Hoarders 4.16 – Wilma, Nora

A&E, Monday Nights, 9EST

Seems like we’re starting most of this season with some warnings, and this one is no exception. Cory Chalmers, one of the organizers and a very caring person, walked off at one point, he was so disgusted with one of the women. She was an abusive mother, and one particular incident is detailed. I think there’s a lot to be learned from her, so if you can hang tough, read through Wilma’s story. Otherwise, you might want to skip ahead to Nora’s story.

WILMA, GEORGIA

Wilma claims that she has “several collections that [she’s] never been able to sort out.” Crafts, books, and clothes are everywhere inside. Outside the house, it looks like a junk yard. Muddy yard, bike parts, rusting metal, bags of garbage, tarps tossed haphazardly.

Dean is her youngest son, a man in his mid to late twenties, tattooed and lost in his eyes. He moved back in with his mother to help her get things sorted out, horrified at how filthy the house was. Cobwebs and insects are everywhere. It was so filthy that Dean moved his things into a garden shed, faring no better.

Carol is Wilma’s only daughter; she looks tough, like she’s had to be in order to survive. She describes her mother’s living condition as a sea of chaos. There is “smelly stuff” piled deep among the clothing and bags of who knows what. The camera gets a close up on a bag of brown sugar that is partially opened and teeming with ants. Wilma’s oldest son is Ben, he is also here to help. Ben’s hair is starting to thin, he’s also covered in tattoos, ear pierced, and looks like he might crumble at any minute.

The structure of her home is literally falling apart. Load-bearing beams are rotting or chewed by termites, some walls entirely are just gone, tarps stapled to the frame work. There are termites and ants climbing all over the tarps, as well. City Code was called by neighbors due to the garbage outside, and were horrified by the condition of the house. It’s been condemned, but Wilma refuses to leave. The next step is for the city to bulldoze the structure.

Wilma’s hoarding actually started in another house, the one the children grew up in. When Wilma’s mother died, Wilma moved in and hoarded that house out as well. The children talk about growing up in filthy, how they’d build tunnels through the mess to get around, to play, to sleep. There was never food in the house, and they all pulled together, the three of them, to keep each other as safe as possible.

Carol says, “Just to be there was hopeless.” They lived in constant fear of their mother. They claim abuse, that Dean, the youngest, was actually chained to his bed. Wilma is interviewed and says that Dean was a “difficult child to discipline.” She details a story where she took him to the hardware store and had him pick out a chain. He was chained like a dog in his bedroom with enough room to reach the bathroom.

Wilma says, “The other children were there, he wasn’t alone.”

Dean tells the camera that the neighbors knew he was in there, chained up. And no one said anything. CPS removed the children several times from the home – meaning they were brought back to that place several times. They were removed due to “chronic neglect; them, the house.” Wilma excuses her behavior by saying she had a back injury and just “couldn’t take care of them.” She says that it didn’t bother her that much when family services took her children.

Her mother, the kids’ grandmother, was the one refuge, the one place they felt safe and loved. This is where Wilma is living, this is the house she has destroyed. Ben, the oldest, gets choked up, overcome with grief at the one happy memory of his childhood ransacked and destroyed by his mother.

A therapist from earlier seasons returns, Dr. David Tolin, and is here to work with Wilma, as much as she’ll let him. He sees the home and asks her what happened. Well, see, she moved in and there was already stuff there. See, it’s like this, she didn’t know the extent of damage already there. What he needs to understand is… She has lots of excuses ready, and none of them involve her actions. They typically involve her children, and how they’ve done this to her.

The doctor tries to point out how damaged the walls are, that there isn’t a solid wall in the entire structure. Oh well, is her attitude. A few of the inner walls are still standing, so. There is no visible floor, they’re just walking on garbage and clothes, pounded into each other in a wet, dank mess. The doctor tells us that neither Wilma nor Dean can break out of this cycle of unhappiness. Dean is always going to seek his mother’s love and approval, and Wilma is always going to want to push him and his siblings away, violently.

Cory Chalmers and the Got Junk trucks roll up. Cory immediately takes off the front door so the crew will have easy access to the main room. Right off the bat, when a bedraggled angel door hanging is found, Wilma grabs it and tells them it is everything to her, and if they throw it away, she’ll just go get another. It’s the symbol of an angel she loves.

