A few things before we head under the cut. One, I am begging A&E to cut the “dramatic music” they’ve added this season. It completely demolishes your integrity. It’s sensationalistic and overwrought. The stories are compelling enough; you don’t need to lead the audience to any emotion. Two, Kristy’s story deals with sexual abuse, so take care if that’s a topic you try to avoid.
Joanne, New York
Joanne, a retired bus driver, grew up collecting and crafting with her father. She still has some of the crafts they made. And millions of other things. Her house is the very picture of chaos. It’s horribly filthy and disordered, pathways are blocked, windows are covered by piles of garbage, the kitchen is filled with rotted and fetid items that are indistinguishable. Her son-in-law George, shaking with visible anger, says “My mother-in-law’s house is crap from top to bottom.” The camera pans to the bathroom where there is a huge pile of soiled adult diapers.
Joanne grew up in her current home. She married her husband (a picture of her wedding day is shown where she is utterly beautiful and looks happy) and life began to unravel. In 2002, she and her husband moved back into the home when Joanne’s parents passed away. They didn’t remove any of their things, just added on to the mess.
Joanne’s daughter Robayn estimates that 75% of the items in the home belong to people who are now dead. We meet Nicole, Joanne’s granddaughter. She finds the house creepy. She knows her grandfather died in the home, and there apparently was also a man who hanged himself in their basement in the 40s. Joanne relishes that story and has begun talking about maybe doing that to herself.
Her husband, it turns out, spent their marriage hurling abuse at her, drinking himself into belligerent rages nightly, and even brought his girlfriends home while the family slept. One mistress was so intoxicated that she urinated all over the bathroom. Joanne was expected to clean it up. Joanne very clearly acknowledges that the hoard was her revenge. “I will get you back,” she says of her intent. Joanne is barely holding her own anger in.
Robayn – who struck me as overly dramatic about things, but then, I’ve not walked a mile in her shoes – has been in therapy for several years because of her life of growing up the child of a hoarder. She has PTSD as a result. “The lifestyle of a hoarder isn’t just collecting things, it’s hiding your life so you live with lies; you live with deceit.”
(The show continues to find more and more people to highlight who have an amazing grasp on the situation; it’s incredibly insightful for the viewing audience.)
Joanne has fractured her knee, and as a result, cannot walk unassisted. Since living in her home requires her to clamber over piles, it was deemed unsafe. She is staying with Robayn and George in their house. And she’s begun hoarding there, too. The family is insisting that she clean her home so that she can live in it. They need help, however, as Joanne has fought every effort to clean her home up to this point.
Her son Rance (Nicole’s father) is worried that his mother’s mental health is so delicate that she might break. I don’t get that at all – I think Joanne’s got an incredibly strong survivor streak within her, regardless of her talking about suicide. (That sounded to me like a cry for help, not an actual threat.)
Dr. Zasio will help her through the process. She arrives and sees that Joanne can’t really walk. She helps her up the stairs to the house, and they push in. The doctor is worried that Joanne could fall and bring the hoard on top of herself. It’s a real concern. Joanne tells her that without a doubt, this was revenge against her husband’s treatment of her. Since she’s unable to walk, Dr. Zasio deposits her in a chair and goes exploring the rest of the house on her own. That’s when she discovers the adult diaper mess.
“Oh, lord.” She comes back to Joanne, her face filled with worry and pity. “That’s quite a mess up there.” She explains to Joanne that because of the contamination in the house, not much will be salvageable, and how does she feel about that?
Joanne says she just might have to go to the basement with a rope, if that’s the case. Dr. Zasio cannot ethically walk away from a threat of suicide. She makes sure that Joanne will be under supervision after she leaves (she’ll be back at Robayn’s house) and makes mental adjustments to the speed in which they’ll reasonably be able to clean the house.
(This was a moment where the music was so jarring and “horror-movie-like” that my husband and I found the show frustrating to watch. A woman threatening suicide is stressful enough without the emotional cue-music. Really, A&E, it needs to go.)
Cory Chalmers arrives the next day with the Got Junk trucks, but before they can begin clean-up, Dr. Zasio wants to confirm with Joanne that she’s mentally prepared for this task and that she won’t harm herself. Joanne agrees. Cory steps in and explains that they will bring everything by her for approval, without question. This visibly calms Joanne.
She struggles right away, however. As Joanne double checks every bag of garbage being taken out of the house, Dr. Zasio takes the family through the house for a reality check. The kitchen is a nightmare. The fridge is filled with rotten food and animal feces. Nicole begins sobbing. Rance holds her and says, “I feel like I could walk by the dump right now and it’d be cleaner.”
