Hoarders 4.09 – Lisa, Bertha

Note the eggs in the bag, hanging off the cabinet.

I’m going to put a warning for potentially triggering topics on this one. One story deals with severe spousal abuse and the subsequent paternal abuse. But her story is also one of the most compelling stories since Clare, in my opinion. Also: you don’t want to have any food anywhere near you. Really.

Lisa, Virginia

Lisa loves cooking. She loves inventive cooking, collecting unusual cooking materials from pots to seasonings. And therein lies the problem. She tells the camera that in her kitchen she has “all kinds of molds.” As they pan across the utter filth in her (working!) kitchen, I thought she meant molds as in micro-organisms. Turns out they are food molds, such as used for salmon mousse, gelatins, etc.

Her fridge is not in working order, hasn’t been in years. Her solution to storing food is to leave it in bags, and these are hung from the light fixtures to keep out the rats, which means she’s fully aware of a rodent problem. Every surface of the kitchen is filled with grimy food containers, bags of garbage, half-opened containers of foodstuff, the cabinets are coated in dust, dirt, animal droppings, grease. The camera cuts often to a spice rack (she uses them regularly) where the bottles are almost indistinguishable from one another. One particular bottle is so filthy on the outside that the linen label wrapped around it has mostly disintegrated.

Anna is her daughter, who likens her home to a horror movie. We see that the sink is filled with vegetable trimmings and who knows what else; it’s as if it’s being utilized as a compost bin. Anna tells us that the house is under threat of being condemned and that in the beautiful, older neighborhood in which she grew up, her mother’s house is the one eyesore.

When Anna was a little girl, the house was spotless. Lisa’s marriage, however, was tumultuous as best, violent at worst. Anna calls her father a “sociopath,” and that living with him was like living with Jim Jones. Their family was based on fear and the father’s control. He cut Lisa off from all of her interests and friends. He told her that she was a slob in order to condone his own abuse of her. If you tell someone something about themselves long enough, they’ll believe it.

Lisa’s life took a 180 degree turn. No longer allowed to express herself through her art (she still has paintings, needlework, and drawings in her home) she turned to using food as a creative outlet. But Anna tells us that this took a very dark turn. Lisa says with a smile, “My daughter told me the food I made was weird. I don’t see what’s weird about it.”

Lisa would dry meal worms, grind them to a powder, and use that to make cookies, for example. She also was very dishonest to her family about what she was feeding them. Anna tells us that she thought for years that her mother was making poison with the intent of making Anna ill. Lisa would never own up to the fact that there was an element of torture in her food preparation.

The camera cuts to a pot filled with black charred items; they are completely unidentifiable. Bottles of who knows what are so caked with filth on the outside, you cannot see what’s inside. Anna continues, “She’d lie about making an apple pie, but it was something like raw chicken hearts.” The camera cuts to Lisa holding a bag of what looks like ashes and I notice that her palms are stained a grayish blue. I hope it’s from an art project.

Anna’s last straw was when she came home from school and went to make buttered toast. Inside the butter container was a dessicated squirrel. She stopped eating at home from that point on. She still feels the trauma from that experience and struggles with any basic cooking processes, and has at times hallucinated that there are bugs, maggots, or other things in food as she prepares it. Anna left when she was very young, understanding that there was no help she could offer that her mother would accept.

The house fell apart quickly when Lisa became chronically ill. Her husband infected her with HPV (a venereal disease) and refused to allow her any medical attention. She is very ill with cervical cancer at this stage in her life. Once it was clear she had cancer, the husband left. He had taken everything away from her, and the one thing left had been her marriage, and then that, too, was gone. Her hoarding escalated. The husband has been dead for some time, but his past abuse still terrorizes her.

This house looks like a physical representation of how Lisa feels about herself: diseased, disgusting, filthy, garbage.

Lisa is very nervous to meet Dr. Mark Pfeffer, her therapist. She reluctantly lets him in, not just out of fear, but because there’s no real way to get in. He has her squeeze through the gap in the back door that leads into the kitchen, and as he pushes in to join her, the door shoves into her. There is no room for anyone to stand in there, let alone two people. There is no visible floor, no visible counter space. Everything is filled with garbage.

He notes the bags hanging everywhere, filled with food in various stages of decay. He initiates discussion about any goals she might have and how she’s feeling about the process. She exhales, “I don’t have a life after this.” The doctor immediately replies with a smile, “Well, I see you. You are living.” She unfortunately cannot see what the future holds for her beyond these next few days. Dr. Pfeffer explains to us that this is her way of numbing herself from any feelings. He’s very concerned at her refusal to visualize any goals and her suicidal statements.

