Full disclosure before we begin with Judy. Judy is the spitting image of my great-grandmother, whom we called Mamaw. (Southern pronunciation: Ma’am-ah.) Mamaw was the meanest woman alive, hateful, delighted in being cruel, was filthy, dipped snuff, and absolutely terrified me as a child. She had cataracts, so she’d pull us in by the back of our necks to peer into our faces and make out which kids we were. So to say I had a visceral reaction with Judy is putting it lightly. I’m going to try to not color my commentary.
Judy is a retired hospice care nurse. (Has anyone else noticed a pattern with nurses/care givers and hoarding?) Judy describes her home as having “lots of clothes all over the place, books, papers,” that sort of thing. I noticed the camera pausing on a book: How To Rule The World From Your Couch. She just has a lot of crafts piled up, that’s all. We see a dead mouse in the middle of some workbooks and that the side of the toilet is caked in…something foul.
A year ago Judy was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She couldn’t stay in that house and fight the cancer, it just wouldn’t be possible. Enter Linda, one of Judy’s long-time friends. Linda offered her home to Judy, knowing that the house was somewhat inhabitable. (Linda did not know the extent of the hoard.) Judy moved in with Linda and her daughter Erica, and has been there for nine months, now.
We see that the entire floor that Judy is staying on is completely hoarded out. It’s not just packaged yarn (Judy enjoys knitting) or books, it’s garbage. Empty wrappers. Food containers. Tissues. Filth. Judy has taken complete advantage of her friend’s good nature, and Linda has reached her limit. Judy must address her own home and leave Linda’s. She’s clearly over-stayed her welcome.
Molly is Judy’s daughter. They are estranged, to say the least. Molly is still very angry and hurt with her mother, a direct result of growing up in a hoarder’s house. Molly says she grew up in squalor. She refuses to make any physical contact with her mother; there’s too much anger there. She feels terrible for Linda, knowing first hand what living with Judy is like.
Colin is Judy’s oldest child, her son. He was premature and required around-the-clock intensive care for his first year of life, and this becomes Judy’s first excuse. She was too busy caring for her son to bother with cleaning. (I’m reserving my outrage for later. We’ll put an asterisk here.) Judy “let things go.” To the point where CPS came and took Molly and Colin away when Molly was about eight years old.
Judy tells the camera, “I know she’s gonna blame it on me, probably.” [To which I ask, who else? Molly and Colin were children! Sorry. Getting ahead.]
Judy eventually got her children back, but the damage seemed to be done with Colin. He was bitter, angry, and appeared to be looking for trouble. In a complete twist to anything I’ve heard yet from hoarders on the program, Judy says that when Colin began stealing from her, she decided to hide her valuables in the hoard – surrounding the good things with chaos – so he wouldn’t take them.
Molly was so devastated by her childhood and the conditions she was forced to live in that by the time she was in high school, she left home, pretty much without a by-your-leave. Six years later, Colin was killed in an accidental shooting. Judy said she completely stopped caring about things. “Who cares?”
The camera pans to a far corner of one of the front rooms, focusing on a brass urn propped up against the wall. Next to it is a giant bottle of hand-sanitizer and a lighter. Molly complains that her mother has become infantilized, demanding that people care for her. Judy shouts at the camera, “She left the house in a shambles, too! She should be helping me!”
Linda tells us that she is at the end of what she can do and tolerate. She just can’t allow Judy to live with her anymore.
Enter Dr. Mark Pfeffer, who is the epitome of calm discourse. He quietly mentions to Judy that he is unable to enter through the front door, but is concerned about going through an alternate route given Judy’s horrendous physical condition. (She is quite overweight, frail from her illness and a host of other physical issues.) She struggles to maneuver, but he cautions her to stay put and he’ll climb over the large pile blocking the door, does so, and then leans against it to listen to her.