“I feel invaded when people tell me what I can have.” This is the most apt description of her and her actions, possible, but I don’t think she even realizes at this point why she feels this way.

She becomes incredibly reactive to the point of paranoia, cannot trust her children to do anything she wants, and begins to hiss and spit at them, as they try and help. She will let no one talk to her. Dean tries again, and the camera cuts to a rusty dog chain hanging outside to remind us that this man with a tough-exterior and broken expression was that little boy that was chained to his bed by this woman.

He tries to get her to throw away a box of ruined dolls, which she wants to keep. He laughs, not without humor, and says, “You can’t take it with you, Wilma. Just gonna leave it for us to deal with.”

“Nope, I’m not leaving you anything.

She’s so consumed with anger, she simply can’t be objective. As the three adult children hover in the background, Dr. Tolin says to her, “Your children must have been a terrible disappointment to you.”

“Yes.” Carol and Ben cover their faces; Ben begins crying.

Dr. Tolin continues, “So you resent them?

“That’s probably about right.”

Ben is openly sobbing at this point. It’s incredibly painful to watch.

“Do you want to cut them loose?” Dr Tolin asks.

“Sometimes I think that’d be best for everybody.”

Cory, trying to keep his anger and disgust in check, says, “See your son cry? Do you even care? Tell me why your children are here? I would have left a long time ago. You’re pissing me off, and I’m not even related to you.” He stalks off, and Ben leaves the room in tears. His siblings go in search of him. Dr. Tolin says to the camera, “My heart is breaking for these kids.” We see Ben openly sobbing, face in his arms, in the shed. “No child should ever have to hear that their mother doesn’t love them.”

Ben stays hidden for hours. We see him much later with Dean, who is holding his hand. Dean, the youngest, sits quietly listening to him. They both agree that this was a wasted effort, she didn’t want or need their help.

Dr. Tolin gets real with Wilma back at the house, wanting her to really look at the damage she’s done, look at the house falling apart around her. “Step back from your anger. Look at yourself. It looks like this because you let it. Look at it. Take responsibility. No more finger pointing.”

And she says, “I can accept the fact that I never should have had children.” The doctor hangs his head, Cory covers his face and leaves. This is Day One. Five feet of garbage has been cleared, that’s all.

Day Two is no better. Wilma immediately turns on the Mean, directing all of it at any child who tries to be close to her. Dean finds a framed picture of Carol, and Wilma immediately says to throw it out. While Carol stands there. Meanwhile, a gummy, sopping wet pair of jeans scooped up from the floor should be kept. It’s a statement, and the children get it. I have a feeling they’ve known they’re less than garbage to their mother since they were little, however.

Dr. Tolin tries to get the children to understand that they shouldn’t expect affection from her. She’s not capable of giving it. He tells Wilma that she just wants to be a victim and chase them away. She looks him dead in the eye and says, “Sometimes that’s not a bad thing.”

Dean finds a book and begins laughing. “Family, Parents & Motherhood… I don’t think she read that one.” Dean, if you can find something to laugh at, I think you can ultimately be okay. At the end of the day, 60 – 70% of the house is still full, but the extent of the decay is evident. No one is coming back in that house legally.

In case it wasn’t clear, Wilma tells the camera that she’d rather be homeless than live with any of her children. “I never want to live with them.” Dr. Tolin is amazed the kids never wrote her off completely. It says a lot about the power of love, that biological connection that we have.

Well, most of us.

Aftercare

Dr. Tolin reported Wilma to Adult Protective Services. She refuses to answer or respond to any contact they’ve attempted. APS has been working with Dean to find temporary housing. Wilma was given an extension for repairs and has done nothing.

Bulldozers are eminent.

 

NORA, COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA

At the opposite end of the mother-child spectrum is Nora and her daughter Jennifer. Nora is a sweet faced, high-voiced former teacher. She looks like she still puts on a fresh face for a trip to the market and gets her hair blued at the Beauty Box before shopping at the Merle Norman for pancake base. Her house is unusual for this show.

It’s filled with clean, orderly, and stacked containers. It’s clean, the walls, the floors, the boxes. There just happens to be over 2000 plastic storage containers filled with her things everywhere.

