We start a new season of Hoarders with a bang.
I have to say, this particular episode is one of the most profoundly moving episodes they’ve had in five seasons. Hell of a way to start off, A&E.
Norman Jr., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Norman is a guy that collects things. Guitars, records, old comic books, lithographs. Boxes, clothes, garbage, papers, old bikes, random bits of furniture. He has thousands of these items in a three story house, plus a basement. There are no pathways in Norman’s house; you have to climb. But it’s okay, he says, “I’m good at climbing and balancing. It’s kind of like exercise, after all.”
Norman is whip thin, looking like a healthier version of Riff Raff from Rocky Horror, his thinning hair swept back from his kind, gentle face. And Norman is a kind man, one of the nicer people we’ve seen on the show. His parents, Joan and Norman Sr., haven’t been in his home in eight years even though they maintain a close relationship with their son.
Norman Sr. is in the antiques business and feels wholly responsible for the mess Norman now finds himself in. It was a bonding activity for the family in Norman’s formative years, and once Norman lost his job seven years ago, he’s had to learn to survive in the flea market business, buying, selling, and trading his things.
Norman wasn’t alone, however. He met Jeneveve several years ago, an adorably sweet-faced punk girl with bleached hair and huge doe eyes. Jeneveve broke her ankle three years prior, and because she had no insurance, found herself unable to have necessary surgery and was therefore immobile. She was also agoraphobic and an alcoholic. This meant that she stayed up on the third floor of the home without leaving. Ever.
Because Norman loved her so, he made a point of spending every moment he could with her, bringing her presents and holding her. He said, “I’d do anything to make her happy.” The camera pans across the floor where mostly empty take-out cups lay, a roach wandering through. She would order things online to connect with the outside world, and he would bring her trinkets from the flea market, and the house became more and more filled with, well, garbage.
Jeneveve had alcohol-induced seizures. Norman simply wasn’t equipped to care for her. The situation that is the Big Worry for Hoarders begins to happen, and there’s no way to stop it. Jeneveve is in the throes of another seizure. Norman struggles to get to her, climbing over boxes and cases and furniture and empty booze bottles. She wasn’t taking any of the food or drink he offered her, and then she stopped breathing. He realized he had no way to get her out of the room, let alone the house.
He managed to call 911. A paramedic, interviewed for the show, says “We were brought to Norm’s house from a 911 call. We had to climb in from the back, and we couldn’t get in with our equipment.” They balanced on rickety chairs, which were balanced on two to three feet of garbage. By the time they pushed and shoved their way to Jeneveve, they realized, “Oh. She’s been dead for a long time.”
Norman sits still, crying piteously. “It was the worst day in the history of the world.” The paramedics immediately notified the city about the conditions in the house, and the home was condemned within hours. Norman is facing eviction. His parents and extended family want to help him; he has nothing in him but grief, he has no motivation for anything.
Dr. Melva Green is his therapist for this process. She arrives in bright separates, her friendly kewpie doll face all sympathy. She climbs in alongside Norman to survey the house and notes the large chest of drawers blocking the stairs. “That’s from the paramedics trying to get in.” Remembering that time, Norman begins to cry. Dr. Green softly tells him to take his time, she is there for him to help and support.
She notes to the camera that as he took her through the house, he was very concerned for her safety and well being, reaching back often to hold her hand as they navigated over the piles of stuff. Norman is the kind of man that really does put others before himself, and it’s evident that a lot of his grief – aside from his very visible love for his girlfriend – is centered on the failure to care for someone in the most fundamental way. There have been some very kind people on this show, but Norman is maybe the most heart-wrenching case I’ve yet to see.
They get to Jeneveve’s room. There is no visible mattress. She laid atop boxes and instruments and bottles; remembering that day causes Norman to turn aside, grief overtaking him as his tears slip down his cheeks. Dr. Green tells the camera that he’s incredibly fragile due to his overwhelming grief. It’s only been seven weeks since she died.