Lisa’s organizer is Matt Paxton. He tells her that he understands that everything in the house matters to her. Anna has brought her boyfriend, Ritchie, to help. (He’s very understanding and kind. You’ll see.) There is evidence of rat infestation everywhere the group turns. In the kitchen, the smell is overpowering to Matt, and Matt has smelled everything there is to smell. Or so he thought.

“I found smells here that I’ve never found before in my life.”

Matt and Ritchie get started on the kitchen without Lisa. There is a take-out container filled with chicken bones. The bones are sweating and Matt says it “smelled like sugar and butt.” As they dig through more and more half-closed containers of fetid food, Matt begins finding dead rats. He explains that they’ve clearly eaten something that has killed them. The food that Lisa insists on eating has become poison.

The doctor and Lisa, with Anna offering support, sift through a bag of cans on the front porch. Lisa explains that none of the cans should be thrown away. She has imagined all sorts of art applications for them, the aluminum cans can be turned into flower sculptures, and so forth. She can see the potential in everything. “Except for yourself,” the doctor notices.

Lisa maintains a sad, defeated sort of smile throughout the conversation. Anna watches all of this, frustrated, angry and very sad that her mother believes a used soda can has more value than she does. Lisa is unable to part with anything on the porch, so she’s brought to the kitchen to work with Matt.

He pries open the non-working refrigerator (filled with boxes, containers, and poorly wrapped items) and asks her about it. She holds a bottle of an unidentifiable liquid, and as Matt mentions the larvae inside, she comments that it’s “seasoning.”

“Bugs aren’t seasoning.” He holds up a plastic food baggie, pointing out the eggs inside. “Even the bugs have died. They said, ‘Screw it, this is gross.’” He gets her to laugh a little. She pulls something out of the putrid mess and says she’d eat anything in there, why not? There are maggots on almost everything.

They send her away so Matt and Ritchie can get to work. Matt finds another take away container with a disposable plastic lid. Inside is something that has putrefied to the point of looking like a frog stored in dank, bubbling water. The smell knocks them both back, and Ritchie races out of the room, retching. I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen Matt dry heave.

Matt keeps Lisa out of the kitchen in order to keep things moving along. She’s accepting of his decisions, though, as he’s built a friendly rapport with her by this point. She asks about a container of sugar, surely that wasn’t tossed. He tells her that it was as there were mouse droppings inside. She seems surprised by that. She thought the lid would keep them out. (My guess is she had sugar in an old school sugar dish with a glass lid.)

Dr. Pfeffer tries to push her in the room where she keeps her “crafts.” A dusty, moldy pile of citrus peelings (and some blackened items I can’t identify) line the top of the radiator in the living room. It looks to be about a foot deep and several feet in length. He asks Lisa about this, she explains that it’s homemade pot porri. When the radiator kicks on, the heat generates an odor she finds pleasant. She also likes the visual of “an abundant spread.”

“There’s a variety of abundant spreads,” the doctor points out with a smile. They ask her to give them a percentage of what can go, trying to get her to make decisions. “Twenty-five percent?” They agree to it and have her help them remove the items. This makes her very sad, however. She’s not processing any of this, there is no rationale happening with her.

Dr. Pfeffer asks her what’s behind the sadness? “The loss, that I won’t see it again.” Mind, this is in regards to the orange peels on the radiator. Matt then finds a few fossilized rats, further proof that they died from something ingested, not from another rat attack.

He finds a jar with fossilized… we don’t know. They look like they could have been figs at one point, they’re ovoid, blackened nuggets. He asks her what it is, and she pops one in her mouth to Matt’s shock. She tells them it’s like candy and delicious. Matt has run out of words, “I have never run out of words in my life!”

Cleaners come in once counter space is available in the kitchen. They’re wearing what looks like an M40 Field Protective mask, the type the military wears in case of biochemical warfare. No real cleaning beyond clearing the home is accomplished in the alloted time.

Anna is worried her mother will die, that she will cease to function once everyone is gone and will just slip away. She’s also scared of calling APS, knowing it will further alienate her mother. Matt and Dr. Pfeffer tell her to not worry about that, they will call APS, they morally couldn’t allow Lisa to continue living as she’s been. They tell Lisa their plans, that they’re doing it with her safety in mind. They want her to stop being “frozen.”

She becomes very agitated and afraid by this news and asks if they can give her a few months before they make the call. The doctor gently tells her no, they need her to be safe. Lisa sits on the front porch swing and lets the last hour of clean up happen around her; she’s checked out emotionally and mentally for this time. Anna tells us that she feels like she’s dealing with the death of a parent; she understands now that her mother is not capable of getting well, she will never have a healthy relationship with her. “She’s never going to come back.”

