Hoarders – Season 4 – Phyllis, Janet


A&E, Monday Nights, 9EST

Disclaimer: I recognize that hoarding is a mental illness. I try to be respectful of that, to acknowledge that people depicted on this show are getting much needed help. We do not insult people here, so please be respectful. Hoarding affects entire families, often to devastating results.


An Emmy needs to go to the sound editor of this show for creating that fly buzzing noise as they introduce the subjects for the week. It’s almost like that ominous sound a mosquito makes as it zips past your ear. I have a routine before I watch this show, to which I’m grateful to A&E. I get my bedroom immaculate. The show airs on trash day, so I really go to town. It’s very motivational. 

This week is focused on two women, with very different hoards and lifestyles. First is Phyllis, in Georgia. She’s a Certified Nursing Assistant, and there’s something in me that boggles every time I learn that one of these people is in a career as a caregiver of some sort. I say that because they have so much access to help and to understanding these disorders, it’s just amazing they’ve not reached out for themselves.

Phyllis has two adult sons, Ed, who is on his own, and Bobby, who is developmentally disabled and lives under her care. Ed is threatening to call Adult Protective Services if the hoard doesn’t come under control, because it’s is also affecting his brother’s quality of life.

Phyllis hoards dolls. Lots and lots and lots of dolls, doesn’t matter the shape they’re in, if they have all of their limbs intact, if it’s a doll, she wants it. They’re in boxes and bags and sacks and piles and stacks, their glassy eyes stare at you from everywhere.

She tends to buy them from thrift stores, where you just know they are covered in… gah, I don’t want to think what. She’ll drop $5 or $7 dollars on a bag of them here and there, what’s the harm? She has converted one room in her house to be a Doll Hospital. One doll, she says, is no longer alive, she has expired. And then, with an incredibly creepy and anxious laugh, Phyllis cuts off the doll’s arm.

She Frankensteins the dolls together, a hand onto this one, a foot over there on another one. She giggles and giggles and cuts and giggles some more, and it’s truly like a Rob Zombie horror movie in here.

The back story on Phyllis is that several years ago, her mother died and Phyllis was not invited to the memorial service afterward. It made her feel horribly unwanted, which is a constant refrain in her life. This is a woman that makes me very uncomfortable watching because – to me – it’s so clear that she, too, is developmentally disabled in some way (my first thought was some degree of Aspergers, a differentiation that I’m very familiar with) and has simply been shunted aside for her life. She says she’s always called stupid and worthless, and it’s just… well. It explains a lot.

Phyllis’s therapist will be Dr. Mark Pfeiffer, and he seems a good fit as he presents himself as meek and caring. He discovers her secret: she cleaned up two rooms before he came so it won’t look so bad. The rooms, while organized, are still piled to the ceiling with dolls.

Phyllis has horribly low self-esteem. She refers to herself as a VUP, a Very Unimportant Person. Dr. Mark hopes that by getting her hoarding under control, she can learn to think better of herself and what she’s capable of doing.

Her personal organizer is Geralyn Thomas, another gentle person that can be tough when needed. She tries to talk with Phyllis, but Phyllis begins her anxious giggling and goes on and on about how adorable Cabbage Patch Dolls are, how much she loves the red headed ones, and Geralyn has to constantly get her back on task. This is why I feel we’re dealing with atypical neurological issues on top of the hoarding.

They get all of the dolls out of the house and pile them up. It’s… unbelievable. Tens of thousands of them pile up as high as her roof and longer than her house. She literally cannot see the creepy doll hoard for the red headed Cabbage Patch Doll sitting in the middle of all of this. She shuts down, not letting herself acknowledge what she’s done. Her boys try and say sweet things about her, with Bobby saying, “I like having you around!”

She just cries and self-deprecates.

Phyllis is confronted with the cost of her hoarding. She refuses to see beyond the few dollars spent here and there on dolls. She either will not or cannot add up all of her purchases over the years. The amount is enormous, and she frankly doesn’t have the income to support her habit.

At this, Bobby jumps in. He receives his paychecks from his job (he’s worked at Piggly Wiggly for 16 years, what good folks to hire him!) and he has them cashed into one dollar bills, because that’s how he’s able to count. His mother buys dolls with one dollar bills, and he believes it to be his money she is using. As he tries to tell the doctor this, his mother begins to get nasty with him, snapping at him to be quiet, that he doesn’t understand, or trying to undermine his words. It’s just sad.

Here’s my take: Phyllis was abused mentally by her father (and possibly ex-husband) for being “stupid.” She was left with the care of two children, one whom needed ’round the clock care. She is most likely developmentally disabled as well, and did the best for herself that she could, and when that is challenged (or not acknowledged) she lashes out from the years of anger that have built up. I’m not justifying her behavior, I’m trying to understand it, because otherwise, I will have no sympathy for this woman. And she really, really needs some sympathy in the world.

Phyllis has had two huge dumpsters full of nothing but dolls carted off. Geralyn tells Phyllis how remarkable she is, and Phyllis giggles nervously. You can tell she’s not used to getting praise. It’s short lived, though, as they begin working on the rest of the dolls, wanting her to make the decision to get rid of them. She just can’t stay focused. They put her on the Doll Hospital clean out, and she loses it, getting angry and crying.

Ed knows how to get to his mother, though, and jokes. “This hospital is being closed down for malpractice.” She laughs. He starts saying dolls are toxic, or have expired, and she laughs and starts helping him clean it out.

