

He changes his clothes on the side streets after shimmying up four flights of fire escape stairs to grab at the nearest item in an open window to his apartment. To bathe he wanders the streets looking for hoses that can be used quickly and surreptitiously.

His landlord has had enough. Twenty years of collecting things, with the last eight in particular of note, have taken their toll on the neighbors. The constant odor of cat urine and feces (he has random felines living in the hoard and on the stairs) combined with the smells of garbage and refuse – the other tenants are sick of it. Rodents have happily made a home in the mess as well.

The camera shows a clip of Kevin pushing his way through a two-foot circumference tunnel through the hoard that literally reaches the ceiling. Everything is wedged in place with small tunnels no bigger than Kevin’s body weaving through the mess like a human-sized ant farm. He grunts and strains to push himself through the tunnels.

Kevin lives as a homeless man, eating from dumpsters, sleeping on the street, collecting random cast offs from trashcans all over the city. He calls himself a “Freegan” and thinks that people just “can’t handle” him being himself. He’s never had a job; he has lived the entirety of his life on a spend-thrift trust fund that covers rent and basics. Before his father died in 2003, this also included extra funds for pocket change.

Thirty days after his father died, his mother passed on, as well. This increased his hoarding tremendously. He calls it “counting his pennies.” He owns a van, but the entire vehicle is hoarded out – it’s unusable. Three policeman approached him recently and made no bones about his need to get that vehicle off the street, or it will be towed.

His brother Paddy wants to help him, but very clearly states that he can’t help someone that doesn’t want to be helped. He’s right.

Dr. Suzanne Chabaud will be his therapist through this process. She meets with him outside on his bench. She tells the camera that to any passers-by Kevin appears to be mentally ill. Kevin explains some of his actions, and tells her that his place is so packed he’s made a “birth canal to get through.” She loves this analogy and feels it to be most apt; “When does he come out and fully function as an individual?”

He takes her to the front door, but can only open it enough to worm his hand into the doorway and pull out a picture of his mother. Dr. Chabaud surmises that he is a man that is seeking a real connection with his parents, so he collects all manner of memorabilia from their past to try and understand the relationship.

Since the front door is inoperable due to the hoard, they must go up to a neighbor’s apartment to gain access to the fire escape. A grim-faced man opens the door and sighs, begrudgingly allowing Kevin and the doctor to enter his apartment. (I had a moment of personal horror for the doctor, who was clearly taken aback by the process, but kept her game-face on most of the time.)

They cross to the neighbor’s window, shimmy out to the fire escape, and make the wobbly climb up to Kevin’s window. He keeps it open, and there is a small table-top fan plugged in that looks like its purpose is to blow out the smell of the hoard. It isn’t working. The doctor has commented a few times on how strong the smell has grown the closer to the apartment they’ve climbed.

[I’ve asked Dr. Chabaud about this incident; when I get her reply, I’ll add that here.]

He shows her various precious items from his parents and talks about all of the famous people they knew and how important they were. The doctor mentions to the camera that he’s obsessed with their importance, but has never taken the time to define himself as an individual.

Dorothy Breninger is the organizer for this hoard, and has a smiling group of workers milling about outside for the morning of Day One. It also looks like some of the neighbors have joined. [I’ve asked Ms. Breninger if they were there to pitch in, or just observing, and will add a note here when I hear back from her.

Edited To Add: Ms. Breininger responded saying that Kevin is well liked by his neighbors.  He’s actually been a tireless philanthropist for a decade, always there to help a stranger or neighbor, and everyone speaks very kindly of him.  Well, minus the hoarding.

In her words:  “What was interesting though is that they all really like Kevin and consider him a friend. Also, I think in the past various neighbors did try to help him and now things had gotten so completely out of control – no one knew what to do.” ]

Everyone has to go up the fire escape to the 4th floor and wait outside on the landing until they can wedge themselves safely into the apartment. Before that can happen, we see Dorothy pushing and squeezing herself through the narrow channels until she feels that it’s no longer safe. (Kevin has admitted that a television had fallen on him some time previously and dislocated his knee.)

The two struggle to switch places, as Kevin is more certain of which direction the front door will be. They take an hour and a half to move things in front of them, scoot forward to take the item’s place, and push the item behind them, continuing until they’re able to get to the front door. Dorothy works her way back outside the window and waits at the front door for things to be wedged through the crack, enabling the door to eventually be operational.

I’ve not seen anything like that in four seasons of this show, it’s unbelievable.

Once they’re able to start pulling things out, the plan is to bag things up without looking at them, and pass things down the human conveyor belt four floors below, down further to the basement, through the back to be sorted. Paddy is able to see into his brother’s apartment for the first time in ten years. It’s beyond shocking, and the enormity of his brother’s sickness begins to sink in.

