Only one more episode before the season closes out, and here’s to hoping the producers will go back to the original format for next season. No more sensationalism, please—the show doesn’t need it.
Anna is an older woman who works in healthcare. She was born in Guyana and moved to England as a young girl where she lived with her two sisters for twenty years before finally settling in Florida. Her sisters, Barbara and Bernadette, are both straightforward, no-nonsense types, just like Anna. They were shocked to find they had a hoarder in the family—Anna apparently disguised it well.
Her house is filled with filth. It’s not just piles of clothes and books and papers, there is rotten food on the floor and counters, buckets of murky water here and there. She has security bars along the outside of her modestly-sized house to deter anyone coming in. In fact, when her daughter Natasha and her three children showed up at Anna’s house needing assistance, Anna shut the door in her grandchild’s face.
No one is allowed in.
The sisters and Natasha (Anna’s only child) made plans to sneak into Anna’s home when she was at work, to get to the bottom of this. A neighbor tipped off Anna that people were in her home, so Anna called the police. And when they arrived, the sisters said they were family. Anna denied that she knew who they were. Including her daughter. To say this family is dysfunctional is an understatement.
Anna is angry that her family broke into her home—those are her things, and if she wants them covered in roaches, that’s her affair. She anticipates their judgment and derision, and shuts everyone out to avoid it. She won’t respond to threats and tells the camera that she believes her sisters see her as “invincible. I am invincible.” Natasha anticipates her mother getting abusive and hostile.
Anna states plainly that she doesn’t believe anyone would find her to be mentally ill. This is a huge part of the problem in this family, the lack of understanding of what constitutes mental illness. To them it’s a dirty word. (And is for a lot of people, unfortunately. More on this at the end of the show’s recap.)
Dr. Zasio arrives and is allowed in. She notes the plastic storage containers filled with squalid liquid and we see that there are multiple holes in the ceiling, holes that extend through the roof. Remember that she lives in Florida. I hear they have rainstorms on occasion. Anna admits that her home has been like this for “at least two years.” That was around the time when her mother passed away and she started shopping to deal with her grief. And things just piled up, it seems.
Matt Paxton and his crew of Got Junk trucks arrive and he wants the family to walk through the house with him so they can see the state Anna is living in. Anna flat out refuses. Not only is her family barred from entering, but so are Matt and his crew.
Natasha is instantly frustrated with her mother, who in turn becomes irate and threatens to kick her daughter’s ass. Multiple times she says this. There is so much anger in this family; everyone is like a pot waiting to boil over.
Meanwhile, Dr. Zasio and Matt are there for a reason and push Anna to let something happen. She allows them to work in her garage. Well, it’s a start. Anna and Natasha bicker from the moment they step into the garage and a frustrated Matt tells them to grow the hell up. Anna’s response is to force Natasha off her property. There is absolutely no communication happening, just yelling and insults.
Anna does let stuff get thrown away, so that’s more than I expected. After almost a full day of cleaning the garage, she relents to Matt’s pressure and says that the family can work on the house on the next day. Everyone goes in so a plan for the day can be worked out (and for the family to see how Anna’s been living). Bernadette, the youngest sister, is overcome with emotion, unbelievably sad for her sister. She expresses her sorrow to Anna, that she wished she’d known because her sister doesn’t deserve to live like that. It’s not the reaction Anna expected (which would have been to have her family make fun of her) and it goes a long way to cool tempers.
But that was Day One. Day Two is a different story. Bernadette is now angry. Disgusted. There will be no more of this pussy-footing around Anna, no more sensitivity. She comes from the Old School of knocking heads and boot strap pulling. The sisters are all fighting with each other once again. Dr. Zasio literally puts herself in between Bernadette and Anna as Anna takes a swing at her sister. Matt yells out, “We are here to help you!”
Dr. Zasio sends Anna off with Matt while she tackles the sisters. A rule is put down: no more talking to each other. At all. Bernadette shoves past Anna, purposely knocking her into a doorway. Let me remind you that these are grown women. Matt, fortunately, sees it and calls her out and keeps Anna from going on the warpath.
Dr. Zasio tells the sisters that they need to remember that Anna’s brain works differently. Bernadette says with a snotty tone, “You aren’t kidding!” This is more of that “mental illness is a dirty word” bullshit. It’s going to be a long day.