Cory Chalmers, former fireman-turned-hoarding specialist, will be the organizer for the clean up crew, wearing a tee-shirt that promotes his company (and I’ll happily support them, as well: 1-800-hoarders.com.) In the morning meeting, he assures Norman that he – that they’re all – here for him, as help and support. They will all be sensitive to him and what he’s gone through. He’s appreciative and shows it by diving right in, working at a fast clip alongside Cory.
A lot of garbage is coming out of the house, and Cory is at first excited by the work pace until he realizes that Norman is far more frenetic than energetic. He stops Norman, wanting to talk him through the process, wanting him to engage in the act of clearing out his home and why he needs to clear out his home.
“I’m just throwing things away, I guess,” is Norman’s response. Already on the floor on his knees at a bookcase, he begins rocking back and forth, his sobs shaking his body as he realizes what he’s doing – and what his home did. If ever someone on this show needed to be wrapped up and just held, it’s Norman. He picks himself up however, and leaves, locking himself in his car.
Cory follows him, trying to understand what’s going on inside his head. “It’s really painful,” Norman cries through the car window. But it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt so badly and it should, is what Cory explains, because once you feel that level of hurt, you won’t let yourself feel it again. Concerned, Cory brings Dr. Green over. She tells Norman that he’s hiding from emotion (which ultimately makes it worse when it hits.) His whole family is there to love and support him–
“Yeah, say what you want. Nobody ever gave a shit when she was alive.”
Oh. So the family, while loving and supportive, were not so with his girlfriend. Hence the not coming to his home in eight years. And now that she’s gone, and they’re willing to help him, it must be feeling like a slap in the face. Dr. Green keeps talking to him in the car, eventually convinces him to come out and get back to work.
Dr. Green takes initiative with the family, bring Joan, his mother, to look at the front room. There is a very small amount of space that has been cleared out; Cory says that it filled one and a half dump trucks. Just that space in just that room. Joan begins crying. “I feel that’s hopeless!” She doesn’t see how it can be possible to meet their goals of cleaning the house so Norman won’t lose it. She’s devastated by the living conditions of her son.
Dr. Green, quiet but firm, tells her, “You’ve been avoiding seeing it.” Joan wanted to blame this on the girlfriend. It was not Jeneveve’s fault; it has been her son’s home, and he’s taking ownership for it. Norman tells Cory in another room how he doesn’t want his mother to be sad. What good will that do, hurting her? He just wants to put his head down, let his thoughts churn, and work.
The family regroups, organizing the next day’s work. Two cousins join the group on Day Two; Cory takes them upstairs to see the room where Jeneveve died. The male cousin realizes that the half-filled Gatorade bottles are filled with old urine, that they served as a bathroom for the couple. He begins to dry heave and stumbles across the hoard to get out of the tight, close space. The female cousin, Becky, sees the empty alcohol bottles everywhere, sees that there was no place to lay down and is overcome with sadness for Norman and Jeneveve.
She leaves the house, hand to her mouth, sobbing with such force her body shakes as she tries to go down the stairs. “It’s awful, it’s awful.”
Dr. Green follows her. Becky is utterly devastated that their close family – and they are – didn’t realize how Norman had been living all these years. And they love him. They want nothing but happiness for him. Dr. Green says, “Imagine the level of shame to keep him trapped like that.”
Becky goes straight to Norman after that. “We love you. But the truth is, you’re ill.” She speaks quietly but for the emotion causing her voice to waver. Her hand is on his arm, making sure he knows she’s speaking with love, not with accusations.
And Norman, sweet, gentle Norman stops in his actions, turns to her and says, “I didn’t even realize it until you just said it.”
Everything clicks with him. It’s the most amazing moment in Hoarders history, in my opinion. Everything is coming together in an astounding way: a hoarder ready to change, a family willing to do whatever it takes, a crew that knows just how to work with the situation. If ever there was a story that could give someone hope, Norman’s is the one to do it.
Becky is able to get through to Norman in a way that no one else has. He begins crying again, saying, “I didn’t realize how bad it was.” Cory is there, a hand on his back, talking him through it, praising him. “It’s really good to hear you say that.”