Dorothy sends Kevin outside to the sorting arena so that he won’t be a hindrance to her work inside. She pauses in one of her sessions of worming through a small tunnel to tell the camera that this is easily the most intensive, comprehensive and compact hoard she’s ever seen.

Kevin comes back and doesn’t seem to register that nothing is salvageable. The elements from the open window, the rats and cats, and the garbage that has piled up has made everything unusable. He disagrees and insists that he just needs to go through everything “with a fine toothed comb.”

As the day winds to a close, Dr. Chabaud organizes a watch group to notify her if they see Kevin sneaking around in the night, collecting more things. She makes him promise that he won’t, and he seems sincere in his promise. We’ll see.

The next day and the Got Junk trucks jockey for space on the Manhattan city street. Dr. Chabaud checks in with everyone. Kevin insists he didn’t dig for more, but a neighbor says she saw him at 2:30am digging for things as she walked her dog, and at 3am he brought more bags up to his apartment.  The doctor sighs, realizing just how serious Kevin’s disorder is, when he tells her that he didn’t get anything, and believes it.

As the clean up progresses, Kevin grows increasingly antsy and begins ordering the crew to do what he wants, and not what they’re instructed. He has convinced himself that his daily collecting has given him the title of being a “Professional Mover.” Paddy realizes just how out of touch with reality his brother is. Dorothy tries to hold it together, being as patient as she can with Kevin, but finally orders him back downstairs when he can’t even give her his full attention for ten seconds; he keeps turning his head to look at a piece of paper he wants to hold.

The landlord finally arrives, and we learn that they extended the clean for Kevin – he had three days. After all of that time and (mostly) steady work, it barely looks like anything has been done. Honestly, it looks like the beginning of some of the hoard clean ups. The landlord is beyond shocked. It makes sense why the neighbors have been complaining. The smell makes his eyes water.

“I just have to evict him, there’s no coming back.”

Kevin seems to think this is negotiable, the landlord explains that no, it isn’t, but nothing is getting through to Kevin. He really doesn’t understand. Dr. Chabaud insists he gets immediate care and leaves for a senior care facility that day. He is not living in our reality, is Kevin. His brother believes he needs to be in a treatment center for six months with medicines and doctors. Kevin looks around the room, wondering if there are any photographs he’s not looked at, yet.

 

AFTERCARE

Kevin is working with an organization that helps people who are at risk of becoming homeless. The organization is using his aftercare funds, and have helped him make substantial progress cleaning his apartment. Yes, he still has the apartment. He is seeing an outpatient mental health therapist and all eviction proceedings have been postponed. For now.

 

 

Mary, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Mary loves beautiful things, especially when they’re from the Victorian era. They are a completely different time, elegant, and dreamy. As a retiree from the military (she spent 25 years in service of her country) she now spends her free time collecting “Victorian antiques.” She insists that everything she has is authentic. She gets a far-away look on her face, sighing, as she tells the camera how everything from then is “absolutely gorgeous.”

We see that her house is crammed with boxes, ratty blankets, frilled-glass table lamps, broken spindle-legged chairs and assorted detritus. Mary breaks into a sob, saying that touching these things is like touching a part of the past.

Her son Lee, who looks like a roadie for ZZ Top, is angry. He scoffs at his mother’s “Victorian” artifacts. Her other son, Heath, claims that he could give his mom a rock, claim it’s from the 1800s, and she’s buy it. They both know their mother has been bamboozled.

Mary cannot live in her house, as it is so packed with junk and is beyond filthy. (The camera shows crystals hanging off a chandelier, covered in dust, dead flies, and what looks like feces. On a chandelier.) She instead lives with her daughter, Adrienne, and her granddaughter, Arianna. They are not happy with the living arrangement, and Arianna finds it wholly unfair that Mary is there simply because she can’t clean her house.

An ultimatum has been issues: clean your house and move back in it, or move out. The children all claim their mother has always been like this. Heath says that everything has a memory attached to it, so she can’t get rid of anything.

Mary says in her soft voice, “Touching things that belonged [to my ancestors] is like being able to touch them again.” She breaks into sobs. She continues, “Things will be hard to part with.”

Dr. Zasio is her therapist for the process. Mary explains her fascination and love of beautiful things from the Victorian period. The doctor stops her and says, “No offense, but I’m not seeing beauty.”

They are standing in the kitchen on top of a good solid foot of garbage. Old food containers, boxes, random clothing, and dishes are piled everywhere, and everything is coated with feces.

Dr. Zasio hears from Mary that her marriage had been one of both physical and verbal abuse. Mary hides behind an ornate lace fan to cry softly. Oh, Mary. She has lost years of her life, years of choices and joy, and it’s all compounded her depression and ultimately her need to hoard. Losing herself in her “artifacts” is her way of escaping reality.