“I really like things organized.” Crafts, cooking utensils, and books. Books are in boxes everywhere. She fully admits to be addicted to books, and that addictions aren’t healthy. But…they’re books, so how bad can it be?

The camera closes in on a storage pod outside, packed with more plastic containers, filled literally to bursting. Straps have been affixed to the outside to hold the containers in.

Jennifer, her daughter, has not been able to visit with her children, as there is hardly any walking space in the home. It’s painful for her to see her mother bent over at the waist, sorting and cataloging everything, unable to tear herself away from her things to be a mother and grandmother to her family. Nora will tell you that all of the things she buys are for their benefit; she’s unable to find anything to give it to them, or cannot let go of them. She loves the idea of having things to share, it seems.

Jennifer says, “She tells me that when we argue [about the hoard] , that’s when she goes shopping. So that puts a lot of pressure on me.” She’s crying. You can see that they once had a very close and loving relationship. Jennifer says that growing up, the house was spotless, truly spic-and-span. But fourteen years ago, three major incidences happened right after the other.

Nora’s mother passed, shortly after was when Jennifer moved out to start her life as an adult, and then Nora’s husband died. Nora says, “I lost my three best friends.” She didn’t grieve, she shopped. She’s aware of it, but seems to be unwilling to look at what that means.

Nora is so addicted to book shopping that it cost her her job as a teacher. She left at lunch to do some shopping, lost track of time, and her students were left unsupervised. One child was injured, and she was fired. Oh, Nora. Jennifer tells us this is the last chance, that she loves her mother, but she can’t be around her and her obsessions. “What can I do?”

Dr. Zasio will help Nora through the process. She’s all smiles for Nora, marveling at how organized and clean things are. “So you’re a container hoarder, huh?” They talk about Jennifer and her children not having a relationship with her because of her things, and maybe this will be the chance for Nora to choose her family over the items.

The hoard has taken over every moment of Nora’s life, sorting, organizing, cataloging, and of course, adding more to it. Dr. Zasio explains that this is going to be very complex; Nora is a hoarder, dealing with grief and loss, and is a compulsive shopper. When Nora claims she’ll probably let 50% of it go, Dr. Zasio doesn’t think that’s going to happen at all.

Dorothy Breininger arrives with a crew and reminds Nora that she’s going to need to make thousands of decisions today. Dorothy brings something to her for a choice, and Nora starts sorting things into piles to deal with later. “Later is now,” Dorothy says, smiling. Well, then, Nora wants to keep this, keep that, oh, this is something to keep, and so on. Uh oh. She will get rid of no books.

After an hour, Nora is bent over at the waist, searching, touching everything, not making eye contact with anyone. Dr. Zasio explains that Nora is either happy or angry, and she doesn’t like to be angry – it makes her uncomfortable. So as a result, she runs and hides instead of facing those feelings. The doctor and Dorothy pull Nora and Jennifer together to talk. Nora bristles and says, her voice getting higher and higher, “Don’t tell me it’s grief coming up. It’s not grief, it’s my life!”

Jennifer, choking up, tries to appeal to the relationship they once had as a family. “Think about Daddy, mama, he wouldn’t want this.”

Nora’s response is to cry, “Then get everything out!” She’s incredibly agitated, rubbing her hands and walks off yet again. She’d rather everyone else make decisions so she won’t have to. But that’s not how the process works, unfortunately for her.

Because everything is usable, she can’t see herself throwing anything away. The doctor tries to explain that things can be donated, that Nora originally wanted to share things because she’s good-hearted. Nora walks off, uncomfortable with feelings of grief and loss bubbling up. Dorothy finds her, smiling. “So…you didn’t want everything gone, then, huh?”

Nora breaks down, angry and overwhelmed. “I don’t want to have to deal with it!”

Well, that’s what has gotten you here, Miss Nora. She apologizes to Dorothy for crying, and she’s just the sweetest woman, completely unable to allow herself the right to have feelings, it seems. Dr. Zasio tries to tell her it’s okay to feel, they’re all here for her, to give her the chance to face all of this. Nora falls awkwardly to the floor (I worried her hip went out, actually) and begins manically sorting through a box of magazines, muttering to herself what each contains and why it needs to be kept.