The bathroom is where they begin to understand that this isn’t obstinance on Joanne’s part, this is a mental disorder. Nicole, who spent many years living in this house with her grandmother, sobs in earnest now. “My whole childhood has been trashed on.” They can’t understand how she could live like this, how she could let it get to this place.
Dr. Zasio encourages Nicole to ask Joanne that question. Joanne, meanwhile, is bracing herself downstairs for the family to yell at her, hurl abuse, and abandon her. This is how she’s been conditioned to think over the years. Instead, Nicole wraps her arms around her grandmother and says while crying, “I love you. Please know that I want you to be healthy and safe.”
This is a deviation from the script Joanne has taught herself, and it’s clear that she’s taken aback by it. Rance moves in to hug her, as well, and tells her that he loves her. This is when we learn that Joanne’s husband used the children as weapons. She was told they hated her and she thought it was true for years. That’s another reason for her hoard, a protection against her loneliness for her children. Fortunately she believes them when they say that was never true, and they love her now.
Cory takes Robayn to the bathroom to help him clean it. Cory starts grabbing the diapers, shoving them in a bag, but Robayn begins crying immediately. (She seems to burst into tears quite readily.) In one of the most honest exchanges I’ve heard on this show, she responds to Cory’s question about why she’s crying.
“I feel like I should want to clean, but I’m too grossed out by it.” I would feel the same, I bet.
There’s another bit of hyped up drama (influenced by the damn music again) where Joanne’s “lies” are revealed. It’s played up as if there’s a dead body in the storage shed, but it’s just more things that Joanne didn’t want to have to get rid of.
Everyone comes back for Day Two with high expectations and positive energy. Joanne made good decisions the day before, and the knowledge that yet another of her husband’s threats (about her children loving her) was untrue seems to have rejuvenated her. She physically looks lighter and livelier.
Joanne tells the group that she’s very appreciative of their work, which sets Robayn off crying again, but this time they’re happy tears. She never thought she’d hear her mother say she was thankful for something like this. Joanne makes amazing strides on the final day.
“If I can’t make up my mind in three to four seconds, I most likely don’t need it.” That is astounding that she’s come around so quickly on understanding how to make decisions! I think letting a lot of that anger go (or accepting the anger and why she’s angry, whichever it is) has given her the freedom to captain her own ship.
The house is beginning to look more and more like a home. Dr. Zasio plants Joanne in a chair in the living room and asks her what she would say to her husband if he appeared. “You betrayed my trust. I didn’t deserve everything that you did to me. I resent that. It should have been better.” Damn straight, Joanne.
She smiles at the end of the day, as does the rest of the crew. 9,000 pounds of garbage was taken out, as well as the ghost of a hateful husband. Her prognosis is good, according to Cory and Dr. Zasio.
She is working with a therapist and organizer and still lives with Robayn and George while her leg heals. She plans on moving back into her home soon. Good for you, Joanne.
“I used to run a daycare, and I used to be a good mother.”
Kristy, crying, is introduced to us with her own words. She’s a slight woman, still young, and is the mother to three children. We meet the middle child first, Tiffany. Tiffany tells us that growing up, the house was immaculate. She’s tried to understand how it could have gone from spotless to what it is now.
Now the house is piled high with items that have been bought, lost, bought again, ad nauseum. Piles are specifically targeted to block entry ways. We’ll find out momentarily why. Dylan, the youngest and the only son, is fifteen. “I feel like she took my childhood away from me because of her junk.” The house was considered unsafe enough that Dylan has been taken from the home, and has lived with his oldest sister Tawnya for the past two years.
Kristy says tearfully, “Bad mothers have their kids taken away.” Regret and grief roll off Kristy in waves.
Dylan says that if she loved him, she’d lose the junk. She’s required to clean the home before he can be allowed back. The camera shows pictures of the children when they were little being held lovingly by Kristy. Everything is clean and bright and happy in the pictures.
Twenty years ago, however, when the girls were little, a masked man broke into the home and brutally raped and beat Kristy as the children slept. She had her face beaten in to the point of losing teeth in the attack. The police told her that she shouldn’t worry about him coming back.
They were wrong.
Nine months later, the same attacker broke back into her home and brutally raped her again. This is when she began hoarding. Things were purposely piled in front of windows and doors to block people from coming in. Dylan was born a few years after the attack and she knew that children brought her the only joy in her life, so why not open a daycare?