I have to interject here for a moment. Anyone that feels this show is exploitative, I just want to point out moments like this where some hard truths are explored. This is helpful for someone, watching this, seeing that there is someone else that suffered similar loss or abuse, and that there is help. It’s painful, lord, yes, but real progress is usually made. Okay, enough of my PSA.

Cory Chalmers will be her organizer, and I just want to remind everyone that he’s a former fireman that was inspired to get into this line of work after seeing how dangerous a hoarder’s life can be. I will neither confirm nor deny a minor crush on him.

He tells her and the crew at the morning meeting that the number one goal is to get her into a functional home. Lee-ZZ Top says that if it were up to him, he’d just bulldoze the whole place and scrape the lot. He’s not the most positive of people. Dr. Zasio tells him that while he may feel it’s all junk, they have to be respectful of Mary’s feelings about it. I notice that Mary is dressed nicely, her hair styled in a low bun at the base of her head and she’s holding another ornate fan.

As the crew drags more stuff out of the home, they can see just how infested the house is with rodents. Mary grabs a beaten and decaying canvas duffel and offers it to Lee. If Lee takes it, it’s not like she’s losing it, you see. She finds a broken chair and insists that it be kept for Lee to repair later. Someone might want it. Lee begins grabbing pieces of metal to be collected and sold for scrap. So it seems that Mary isn’t the only collector.

There is a huge pile of garbage bags in the front of the house, a good 20 or so of the 50 gallon variety. It’s been several hours of work just to get to that point, and only half of one room has been touched. This is a big one. The kids see this and immediately feel dejected.

Day Two starts with Mary in a more positive mood. She’s letting things be thrown away. The camera shows a close up of the cabinets in the kitchen where dishes, pots and pans have been jammed in so tightly, it’s difficult to extricate them. The same goes for the interior of the oven.

She begins to lose it early, however, and attempts to sneak out a lace doily. Dr. Zasio catches her and holds it up so she can see that it is covered in rat feces and urine (soaked) and has a massive hole chewed in one section. She can’t really think this should be kept, does she? Mary looks bewildered for a moment, and says, “I didn’t notice the hole until now.”

Dr. Zasio makes her put it on the truck, to have that connection made in her brain – rotten means garbage. She says softly that it’s like getting rid of an old friend and even says to the doily as she lays it on the back of the truck, “Goodbye, old friend.”

She sobs, and the doctor is there, soothing her and trying to get her to express what she’s thinking. She says that she’s being reminded of how she never said goodbye to her husband. Ah. Mary is in serious need of some closure.

Meanwhile, Lee continues to pull aside metal, and Cory gets on to him for it. “What happened to bulldozing the house?” Cory seems frustrated with how unhelpful Lee has become on Day Two. Cory explains how all of this stuff is contaminated, and it can’t be sold in a garage sale, or the like. Lee gets very angry, and you can see that he’s used to his gruff exterior doing a lot of the talking for him. Cory is not cowed by this, and tells him “I didn’t like you coming in with attitude and threatening me. Intimidation doesn’t work on me.”

Mary continues to try and salvage things in the kitchen until Cory opens a drawer that causes him and Dr. Zasio to exclaim. It’s completely filled with fluff and chewed shavings. It’s been a rats’ nest for quite some time. Nothing should be saved. The doctor asks her if this is enough to prove that these things can’t be saved?

The editors put together a montage of garbage being hauled out, close ups on rat droppings, multiple shots of various animals that have crawled in the home and died. And Mary wants to save some cheap, tin, decorating baking pans that she’s hung on the wall. Adrienne begins to cry, realizing that nothing will change with her.

Mary watches this, says she can change, and stacks a few things. Mary is brought back outside so the crew can bring in snow shovels. As more is brought out, the extent of the damage of neglect is revealed. Some of the floor boards have been reduced to sawdust. The house is crumbling around them.

Cory calls a family meeting once Heath is able to arrive. The fact is the house may not be liveable, even after all the work they’ve done. They call in a restoration specialist, who give a rough estimate of $150,000 in damage. This house is not a fixer-upper. Mary needs to sell the land, which still has value, but the house is a lost cause.

Adrienne sighs, but says she isn’t going to kick her mother out. She is going to insist that her mother sell the land and move to an elder care facility, however. It turns out in the end that Lee was right: razing the house was the way to go in the beginning.

 

AFTERCARE

Mary is staying with her son Lee and is moving ahead with selling the property. She is seeing a therapist and working on making better decisions for her future.