Nora makes me incredibly sad, she just looks trapped.

Day Two and there have been two boxes of things loaded onto a truck. She has a huge magenta bruise over her right eye, she laughs and says something jumped out and hit her. They don’t elaborate on what caused it. Dorothy explains that she wants Nora to feel successful in this, and she seems excited by the day.

Once Dr. Zasio makes a suggestion, she shifts mood quickly. She gets huffy and mad when she’s reminded there’s a donation truck, that things won’t be wasted. She wants to donate things, but only theoretically.

Jennifer, crying, tells her mother she wants her to stop being ugly (this is Deep South ugly, which means she’s not being overly polite, just sort of polite) and that she loves her mother, she wants to help her, but she can’t let her mom keep hurting her. Nora sits with her things, crying.

Dorothy tells us they underestimated the number of boxes in the house. It was actually 3000. Of all of that, fifteen boxes gone, five boxes of trash, and five bags of trash left. That’s it. That’s 2980 boxes of things still in the house. There was no insight, very little progress made.

Jennifer says that she doesn’t think her mother will ever be the same person again. She looks like she’s dealing with the death of a parent, and in a way, she is.

Aftercare

Nora is working with a therapist to build coping skills before she attempts to deal further with any organization. She and Jennifer have had almost no contact since filming. Jennifer was offered mental health support, but hasn’t taken them up on it.

 

Show discussion

My impression of Wilma was simply this: she had babies, their father left or died (they never explained) and she was simply stuck.  Stuck raising them, feeding, caring for them, and her resentment at being stuck was directed at hurling her anger at them.  Children are easy targets, after all.  I think it’s easy for women – especially of a certain age and time period – to have bought into the idea that motherhood is the new pastoral myth, and find themselves shocked and unprepared to deal with the reality that raising kids is freaking hard work.

I like to say that motherhood is 80% shit, and 20% bliss, and fortunately, that 20% is so awesome, you forget about the others.  Most of the time.  But make no mistake, it’s work all the time.  It’s thankless work for a large portion of it.  But if you have children, you have a responsibility to raise them, to care for them.  If you can’t commit to that responsibility, fine.  Don’t have them.

I know, duh, but I just don’t think objectively (or kindly) towards women who take their frustrations out on innocent people that they brought into this world.  Times are different, yes, still.  No excuse, in my book.

Feel free to tell me how I don’t understand that times were different and women didn’t have options back in the 60s and 70s aside from motherhood.  And I’ll remind you that there’s always the option to not chain a child to a bed. There are almost an infinite amount of options other than that.

I’ve heard back from Dr. Tolin in regards to aftercare funds for the children:

Hi Laura– yes, the kids really became a priority during the shoot. It was clear to me that they were all suffering in their own ways. Adult Protective Services came in with some services for Dean– we just had to get him out of that house and away from Wilma, and I wasn’t convinced that he was really capable of caring for himself. A&E has aftercare funds which we used to offer some counseling to Carol and Ben.

I asked Cory Chalmers about the adult children and the liklihood of them coming to terms with their mother’s treatment of them, and here’s what he had to say:

Hi Laura,
Even as professionals, we can get to the point where we have just had enough. Viewers had a glimpse into what these children have endured for decades, yet they still try to help their mother. Both Dr. Tolin and I spoke with the children about, one, standing up to their mother, and two considering moving on with their lives. I rarely say that a hoarder can’t change, but in this case the hoarding was the smallest of all the issues this family had. After seeing the cold stares and the true belief I had for what she would say to her children, I really think the best case scenario is for all three of them to find a happy life for themselves. Unfortunately, they are so loving and caring they will carry this burden either way the decide to go. Cory Chalmers

Children of Hoarders is an online support group.  If you feel that it might help you or someone you know, feel free to pass that along.

EDITED TO ADD THAT WE WILL NOT TOLERATE HATEFUL COMMENTS HERE. They will be deleted. This episode raises a lot of emotion and feeling, which is understandable. You can express your frustrations and sadness without using cuss words and hate speech.

Please know that the families often read comments and interact, and it doesn’t help to start off at a negative baseline. 