Inside, a Tupperware box is opened to reveal several rotting boxes of breakfast cereal, teeming with roaches. Someone screams to close the box, but Natasha says no, Anna should be forced to look at it. So much hate in this family, my word. Natasha starts a tirade against her mother, her sisters, the mess, anything she can—her anger has reached the breaking point. Matt pulls his crew out of the house; they don’t need to be party to this. Natasha eventually storms out, tells them to take the camera off of her and to take their mic—she’s gone.
Interestingly enough, now that Natasha’s gone, the clean up really starts cooking. Anna dives in to the task letting so much go. Natasha comes back the next day (they’re doing three days now, it seems) amazed at the progress. Dr. Zasio shows her that there is a maid service sterilizing the home and a painting crew repairing the holes in the walls and sprucing the house up.
Dr. Zasio gets Natasha and Anna together to talk. Anna clearly says that she wants to move forward so they no longer say hurtful things. Natasha bristles, telling her that she’s one to talk since she says—
“Natasha.” Dr. Zasio cuts her off. “Hey. She said moving forward. She doesn’t want any more disrespectful talk or sarcasm.” Oh. Everyone in this family is always on the defense, ready to box, it seems. Therapy is going to be an uphill battle, but at least Anna seems willing to try.
The house gets incredibly clean—shocking, giving the filthy state of it before with roaches everywhere. Specific rooms are targeted: the living room, the kitchen, and two bedrooms. One of them is for Anna’s grandchildren to visit. Matt pulls all the women into a group hug (ha) and one of the grandchildren—a teenager—seems excited to get to spend time with Anna.
Anna is working with both a therapist and an organizer. The family is holding weekly garage sales to rid the house of even more items. The grandchildren are spending a lot of time with Anna, to her delight. (No word on how the sisters are doing in therapy.)
Claire & Vance, Chicago, Illinois
“I’m Claire. I’m an avid reader, an aspiring writer, and I collect a lot of books.”
A lot. When I think of “a lot of books,” I think of a home with a built in library wall. According to Dorothy Breininger, the grand total was half a million books. Figure that each book weighs about a pound, and you’ve got a beginning idea of just how much there will be to sort through.
Claire and Vance live in an older home, one they’ve been in since 1977. They moved in 30,000 books at the time, and have been happily collecting ever since. They’ve had a loving marriage of 42 years and consider each other to be their soul mate. They really are sweet with each other, and clearly still love one another deeply.
Inside the house, bookshelves are the dominant piece of furniture. In fact, they’re the only piece of furniture I can see. They pulled appliances out of the house to make room for more bookshelves. When they ran out of walls to place shelves, they began to stack them against existing shelves. When they ran out of shelves, they began to stack books onto each other. The front room of their house looks like a representation of Bryce Canyon built out of books. Every stack reaches the ceiling.
“Books are our passion.” I’d say so.
They both happily admit that “timber!” is a common phrase shouted in the house as books are constantly toppling over onto them. Now that they’re in their 60s and Vance has a serious heart condition, Claire has realized that they need to make changes. There is no way an EMT could get into the house, let alone pull Vance out, should something happen.
Claire says, “We couldn’t see the books through the reading.”
Dr. Chabaud arrives and is immediately welcomed by Claire. Vance seems amused by the whole thing. After all, he has an IQ of over 200, so he clearly knows more about what’s happening than anyone else. That’s his attitude, at least. Claire seems to have been listening to her husband over the years as she tells the doctor, “This is a financial and physical problem for us. This is not a psychological problem.”
Dr. Chabaud wonders what on earth she’s doing there, then, if they don’t believe there’s anything psychologically wrong with hoarding out a house with half a million books—don’t forget they removed necessary appliances to store even more books. These two are full of excuses and canned phrases they’ve developed over the years to deflect concerned friends.
Dorothy Breininger arrives with Claire’s long-time friend Lynn to finally see what the house looks like. Lynn says it’s just as she feared; as they walk through, a pile of books cascades on top of them as they make their way through the narrow channel between shelving units. There are no visible walls.
A huge sorting process begins—it becomes clear straight away that Vance isn’t going to be a part of this, and isn’t willing to part with any of his books. Claire makes quick work of pulling his aside to be boxed and getting rid of her own. Lynn mentions that this is pretty typical, that Vance won’t participate.
Dorothy, with her smile of “oh, really?” in place approaches him and says that she’s not here for entertainment, that she’s here to help him and his wife out of a crisis situation. Vance is amused—this isn’t a crisis. Books don’t hurt people. (Try braining someone with a hardback copy of Poor Country My Fellow and get back with me on that, Vance.) Vance is filled with sarcasm and derision. Dorothy stomps off, and I don’t blame her.