Norman repeatedly says that he feels his family’s love and support as he continues loading up things, carting them out to the dump trucks. He gives the effort every ounce of energy he has, assured that his family will be by his side, ready to help him recharge. The team and Norman manage to get his large home cleaned out completely on two floors. It’s astounding.
Norman hugs his entire family, telling each of them how grateful he is. He turns to Cory, telling him that he will forever be a part of his life. “This whole thing has shown me how sick I was and how totally fortunate I am. I’ve overcome a tremendous step by realizing it.”
Everyone is filled with hope for him. He is ready to go back to living and loving, which makes sense, given how tenderly he cared for Jeneveve. “I feel like I’m reborn,” he says to Dr. Green, his arm slung around his cousin’s shoulder. “It feels like an honest miracle.”
It does for us, too, Norman. Bless your heart. I won’t even pretend that I wasn’t crying throughout the program, so sad for him, and then so unbelievably happy for the progress he was able to make. What an outstanding guy.
Norman is living with his parents while he works with an organizer, continuing the clean up. A bio-hazard crew was called in to clean the third floor, where Jeneveve lived out her last years.
Norman is regularly seeing a therapist and will eventually move back home. (God speed, buddy.)
Linda, Madisonville, Louisiana
“I’m not in the best of health. And neither is my house.” Linda, an elderly and ill woman who maneuvers through her packed home with the aid of a walker, lives in filth. She also lives with her two adult sons, one whom is in his early forties.
The pathways are lined with old papers and flattened boxes, sweeping up into mountains of laundry and food. The small one story home is falling apart slowly. The bathroom is missing tiles on the walls, support beams and rotten insulation exposed. The floor is blackened with unimaginable filth. There are bugs everywhere. Then again, this is the humid south and food containers are a calling card.
Linda needs knee surgery desperately. She’s unwilling to have it, as she knows she will need in-home health care. She can’t bring anyone into her home for two reasons. One, because there’s no where for a person to go, and two, anyone that sees the living conditions will instantly contact authorities and the house could be condemned.
Her sons do nothing to alleviate the problem and in fact, they contribute to a lot of the mess. The number one activity in the house is blaming others. No one is responsible for their own actions, and each of them believes they clean the house. It’s the others that keep messing things up. I get the sense the the boys have been conditioned to live like this and have just given up.
It’s revealed that Linda has been hoarding for decades. As she soaps up a Mason jar in the bathroom, we learn that her husband, deceased now for twelve years, tried to stay on top of things, but Linda refused to let anyone get rid of things. Her sister Robin is at the end of her rope. She loves her sister, thinks that she’s a good person who simply doesn’t deserve to live in the hell she’s created for herself.
Linda doesn’t only refuse to have things removed; Linda continually buys things and brings them into the already-crammed house. She is going to have to learn how to stop doing that for this to work. And Robin is determined that this will work, otherwise, she has no choice but to call someone. She can’t let her sister’s last years be in pain and in garbage.
In another outstanding match-up of patient to Hoarders staff, Dr. Chabaud arrives with her lilting Creole, immediately bringing comfort and neighborliness to Linda. Dr. Chabaud notices that Linda seems to have “everything under the sea” in there, not just a few things, like clothes or books. Linda shows the doctor where she sleeps in her crammed room: a crooked little corner way in the back behind stacks of items.
Linda then tells the doctor, clearly comfortable with Chabaud’s demeanor and ready to just have someone know, that a few weeks ago, she fell. “I liked to never get up.” She didn’t tell the boys; she didn’t tell anyone. Dr. Chabaud notes that she prides herself on being independent.
The parallel between Linda and Jeneveve is stark. We come in far too late in once case, and just in the nick of time, it seems, with Linda. The reality is that a hoarded house is a death trap, it’s just waiting to be sprung.
Geralin Thomas arrives, ready to head up the organization and clean up. Robin says at the morning meeting that Linda won’t ask for or receive help as she’s very independent. Robin then holds her sister’s hand, sneaks a kiss to her cheek and whispers fiercely, “I do love you.”