Please like & share:
  • Cate

    Wilma was just staggering to me. I don’t know that I’m using the terminology correctly, but sociopathic? She had no capacity for empathy, and no feelings about anyone but herself – and yet I’m not even sure she really felt for herself, because someone living in that house, with all the insects, the smell, the garbage . . . it’s like she’s gone, locked inside herself somewhere, and nothing’s coming out.

    And I’m with you that no matter what her circumstances she had many other options than chaining her son to his bed. And what KILLS me about that story is that it wasn’t done in a fit of anger, in a blind rage, but was so calculated – taking him to the store and making him pick his chain out?? That’s astounding cruelty. I’m so, so glad to hear that the show helped out the kids with therapy, because oh my god, they deserve so much better than they got or they’re getting.

    My favorite moment in Nora’s story was when Dorothy bent over to make eye contact with her and validated her feelings, and never let her break that eye contact. She just came at her with this amazing force of compassion and understanding and oh, Dorothy, I just love you so much. I wish Nora had been able to stay there and break down, rather than flee – she really does seem trapped, and that visual of her scrabbling among the magazines on the floor was heartbreaking for all it said about her life. I hope the therapy’s able to give her some traction on the much bigger picture of her feelings and grief.

    • I can’t even begin to figure out what a diagnosis beyond utter rage would be for Wilma. I think you’re right, she’s gone – locked away inside herself. And the only window out has a blame others screen on it.

      The calm “Well, let’s pick out your chain” conversation. Just admitted that right off the bat! I emailed Cory as well, and he said in 17 years of doing this job, he’s never been so ready to walk away from someone. I can’t blame him.

      I failed to mention the point when Dorothy tried to pat her on the back and Nora said, so calmly and politely, “Please don’t touch me right now.” And Dorothy apologized for making her upset, then Nora apologized for her behavior and it was just a cycle of woe. How amazing is Dorothy Breininger? She’s hands down my favorite person on the show. You know there will be compassion and honesty with her. (Not that you won’t with the others, she’s just a tsunami of motherly action.)

  • sati

    I just don’t understand why CPS kept returning the children to Wilma. I think one of the worst things our nation ever decided to do was keep families together at all costs. So much more repeat abuse can be attributed to that policy decision.

    • Oh, I don’t get how they could bring them back, either!! I know they get next to no funding, and they’re overwhelmed with cases, but for the love of Mike, that HOUSE. That woman! I just ache for them.

    • Joey

      CPS is a joke. My one friend had a baby a few months ago and due to a mix-up in blood work they claimed she had been using hardcore drugs during her pregnancy, even though she’s a nurse who took every single precaution with her pregnancy. Even with physical evidence of the mix-up CPS still almost took her baby. It took almost 2 months of her fighting to finally get them off her back. Then there’s my cousins. Decades ago my cousins showed my mom all their scarring from their mom and step-dad beating the crap out of them, they even beat me one time when I was over there. She called CPS multiple times and they would go over, have a 2 minute conversation and then leave. That’s it. They never checked any of the boys even though their backs and legs were covered in welts. CPS tries to take kids from good homes for ridiculous reasons and leaves others to suffer because they can’t be bothered.

  • “I can accept the fact that I never should have had children.”

    WHAT.

    …You know, I normally don’t comment on the Hoarders recaps, because they remind me too much of some of my family’s psychoses (and I also don’t have A&E), but this? Takes the cake. Particularly if it’s in the condescending tone I heard in my head while I read it. Ugh. Not to quantify abuse or play “Who’s the Worst Mom,” but Wilma might be up there in the ranks is all I’m saying.

    Also, CPS is broken. I had to see one of my foster sisters returned to an abusive home when I was about ten, and two kids my parents had wanted to adopt, whose family had given them up, suddenly had relatives pop out of the woodwork after they’d been moving from home to home for years. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing, but it’s one of those things I’d like to see more people actually give a crap about.

    • She actually said everything in a vicious manner, the intent to hurt as much as possible. She’s too angry to have time to condescend to anyone.

      I just wish there was more funding so there could be BETTER CHECKS AND BALANCES on the whole system.

      • Cat Mitchell

        “I just wish there was more funding so there could be BETTER CHECKS AND BALANCES on the whole system.”

