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 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 is. 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 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, “You 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?”
“Sometimes I think that’s 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 that 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.