It’s been over seven years since she’s been able to access the kitchen. The camera flashes on caked filth, on light fixtures, wall hangings, old cans of food. Everything stopped when Colin died, which is coming on eight years since it happened. His bedroom door is completely blocked – Dr. Pfeffer notes that it’s her subconscious safety measure to not deal with it. The doctor explains that Judy is big on avoidance because she’s overwhelmed. She going to use “delay torture,” his terminology, to deal with her things being taken. In other words, she’s going to take a passive role in the process, he predicts.
Geralin Thomas is her organizer for the process. She addresses the Day One crew and Judy (who is sitting outside in a filthy plastic rocker.) As the crew begins, Molly arrives. It’s been 12 years since she’s been in the house. She sees what’s been done since she ran away from home; she’s horrified by the smell of pet urine and the animal feces everywhere.
“Why are you here, given your relationship?” Dr. Pfeffer asks.
“After my brother died, she did nothing. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. It’s for her well-being.”
Molly is a kind person. She’s mad, I believe she has the right to be livid, but she’s a good person.
Judy lets people throw things away, seemingly without interest, as she sits in her chair, not looking at anything. This is a part of her denial system. Geralin asks her, “Do you know how it got like this?”
“I can’t talk about it. I’m going to start to cry.”
No, Judy would rather check out than address any of the responsibility she has for this mess. Geralin notes that shes not doing anything, just sitting and observing. That’s not how progress is made, we all know this by now. Judy informs Geralin that she’s going to take a nap. That’s a first for Geralin. Judy stays in her chair, one hand stretched out to lightly rest on the urn, and she checks out.
When she wakes (we aren’t told how long the nap was) Geralin has her rocking chair brought into the house. The crew was able to clean out with snow shovels a wide swatch of filth in the living room. Linda comes in to confront her. She’s livid, absolutely livid at the sheer volume of garbage. “Look at what you have done to yourself! You’re lying to yourself!”
Geralin comes over when she hears the yelling, calls Dr. Pfeffer in to mediate. Linda storms off, leaving Judy crying. “She just yelled at me!”
Dr. Pfeffer says, “It’s okay. It was necessary and long overdue.” Judy needs to face her responsibilities and be called to the mat on the things she’s done to others. She is not listening to any of this, however.
Linda tells the camera that she didn’t expect this. The camera closes in on a tupperware container of yarn with a dead mouse smashed into the side, the whole area littered with old magazines and food containers.
The doctor tells Judy that Linda feels like she wasn’t honest with Linda, and Geralin adds, “It’s like you cheated on her as a friend by not being honest.” There is still no indication of remorse or even basic understanding of her part in all of this.
Day Two begins with Geralin insisting that Judy get actively involved in the process. A huge pile of yarn is brought to her for sorting. When I say huge, I mean it looks as if the entire stock of yarn from a craft store has been laid out along the length of her house. That is not hyperbole, that is how much she has. It’s some of the cheap bulk yarn as well as the expensive blends. As a knitter… that is a lot of money just sitting there. Geralin gets her to sort it, but she wants to keep most of it; she has all sorts of plans for what to do with the material.
Molly is fed up with her mother’s laziness. “Everyone is working, you’re doing nothing! You’re sitting here doing nothing, wanting me to do everything!”
This hits home with Judy, hits her guilt center. She visibly bristles at that. You can tell this is a long-held argument between them. Molly finds a box of pictures of her deceased father (including pictures of his family.) It’s been trapped under mountains of garbage. She wants to have the pictures, but Judy now wants them. She affects moral outrage that Molly is insinuating something ugly about her by wanting to keep them and not letting Molly have them. (I get the impression that Judy and her husband either separated or divorced, it’s not clear.)
This is Molly’s limit; she leaves. Geralin talks with Judy, trying to get her to shift her way of thinking. Instead of assuming people are going to hurt her, causing Judy to lash out in her way, Judy should take control and think of how she can make someone happy. Molly has cooled off enough to return by this point, and Judy gives her an old ship that belonged to Molly’s father. She goes on and on about how she wants her daughter to have it, she wants her to have things that have meaning. (Except the pictures, it seems.) Molly is distant and cordial, but thanks her mother.