I asked Cory about the conversation with the daughter and Mary, and how Mary seemed motivated to at least do something. Did that help them progress to the snow shovel portion where more was able to be taken out without a fight? His response:

“I think Mary truly wants to change, but she just doesn’t have all the tools yet. I am hopeful that if she gives 110% to aftercare she will in fact change. With all of her significant history, she needs to work on a lot of unresolved issues or she will always acquire to one, fill the void, and two, take her to a time that doesn’t at all resemble her own life…the Victorian Era. She can choose to try to escape her reality or face it head on and make her life something it always should have been. Abusive relationships can destroy a person and I think she was made to feel so worthless for so many years, she started to believe it. She just needs to realize that she is now in control and can live a better life but it will only happen if she is willing to open up old wounds and work through them. “

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  • Cate

    Oh, Cory, what a lovely note – and such compassionate understanding of the place Mary’s in. *mad hearts*

    I was staggered by Kevin’s hoard – and staggered by how disassociated he is from reality (although after watching enough of these, I know that it stands to reason that the bigger the hoard, the greater the inability to see it, to process it as dangerous or worthless or damaging). I’m glad there was the prospect of intensive care for him – he was so very lost.

    And a-men on the show doing good. Not only does it show people who hoard – and maybe more importantly, their families – that they’re not a singular, nutty individual, but someone who suffers from a mental illness, along with thousands of others, but it shows kindness and understanding. Dr Zasio didn’t crouch down in that hoard to say ‘you’re a horrible, dirty person’ – or whatever terrible fear the hoarder has about themself. She crouched down to say, hey, I hear you, I understand. And that’s worth such an enormous amount.

    • Isn’t he a sweetheart? They all are, they all REALLY care about these people, which is just so great to see.

      Poor Kevin, talk about being sick, he really didn’t see the forest for the trees. Part of me is frustrated that he is still in his apartment (the tenants! The landlord!) but. I certainly don’t wish homelessness on him. Good to know that he’s continuing with regular therapy and work on his hoarding, though.

      I said as much to Dorothy in a message this morning, how it’s WONDERFUL that they show that there are so many different ways that people become hoarders. It’s not “being crazy” – it’s a multitude of complex decisions, happenings, and circumstances. I’m glad you mentioned Dr. Zasio, as she bears the brunt of ire on the message boards for being harsh and mean, and I just don’t know HOW they come to that conclusion. She’s helping them SEE, and she’s always there with a soft tone, a hug or back rub, she cares and wants them to be better. (Did I mention that she has her own show now? I think it comes on over the weekend, it’s focused on animal hoarding.)

  • Sheila

    You get the sense from the people involved that everyone is trying t make the show the least exploitative it can be. There’s genuine kindness and sympathy from both the therapists and the organizers.

    When I see hoarders on television who can’t seem to see the mess, I have to wonder if a high tolerance for visual clutter is innate or develops. I grew up in a hoard (~6 rooms out of twelve were my mother’s junk piles): I have a hard time noticing clutter, both because it’s familiar and because for years I was forbidden to do anything about it. Seeing a clear area is still sort of jarring, and I suspect that that mild shock is what led Mom to fill every clear space as quickly as possible.

    • Hi, Sheila! And yes, they all really care about these people and are genuinely wanting to help. Matt Paxton alone devotes off-camera/personal time calling in on them after filming, offering assistance, etc. It’s an amazing group of people on the team.

      That’s an interesting question. You know, you hear a lot of the children on the show say that they didn’t realize how messy/far gone their houses were until they grew up and saw how other people lived. I bet there’s a fair amount of conditioning going on, to be sure. I think it was Kevin who said last night that if he saw a clear spot, he had to fill it as well. The more I watch this show (and ask the doctors/organizers pointed questions) the more I’m able to empathize. Cate mentioned in another thread how wonderful it is that this show is about showing the whole process – what leads to it, what it looks like, and the steps involved in moving past it. It’s amazing TV, in my opinion. Also, hugs to you for dealing with a hoard yourself. It couldn’t have been easy.

  • I know this one is REALLY old and I don’t know what’s happened with her. But the whole time I was watching Mary, I was wondering if she learned what the Victorian Era was truly like, if that might wake her up? It was not an era of beauty and grace whatsoever. Prostitution rates were the highest they’ve ever been that we know of; workhouses; children in factories; slavery in the United States (which Britain and other countries profited from as well); colonialism; and, probably most pertinent to Mary, most women did not luck out and marry those mythical gorgeous, ethical, and faithful dukes found only in romance novels. Almost all women had to work, both outside and inside the home, and even for women who didn’t have to bring in any form of income, housework was difficult and time-consuming. Rich white men had pretty much all the rights, and everyone else had to scramble for what they could get — and they did, which is what also made the Victorian Era a time of immense change.

    I wanted to send Mary to some classes, get her to read some history books. Maybe if she realized this imagined paradise time never existed, she could start appreciating her own here and now.