She kept the rooms utilized for children spotless; the rest of the house was in disarray. As the hoard built up, state inspectors began demanding to see the other rooms in the house beyond the few used to the daycare. They shut down the daycare in 2007, and the hoard escalated. She feels like “a nobody, and [she] doesn’t matter.” You get the impression that she feels she’s every bit a piece of garbage as the things in her house.
Mark Pfeffer arrives to help her cope with the process and he immediately points out the irony of a sign hanging in her home: “The best things in life aren’t things.” She knows it’s ironic. She loves her family and friends, she just can’t help herself.
She takes Mark on a tour of the home, showing him the kitchen. It’s filled with things, but it doesn’t appear filthy. In fact, we see her make a salad and sit on a clear stair to eat. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen a hoarder eat something fresh, to be honest. Kristy explains that she uses the oven to heat the house, as most of the vents in the home are blocked. This is a real safety hazard.
She then shows Mark Dylan’s bedroom and becomes emotional. She can see her son’s hurt and resentment, she’s just incapable of fixing this on her own. She says she’s finally cognizant that she’s hurt her children over the years. Well, that’s a big first step.
Dorothy Breininger arrives with the Got Junk trucks and her never-ending smiles and support. She knows right away that the hoard represents a lot of trauma, and “it has to go!” Kristy immediately thanks everyone for helping and as she says she realizes they’re there for her, she begins to cry, overcome with gratitude. Oh, Kristy, I just feel for her.
She’s brought into the kitchen by Dorothy, along with Tawnya. Kristy is asked what she’s feeling. “Shame.” As she begins sorting things, she clearly wants to save everything to be reused, or given away. She has chew toys for Tawyna’s dogs, books for the potential grandchildren, on and on. They don’t want these things, but Kristy is frustrated at the thought of having to buy it again, not realizing that if it wasn’t wanted initially, it’s not going to be wanted down the road. Dylan becomes more and more angry.
As Kristy sees how they’re reacting to her behavior, she cries again, saying that she doesn’t want them to think the stuff is more important than they are. She bought those things for them. As a visible token of her love. She also says that she can’t help that she’s “compelled to do it,” to buy and re-buy items. Just in case.
Mark continues to try and push her to high levels of stress so that when she makes decisions, her brain will click with understanding that she’s still there – she survived the choosing process. But she just can’t choose. She pushes back with options for everything to be given, kept, stored, shared. She can’t get past the thought that she’ll have to buy the same item again if they get rid of it. (But no one wants her preschool items. They should be donated, but she wants her girls to have them.)
Mark calls a meeting later in the day. The kids express their frustration with wanting more to be taken out, and Dylan wants her to choose; choose him over the items. Mark point blank asks him if he’d consider coming home if the house was clean. He says he’d try it part time and see how it went, clearly protecting himself from what he knows his mother could easily slip back into.
Kristy, however, is happy to get that much out of him. As a result, the clean up picks up at a healthy clip. Dorothy takes her down to the basement where the items she couldn’t bring herself to part with have been bagged up. Rules are outlined: she is to take one bag upstairs, open it, make decisions for everything in that bag, put them where they go (garbage or other) and only then is she allowed to take another bag from the basement. She agrees to this, readily.
Mark says that her prognosis is good – as long as she sticks with therapy, and involves the children in it. Dylan’s room looks great; it’s ready for a fifteen year old boy. The entire main floor of the house looks terrific, n fact. Homey with memorabilia, but not cluttered. The bathrooms and kitchens look brand new. She wasn’t filthy, just incredibly disorganized.
Dylan says he’s ready for more family time and Kristy has a huge, watery smile on her face. It’s a good step forward.
Kristy is working with a therapist and organizer, but she still struggles with letting things go. Dylan still lives with Tawnya as of taping.
Boy, did I guess wrong with who I thought would make a breakthrough and who wouldn’t. I was sure that Joanne would be a hard nut to crack. She was just so angry. And yet she ended up being the quickest to realize that her anger had been based on an abuser’s lies. I got the impression that she just needed to vent about all of the trauma he’d put her through, have someone recognize that she’d been horribly mistreated for years, and then could let it go.
She was visibly happier after realizing that her children hadn’t hated her over the years, that they simply felt separated from her by the hoard. And she was able to accept their love at face value and move forward. Amazing.
Kristy, who just made me ache to see how much she was hurting in her life has a lot of trauma to confront. While I wished she was able to make a huge leap in logic during the process, it makes sense that she’s going to need a lot of therapy to gain the tools she needs to let herself grieve what was done to her and to let that shame go. (She shouldn’t be ashamed of what was done to her, but I understand why she feels that way. Even if I wish she didn’t.) I really hope they do a follow up with her, and that she gets the strength she needs to let it go.