Geralin continues to push Judy into getting involved, or there’s no point to any of this. Judy sorts through some cotton grocery sacks and duffel bags. All in all, 22 Got Junk trucks that were filled with debris drive away. Her living room, dining room, and a bedroom are cleared, but there’s still no plumbing, the bathroom and kitchen appear unusable and look destroyed. Dr. Pfeffer prompts Judy to tell Molly that she’s sorry.
Judy has a long road ahead of her.
She has worked with an organizer to get her first floor cleared, and is seeing a therapist. The city has deemed the house clear enough for her to stay in it. The relationship between Judy and Molly is still strained.
JERRY, EUGENE, OREGON
The camera pans across a large property with a house, obscured by debris. There appears to be a chair on top of the roof. Jerry is a property manager – he has fifteen. His home, where the show is focused, is where he “keeps things for repairs.”
Jerry has two sons, Scott and Paul, and a sister Karen. Scott tells us that his dad has always been a hoarder. He’s turned their home into a junkyard. The entire property is covered in plumbing, spare sinks, wood, tarps, a hodge-podge of construction debris. Karen notes that he’s so focused on collecting things that his job is more junkman than property manager.
The city is going to condemn the property if the mess is not addressed. The camera loops and squeezes through an absolute maze of junk, piled at least 5 feet high outside. The house, it should be noted, has almost completely burned away in a fire. Jerry believes it was intentionally set by angry tenants who “wanted him dead.” This was five years ago.
Jerry is still living in the house. He tells us, his voice beginning to close up from emotion, that he couldn’t get out because the exits were all blocked. It’s the big fear that all hoarders have to face: firemen unable to get you to safety because they cannot get to you. Jerry’s plan is to remodel the home and move back in.
The rooms where you can enter the house are just…it looks like a war zone. Have you seen the movie “Children of Men?” How that one long-shot where they race into a building that is all burned out and everything is in varying shades of grey and covered in ash? Picture that, but instead of everything grey, it’s black. The building is completely charred. The beams and wall studs are cracked into blocks where the moisture has been sucked out. You wouldn’t want to lean against anything for fear that it would crumble to dust.
The appliances are charred as well, blackened; the whole place is choked with ash. But Jerry believes he can just add some dry-wall and take everything back to where it was. It’s honestly jaw-dropping, the extent of damage. The property should be bulldozed; it’s amazing that he can’t see that.
His son Paul is visibly emotional, talking about how there was no room for him and his brother, Scott, in his father’s house, and how his father is drowning in a sea of junk. “I lost myself in this mess,” Jerry agrees.
Karen tells us a story of being a little girl and swimming in the lake with Jerry. She went too far and couldn’t get back. Jerry was there and told her to just float on her back, and he’d help her. She wants to now return the favor.
Dr. Michael Tompkins will walk Jerry through the process. He laughingly says, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of stuff!” Jerry has been collecting for 18 years, with plans and projects for all of it. Jerry is full of intentions, but can’t seem to get past the collecting stage.
They have to climb a ladder to enter the house – there isn’t a viable way in, otherwise. Dr. Tompkins comments on how the kitchen looks like a bomb was detonated in there – like it’s a war zone. Jerry tells him about the fire, how it was like an inferno and he only managed to escape out of a window, with nothing but his life. Since he didn’t save anything then, he seems to be trying to save everything now.
His goal through this will be to make smart decisions based on what he simply wants versus what he needs. The doctor tells us that if Jerry decides to go through everything, there is no way they’ll get this done in time. There’s simply too much.
Matt Paxton is heading up the crew, and it’s a huge one. It’s almost two teams, one for the outside, and one for the inside. Jerry immediately tells Matt the projects he’s going to save, starting with creating a table out of some pieces he’s kept.
“So this will get done come Monday?” Matt asks, smiling. Jerry doesn’t have an answer.
Both Jerry and Karen are actively passive, according to Dr. Tompkins, and are essentially having a stand-off with their arms crossed, mouths terse, but not expressing themselves.
Scores of hubcaps are rolled into a pile as Matt and Dr. Tompkins try to get Jerry to think in a 0 – 10 scale of measurement. His sons are 10, 0 is junk. So what is that clamp in your hand worth? “A 10?”