The clean up begins with basic sorting and clothing removal. Geralin asks the gruff son, Sean, “How does a grown man not have a garbage can?” Blame, blame, blame. Oh, he had one, but the others didn’t like it, because it was always full. So he got a smaller one, and that was always full. And…
Meanwhile, Robin is outside with Dr. Chabaud, sobbing. Geralin comes out to bring her back to work, but Robin won’t go. She doesn’t want Linda to see her crying. “So what? Why the secret?” That’s the dirty secret in this family: feeling something and showing it.
Robin braces herself and goes in, hugging Linda straightaway. She tells Linda that she’s proud of her for doing this. Linda brusquely shoves off the affection, almost as if she’s unsure with how to react to it. Robin tries to talk with her, and this sets Linda off, who calls it “Preaching.” Robin refuses to let her by as Linda bristles at the conversation.
“I’m gonna be involved because I give a damn about you!” Robin yells, shocking Linda into silence. Linda finds her gumption and hollers back, “Don’t I have any rights?” This is the fallback for so many hoarders: that they have the right to live in squalor. And they do. But that doesn’t make it right.
Dr. Chabaud comes in to address the shouting, wondering if Linda has always felt controlled by Robin. “If I controlled her she wouldn’t be living like this!” She has a valid point.
The camera cuts to the refrigerator being rolled outside, taped shut. And we learn the other secret of Linda’s: she is addicted to collecting pots and pans. It doesn’t seem like it’s a bad thing until the camera doesn’t stop moving across the entire length of the driveway where it is lined on both sides, four pans deep. Stainless steel pots nested together, casseroles for baking, Dutch ovens, more cast iron skillets than a person would ever need in their life.
None of them can be thrown away. Linda will allow none to be taken. And Linda hasn’t cooked a meal in thirty years. Dr Chabaud says, “Yeah, okay, I think you’re living in the past.” Linda imagines cooking elaborate meals for twelve people. There are only three of them and they’ve not had a sit down meal since Sean, nearing forty, was ten years old.
Andre, her older son, asks her as he wrings his hands, “You [want to] live with pots and pans, or you [want to] live with people?” She doesn’t respond for some time and the rejection is painful to see on the boys’ faces. Dr. Chabaud notes, “You won’t break up sets [of pots] but you’ll break up families.”
Andre says he feels useless and wanders off. Robin and Sean go inside and start whispering about how they’ll wait for her to go somewhere and they’ll throw things away. Geralin overhears them and quickly puts the kibosh on that. “People have committed suicide from that. It’s a terrible idea and a betrayal.” She says directly to Robin, “At some point it’s okay to say you’ve done everything you could as a sister. You are unable to fix what’s wrong.”
Another moment of profundity on the show. As a person wanting to support or help a hoarder, at some point it has to be understood that it’s up to the hoarder to make the change, it simply cannot be forced on them, no matter how badly their family and loved ones wish it could.
The boys tell Linda that they feel she loves objects more than them. This seems to shock her. “No, I don’t!” But they feel that way. Linda’s actions have given them no other option to believe about their relationship.
The house gets about 60% of it cleaned out or boxed up. There is still a significant amount of work to be done, and the “ah-ha!” moment for Linda doesn’t feel apparent. Dr. Chabaud says that Linda “lives a life of intentions, like so many hoarders.”
I would take that a step further and say that so many of us live that way, I’m going to, I’ll get to that or this. We do it with our goals, we do it with our things, we do it with our bad influence, be they person or thing. The best advice I was ever given was in regards to a toxic relationship. “If you look at this person right now, with who they are right now – not their potential, not who they could be – would you stay with them forever?” And it’s relevant to so much of our lives, that bald and honest look at whatever it is holding us back from making a positive change: are you operating on something or someone’s potential, by the intention? Or by the reality?
As Dr. Chabaud says in regards to living with nothing more than intentions, “No one gets the life they really want.” You’re constantly waiting for Gadot.
Linda finally had her much-needed knee surgery. The family used aftercare funds to clean the home. She is seeing a therapist, and she and her sons will begin sessions together. Let’s hope those intentions of theirs stay grounded in action, not thought.