Vance strikes me as a very socially awkward man the more he speaks. He tries to outwit people, to prove how intelligent and how above the whole situation he is. He says things like how it’s wonderful some books are being removed so “that way no one is injured when I set fire to the house.” Well that’s encouraging, buddy.
Dr. Chabaud calls him on his sarcasm, calling it misdirected anger. (You read about that in any of your books, Vance?) She asks him, “Who are you angry at?”
“No one! I love everyone.” Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, buddy, come on. He refuses to talk, to work, to participate. He hides out in his car as his wife gets down to brass tacks. After an entire day of non-stop work, they manage to clear a five-by-five foot space in one room. That should tell you the sheer volume of books and material in this house.
Day Two has Claire ready to work. She wants to get rid of as much as possible to make things go faster. Again, it’s all of her things in order to keep Vance’s books. She says that Vance can’t be a part of this because this process is “chaos” and with his heart condition, he needs to not experience any stress. I’d say that having massive piles of things that can fall on top of a person and brain them is chaotic, but then again, I don’t have an IQ of 200+, so what do I know?
The camera cuts to Vance smirking in his car.
In the house, one of the bookshelves—wedged in place with a single shim and a paperback novel—has come falling down, landing on the crew. Dorothy tells Claire that they better be glad that happened on her strong, young crew, and not them. “No more. You have to take care of yourself!”
That lights an even bigger fire in Claire, who really wants to do the right thing here and protect her husband and his health. She’s a sweet woman. Vance finally joins them to talk. Dr. Chabaud sees his Achilles and asks Claire in front of him, “If Vance died from the hoard, what would this do to you, Claire?”
Well, it would destroy her, because she knows it could have been prevented. She would feel crippling guilt. That gets through to Vance, because he really and truly loves “his bride.” (I love when men call their wives their brides, I can’t help it. It’s charming.) He realizes that he needs to let books go and gets to work with Dr. Chabaud making excellent and speedy decisions. Good for you, Vance!
He stops and says to the doctor, “I used to think that the answers in life came from books. But they decidedly do not.” Well, well, color me impressed! I didn’t think in the beginning that he’d make any strides, and boy, did he prove me wrong.
They do incredibly well for the rest of the clean up, removing 20,000 books and magazines. 20,000! And it hardly made a dent. We then learn that there are twenty-six rooms in the house, and the 20,000 books only came from two of them. But they have a living room, so to speak – two comfortable reading chairs, a lamp and side tables are wedged in a room lined by bookshelves.
10 tons of material were sent out. Guys. The sheer volume of material in this house is staggering. Regardless, Claire is so excited to have a space where the two of them can sit together, read, talk, and connect as soul mates. The other room that was cleared was their kitchen, which is finally usable after more than a decade of serving as book storage.
Vance is clearly happy to see her happy, and they’re both motivated to continue working on clearing out the house. Socially awkward or not, they really do have a deep and admirable love for each other.
They’re extremely motivated to get their house under control and are both working with a therapist and organizer. They’ve cleared out another 4000 books since the taping and are now working on clearing out their front porch.
Only 475,000 more books to go.
I find it interesting that we have two opposite approaches to intellectualism in these families, yet the impression of what mental illness is remains the same.
In Anna’s family, mental illness is “being crazy.” It’s something dirty and low and stupid, not realizing that it’s no different than being sick in any other aspect of their body. We don’t mock someone for breaking their leg, we don’t look down at someone who has Type 1 diabetes, so why do people use hush-hush voices for someone who has a mental illness? Broken down to its basic elements, it’s the same thing: a malfunction in a system of a person’s body.
In Claire and Vance’s family, it’s almost as if being mentally ill is a sign of mental weakness. You should be able to solve the problem through intellect. Vance is “too intelligent” to have something as weak as mental illness happening. It isn’t possible to consider a book, something that holds knowledge, as a negative. Even if there are so many of them that it makes your life unlivable. I’m curious to know if he ever changed his mindset on whether or not their previous lifestyle was indeed a psychological problem.
I think the biggest challenge this show (and any other program that deals with mental health) faces is convincing people that hoarding (or whatever disorder) is no different than liver disease. A blood disorder. Basic DNA or hard-wiring in the brain that has gone wrong and needs treatment just like someone with kidney issues needing dialysis. When we can convince people that mental illness isn’t a four letter word, I think effective change can happen across the board.
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