No, that’s for your sons. Oh, and your health would be a 9. Now. What is that clamp worth? “An 8?” This is going to be a long struggle for Jerry. Matt finds a trophy cup and tells Jerry that if he makes progress, he’ll get it back as a reward. Everyone laughs with good nature at that, and it injects Jerry with some positive energy and confidence. Matt’s my guy, I’m telling you. He convinces Jerry to get rid of all of the wood pallets he’s stored over the years. He keeps them to pile things on top of, so if he keeps them, it’s likely he’ll pile things right back onto them.
They move into the house, and one crew member’s foot punches through the fire and water damaged floor. Jerry is shocked to learn that it’s not stable, that the house has suffered irreparable damage. It’s been five years since the fire, and he’s shocked to learn the floor is damaged beyond repair in places.
Matt asks flat out, “Why aren’t we bulldozing this house?”
“It just needs sheet-rock….”
Matt laughs. “It needs a lot more than that.” The camera points up to the ceiling where each and every beam looks like a burned out matchstick. Karen says kindly, “It’s cheaper to bulldoze.”
Jerry rounds on her, “You’re being unreasonable.”
Matt intercepts. “How can you sheet-rock this? I believe that you can sheet-rock, I believe you can do anything you set your mind to. But you can’t rebuild this.”
The doctor asks Jerry if he’s been happy. Of course not, Jerry is miserable. “You’re holding on to your past. Stay open, okay?”
The crew comes back for Day Two to find that Jerry moved some things back into the house over night. He cops to it, but says it was only some tools. And knickknacks. And a few other things. The heart of the matter is finally addressed. The doctor asks Karen how this feels to her, seeing her brother like this. Of course, it’s painful – she wants him to have a better life than the one he’s living.
Jerry, simmering with rage, quietly spits out, “She gets an inheritance from our dad, and I’ve been left to struggle. And I think she was in on it.”
Dr. Tompkins tells him to simply ask her.
“Why are you interfering with me getting financial help? You get $10,000 a month and I get nothing.”
Karen replies calmly, “I am far from interfering. I’m just not sending you money to sink into this place.”
Jerry tells them about when they were kids and had Easter Egg hunts, Karen ended up with most of the Easter Eggs while he had an empty basket. And it’s happening again, she’s getting everything and he’s left with nothing. He is furious under his meek demeanor. This has been a fire that has slowly burned for years, and I wonder if he ever made the connection to hanging on to a burned out, worthless house just to fill it up with his metaphorical Easter eggs.
Karen just wants him to be happy. He seems to be encouraged by this and gets to work, and works hard.
24 ‘Got Junk’ trucks pull away with 48,000 pounds of garbage. It’s better, but it doesn’t look like too much progress was made, with the exception of the pathway being wider and a few rooms cleared out inside the house. He is determined to keep working after the show, and Matt gives him back his trophy, as everyone laughs and cheers Jerry on.
Dr. Tompkins reminds Jerry of the story of the Phoenix that rose from the ashes, tells him that the rest of his life starts now. Jerry’s sons hug him, giving him praise. It’s a sweet moment with a lot of hope.
Jerry is working with an organizer to address his code violations, and will begin seeing a therapist soon. He has cleared out two feet of ashes from the house and is still convinced that he can repair the damage and move back in.
I completely acknowledge feeling biased towards Judy. I have little sympathy for people who play the blame game, especially when it involves blaming their children for not policing their (the adult’s) actions. It seemed to me that until she acknowledges her role in her life turning out as it has (estranged from her children, losing her friends, losing her home) there isn’t much that can be done for her. She has no will to improve her life, is the feeling I got.
I’ve asked Dr. Pfeffer to define her term “delay torture” more, as I found that to be fascinating. I’ll add his response here when it comes.
For Jerry, I was amazed at how aware he seemed to become as he explained his “Easter egg” story. This is a great example of why I love this program: we all begin to see patterns, begin to understand the underlying reasons for our own behavior, by being able to recognize it in others. Thoughts?