Lisa wanders through the kitchen muttering, “Where did the poster go?”


After The Show: Adult Protective Services was contacted, but as of airtime, no actions had been taken. Lisa is using the aftercare funds to work with Matt Paxton. I’m still waiting to hear back from him on what was in the jar that she ate. (He’s on another hoard today.)

Edited to Add: Dr. Pfeffer is also keeping her under close observation – he said that while common with hoarders losing their things, all mentions of suicide should be taken seriously.  He’s sticking around until her permanent aftercare team is in place.

Edited to Add: The Addening: According to Matt Paxton, the item in the jar that she ate continues to be unknown – Lisa just knew it was something she’d canned 20 years ago.  (As a food canner myself, I cannot believe she isn’t dead from botulism.)  Lisa just doesn’t have a good prognosis, folks.  She’s every bit as sick as Hannah (the chicken hoarder?  Remember her?) and while teams are still working with her, the damage done to her just might be too great.  A sad story, to be sure.



Bertha, Pennsylvania

Bertha works part time delivering papers. She is fully aware that she is a hoarder, and it’s making her miserable. She doesn’t want to be the way she is, but she’s incapable of making effective changes. Her house is packed to the ceiling. There are cobwebs and spider webs everywhere. The camera gets a close up on a spider, and I can’t identify if it’s a brown recluse or a hobo spider. Regardless, both are venomous.

(Remember: if it bites you, and you get sick? Venomous. If you bite it, and you get sick? Poisonous.)

Eric and Phil are her sons. They love their mother very much and can’t understand her disease. They’re very unhappy with her living conditions and are determined to clear her house out. Her house is so filled that she often sleeps in her car, unable to climb over the hoard to find a bed. All four bedrooms, the kitchen, living room, dining room, and bathrooms are completely filled.

Bertha faces jail time if her house isn’t cleaned up. The hoard extends to the outside. A wall of garbage greets visitors (if she allowed any, she doesn’t even let her children come in) piled high on the front lawn and porch. The neighbors called the police, who came out to investigate the mess. She went before the magistrate who has given her a time limit to clean.

Bertha was exposed to hoarding at a young age: her father was the local junkman and garbage collector. He often brought things home. Bertha’s mother died when Bertha was only 16. Her mother had epilepsy, and suffered greatly from it, and then succumbed to cancer. Her father died five years later. She married, then divorced after her boys were born, and then her best friend died. This was followed by one brother dying, and then her other brother dying. The losses were too great for her to process and even she admits that the stuff she keeps “might stand in place of her loss.” She cries, telling us this. She’s miserable with her situation.

Dr. Zasio arrives with a big smile for her. As they move to enter the house, Dr. Zasio looks at the precarious walls of garbage everywhere and remarks, “This doesn’t seem safe.” Bertha agrees, yet they enter. Dr. Zasio exhales, “Oh, dear.” The hoard is all the way to the ceiling. She asks if Bertha notices the odor, a “moldy, trash smell [that] is overwhelming.”

Clothing, trash, food, and collectibles are all mixed together. The doctor tells her how dangerous this is, how she truly could die if any of the piles shifted and landed on her, a very real possibility. Bertha begins crying, and we hear Dr. Zasio say, “Oh, dear, we’re just beginning!” as she rubs Bertha’s back soothingly to get her to open up. Bertha is mostly upset that people are seeing how she’s let things get. Dr. Zasio reminds her that she’s there to help her, and that she can see how much Bertha is hurting.

Unannounced, the city inspector shows up, taking pictures of the property to stand as a marker for any progress made. Cory Chalmers and his team also arrive, and he’s quick to let her know that the crew is “here for you. You’re not a criminal, we don’t want jail time, but we’re going to push you.” Cory seems to specialize in people who are overwhelmed by hoards that could truly kill them. He’s a retired fireman that often saw these situations in that line of work.

She starts off well, making sweeping choices about what can go. As the trucks fill up, however, she begins to get nervous. She wonders what happened to her good pans and clothes, she kept them outside in the bramble and brush. Cory wonders why she would keep her “good things” outside, and she doesn’t have a reasonable answer. She becomes increasingly agitated looking for random stuff. Dr. Zasio stops her, points at the garbage in the truck and asks her, “Do you want to live in a clutter free jail cell, or have this stuff?”