Aftercare: Phyllis uses her aftercare funds to keep on working with a therapist and personal organizer. It’s working, so far. Also, some of the funds have gone to helping Bobby get a tutor, and he is now able to read and is getting an education. Fantastic.

We meet Janet in Michigan. Janet, a devout Catholic, is quite elderly and enfeebled at this late stage in life. She delivered 11 children in 12 years, of which 9 survived. Beth, a twin, is the child that is closest to her. Beth always cares for her, checks in, would help her mother clean the house while the other children played. Janet is also a retired nurse.

Janet lives without running water, electricity, or heat. In Michigan. Her house is filled to the ceiling with garbage. It’s not that she’s desperate to hold on to things because they are so very personal to her, she just can’t abide wasting things. And now, because she is not in good health, she cannot clean the mountain of filth that she is now surrounded by. Beth says that how her mother lives is “dreadful.”

Beth is also threatening to call Adult Protective Services because it has gone on long enough without anyone helping. Only two of her siblings are willing to pitch in. Janet assures the camera that she’s fine in the cold, because she simply piles the hoard onto herself for warmth. Oh, Janet. As she has no running water or garbage service, going to the bathroom consists of adult diapers, bottles of collected urine, or simply going out back in “nature.” Oh, Janet.

She staggers with a cane over piles of garbage to squeeze herself through the one operable door to spend her daily 6 hours of prayer at her church. Her pastor knows nothing of the state of her home.

Janet wanted to be a nun, but wanted children even more. She married Gerald, another devout Catholic, and they started their family, instantly. A huge source of contention in the family is that Gerald was abusive, he swears he wasn’t, but Beth gets so upset thinking about her mother’s abuse that she has to leave camera. Janet also mentions it, but in an off hand way that is almost as heartbreaking as her living conditions. He left their house, and ever since then, her hoarding has escalated to where she is today.

Dr. Zasio (my personal favorite) pushes into the house and tries to find her. She is surprised and shocked when she sees Janet ET-like in her hoard right in front of her face. Trash is all you can see, diapers and urine collections are everywhere. Dr. Zasio calls Adult Protective Services to make them aware of the situation, on the chance things don’t get fixed. That’s a good ball to get rolling.

Poor Beth who has tried to help, but this is a mess that needs many hands, not just hers. She just can’t do it all on her own. Two of her brothers arrive at the time the personal organizer, Cory Chalmers, arrives. Dr. Zasio takes the men into the house, forcing them to walk around and see where their mother has been living for years. They haven’t visited the house in almost two decades. They’re beyond shocked and have the grace to cry – both for their shame and for their mother. They do love their mother, they’ve just had their heads in the sand in regards to how she lives.

Janet’s pastor shows up and sees how she has been living and is equally shocked. He had never been allowed in before this, and you can tell his heart is breaking for sweet Janet.

The clean up starts, and I’m once again blown away that everyone isn’t wearing a mask. (It’s always the family members, too.) All of the professionals have on heavy duty face masks. The house is so hoarded that everything has sort of cemented together with congealed filth. It would have been impossible for Beth and her infirm mother to accomplish anything on their own.

A path has been cleaned to the kitchen. Dr. Zasio tells Janet that while the food is obviously going to need to be thrown out for spoilage, the makeup Janet has kept in there for years (the fridge hasn’t been opened in over 5) will also have to be thrown away. This is the first time we see Janet fight things. She wants her wrinkle cream, and she doesn’t believe that expires. She walks off.

At this point, Beth’s twin, Mary, comes in carrying her dog. Beth is a typical hardscrabble Michigan gal in her 40s and Mary, her twin, has frosted tips, teenager jeans, and attitude. Mary and Beth do not speak to each other. Mary is on the side of the father in all of this mess, and Beth goes after her with both barrels.

“You let your mother live like this? You rotten piece of shit!”

Mary coolly tells her twin that she didn’t come there to clean. “Then why are you here?” Mary claims that Beth is just fixing the house up for the money. To which I say, money? What money? You can’t get money from a house that will have to be razed. Janet tells the camera that as soon as she saw Mary come in with her makeup and dog, that she was just there for the sake of the cameras. Poor Janet.

Mary lies about how often she visits, tries to get involved, and Dr. Zasio steps in. She tells Mary that she needs to leave, and Beth is able to calm down and keep working. Father Doc shows up once the house is all cleared out of garbage and offers a blessing on Janet and her house. Beth sobs, she just wants her mother to be better off than she’s been.

Dr. Zasio and Cory have a frank talk with Beth and Janet: there needs to be running water, electricity, and heat in that home, as well as a myriad of repairs made, before it will be fit for Janet to live there. Beth tells them not to worry, her mother is coming home with her, and she’ll do all of the repairs herself. And damn it if she doesn’t. They show the house a little while after the clean up and new cabinets and flooring have gone into the bathroom, for starters. The brothers also pitch in on repair work, they love their mother and vow to never let it get to this point again.

Aftercare: Janet is also using her allotted funds for therapy, and Beth, the best daughter in the world, has put in her own money and an enormous amount of time on the house, so take that, Mary and your “You just want the money” crap. So far, so great. Janet is in a position to have family visit her in her own, clean, home, and has become gregarious and joyful, according to her family. (Note: her sons have written in to A&E thanking them for their ‘fair treatment’ and for helping them do right by their mother. Bless their hearts.)