        I agree entirely. With my work at the youth home I see WAY TOO MUCH OF THIS! Not only with CPS but also with probation. I’ve seen too many P.O.s give up on the kids by just letting them off probation. It just makes me so sad and angry. No one should EVER give up on the kids in this situations. ESPECIALLY CPS and the P.O.s. Their parents already have given up on them if they’re in that boat to begin with. It’s so frustrating to see.

  • Sarah

    I’ve never paused the show so many times just to breathe. :(

  • Jillian

    I think this is a big problem, CPS that is. I can’t have children. I would love to foster or adopt, however, it takes me 14 months to go through the process while dirtbags like this can just pop them out and CPS will do everything to turn the other cheek because of funding? What kind of people work at CPS? Heartless ones? I’m treated as an abuser for trying to help one of these children, however, CPS will allow children to go back into an environment like Wilma’s clutter, because of funding? I think the people at CPS have a sensitivity chip missing somewhere.

    • I think the people of CPS are stretched so thin that all they see is misery and don’t have the means to really affect any change, myself. FUNDING. More oversight. More people to watch and help these kids – that’s what they need. (Just my two cents.)

  • Shelley-Anne Berry

    I live on a small island off the coast of the uk and have just watched this programme. Wilma is a very sick individual and needs serious help. My heart goes out so to those poor children. Ben, Carol & Dean I realize this happened a long time ago but if I could do anything to help you mentally, even giving you lots and lots of love and positive energy I am here. I have a beautiful strong loving family. I’ve been with my Hubbie for 26 years and have 2 adorable children.
    Any time you want to email us/me please please do! You will receive nothing but love.
    I am so sorry about the pain you all have had to endure.
    Shelley

  • carin

    the kids havent written wilma off because wilma has trapped them through her hideous passive aggressive personality into thinking somehow there might be a chance they will be able to please her, help her, gain her love. they need the help, forget about wilma, she doesnt deserve the time and attention this show gave her. i think nora has dementia, wilma a vile personality disorder

  • Jeff

    Wow, I just watched this episode and am just in shock. My heart aches for Wilma’s children. I thought they handled themselves really well. Does anyone know where in Georgia this was? I would love to reach our to Ben.

  • marc

    I should start with a disclaimer: I do not have a lot of empathy for other people because most people suck (no, I’m not pessimistic but I mean, come on, just look around you) and that I rarely tear up. However, Ben’s case just broke my heart. He is the only person I remembered from the entire show and I just rewatched this episode after all this time and he got to me again. These kids have been through hell but Ben… damn it. What a nice fellow.

    • “Most people suck.” Marc, I hear you. :D

      Ben and his brother and sister were just so heartbreaking. Ben was truly a tender, lovely guy. Not one of those kids deserved the mother they were strapped with, did they?

  • Mikeq

    Ben is very handsome

  • joybeth

    I just watched this episode tonight. I rewound it more than a few times: did I hear that correctly? Did she really just do that? She didn’t just say that…

    I just wanted to smack Wilma with her dirty, wet kitchen floor jeans. ..and I wanted to hug poor Nora’s neck. Her home was quite lovely, I was so disappointed not to see a good outcome.

    Any word on either of these women and their families?

  • TW

    They just showed this where I live. Aw, I felt so bad for Nora. Such a sweet lady, she had got into this rut and couldn’t see beyond it. Must have been tough for her losing her relatives and then her job. I have been through similar experiences, at least in terms of losing people. 4 of my closest relatives passed away inside 5 years. So I could imagine she shops to take her mind off it, and and now if she has to stop and throw this stuff away, all those feelings she has run away from are going to hit. I would like to give her a big hug and tell her everything is going to be ok. I was in tears, feeling her pain.
    I would love to find out how it went for her with the therapist. I think they should have given her more therapy before showing up with the trucks, so she could be eased into it. The boxes were like a defense.
    I hope she is doing better now anyway and getting along well with her daughter and grandkids.
    TW

  • Erica

    Wilma at one point says that she’d come to terms with the fact that she should have never had children. I understand someone having that sentiment. But what I don’t understand is her drive to make it so personal.

    And I think a lot of how Wilma came off in this episode is part editing, part her playing for the camera and part her being angry with being pushed to make decisions. Personally, I doubt she’s always this vile 100% of the time. Probably just most of the time.