Phil, her older son, gets working double time in one room, throwing things out of a battered window. Bertha is angry with this, as he’s not consulting her on things. She accuses him of not listening to her, of “lying,” but when he presses her on what she believes he threw away that was special, she doesn’t have an answer. The boys know this is hard on their mother, and they’re trying to be supportive in their gruff, brusque manner.

Cory has a moment with Phil, trying to get him to understand that they can’t bulldoze their mother. She has to be a part of the decision process, otherwise there is no progress made with her mental state. Phil just wants to sneak stuff out, but Cory refuses to do that. (Good man.)

Bertha is sidetracked by the thought that a black purse was thrown out. She races to the truck to dig through bags. Dr. Zasio gets through to her that maybe she saw black shoes, there is no black purse of worth there. She gets Bertha back on track, and as they head back to the house, Bertha confesses a secret to the doctor.

The house has a basement.

It is completely filled, and it is the same footprint as the house. Cory tells us that they’ve now realized that the hoard is actually twice the size they originally believed. (Remember this when you learn how much was taken out.) Bertha is terrified to show them the basement, but they have to assess it.

The smell that pours out of the cellar door, a tornado-access style door, is horrific and the crew reels back. They get in, and the workers immediately look defeated. The sheer size of this unknown hoard is enough to make them stop in their tracks. There is no way the entire property could be cleared by the end of the two days. They prioritize: the outside and the kitchen must be addressed to satisfy the courts.

Bertha is on the verge of shutting the process down when once again Phil begins throwing things away without permission, but Dr. Zasio is able to keep her focused while Cory keeps the crew busting their humps outside. The camera shows an over-loaded truck pulling out of the drive as items fall off the top of the pile. In total, 18 truckloads were removed. Keep in mind that the bedrooms were not touched, neither were the dining and living rooms, nor the basement. 18 truckloads from the yard and kitchen.

The city inspector returns and is very pleased with the exterior. He feels that’s enough to get the looming threat of jail time off her shoulders. Bertha is visibly relieved. Even with all of the remaining junk in the home, Bertha’s prognosis is good – she’s learning to make reasonable decisions, she’s very motivated to change, and her sons are going to be there to support her every step of the way.


After The Show: All charges against her were dropped and she is actively working with an organizer. She is in the process of looking for a therapist.

Cory has stated that she was truly motivated by the thought of jail time and with the few exceptions listed here, she was willing to do the work and get rid of things.  He said she was one of the easiest hoarders he’s worked with.  (Great to hear!)



Show Discussion: Is it just me, or have you noticed that the hoarders that are triggered from the death of a loved one more likely to make positive strides in their therapy? Megan, Phyllis and Janet come to mind in particular. I wonder if the correlation between grief for someone you loved and hoarding is easier to connect in a therapeutic setting than someone who was systematically abused, like Lisa.

Oh, Lisa. I just feel like there’s no way she can come back from the horror-show that was her adult life. She’s in her 60s and she’s unwilling to go to any deep level of realization about what was done to her, and how she’s lived since. You can’t force change on anyone.

And while I find the circumstances she forced on her daughter to be atrocious, it’s clear that she’s been mentally ill for some time, and it extends beyond hoarding/OCD/anxiety. As a woman that was able to get out of an abusive relationship, I could certainly identify with her feelings of worthlessness. That’s how they’re able to maintain control over you, you see. I saw that house as the landscape of herself, in her mind.

As far as the bizarre cooking… I watched the show and thought of the abusive mother in Prince of Tides, where she cooked Alpo for her abusive husband. (But the children had actual food.) Since everything was taken away from her, the only tool at her hand was her food. I can understand why she would use that as a means of “defending” herself against her husband, but her poor daughter. Anna seemed like she’s become a lovely woman, albeit a sad one.

A note from her daughter:

Hello all — I am Lisa’s daughter, Anna. In answer to some questions:

Although the show demonstrated a woman who is deeply in the grips of a mental illness, Lisa has (well, HAD, now that the secret is out) an active social life and was still cooking from that kitchen. When not in the grips of her illness, she is fun and articulate and interesting. And, she can be a supportive and compassionate friend – I know, hard to believe.

I have NO IDEA how it is possible that she has not died of food poisoning. Even the rats died! Even the maggots left!

Sadly, my mother will not admit that she has done a lot of things to hurt me. The guilt is too much for her so she is in denial. It is very painful to watch your own mother talk so openly about suicide and worthlessness.

The Hoarders team did an amazing job in a terrible situation. I hope that I will be able to report a happier ending that results in her living somewhere clean and safe and getting help. Still working on it. And, a special shout-out of thanks to my amazing boyfriend for puking in the kitchen and still returning to clean.

Thank you all. Anna