Fred is on oxygen due to smoking-related emphysema. If the sight of him stumbling through his filthy, nicotine-stained home as he struggles to breathe isn’t enough to get you to kick cigarettes, let me offer this PSA. My maternal grandfather was a heavy smoker. Not only did he have multiple bypass surgeries to keep his heart pumping, but he had his genitalia removed due to gangrene setting in from poor circulation related to smoking. How’re those Marlboros tasting now? But first, we go to California.
Barbara G, California
“People call me Santa Barbara because I’m always collecting things and giving them away for their birthday or Christmas.”
Barbara rides around her nice California town on her beach cruiser, filling up the basket with whatever she finds in people’s garbage cans. Her house is an explosion of cast off clothing, cassette tapes, CDs, VHS cassettes, discarded trophies, rotted bits of taxidermy. She says wryly, “I can’t give it away faster than I’m finding it.” We know the answer is clearly to stop finding it, but not once does that occur to Brenda.
Her backyard is chock-full, as well. Hidden among the trees and vines are two 5th Wheel-style travel trailers, both packed with items. I spied a pretty garden shed with climbing roses over the doorway – it’s unusable as well. We meet her son Robert who tells us that the city was notified through complaints that his mother’s house was covered in trash. Code Enforcement came out and didn’t even need to step inside her home to slap her with a violation of the public nuisance code.
They will fine her until they’re able to gain entrance to the house and inspect its condition. Her other son Brian thinks the house is unlivable. There are no visible floors, the windows and doorways are blocked, and we’ve watched enough to know it’s a massive fire hazard. (Without hyperbole, it truly is a death trap.)
When the boys were little they remember having a clean home. A picture of Barbara as a young mother is shown; she’s beautiful and happy. Now she’s bent and harried, always scurrying and looking for things in trashcans. We learn that thirty years prior, the boys’ other brother was out in the fields with a friend chasing jackrabbits. The friend had a pistol. It misfired and shot their brother in the back. Barbara spent every day at the hospital “watching him die little by little.”
Robert says, “It kills your insides.”
After her son died, Barbara moved her other sons to a new house for a fresh start; they wouldn’t live in a house that was a constant reminder of her loss. But she started holding on to things and wouldn’t let them go. She’s cognizant of that as she explains what happened to her. She’s just unequipped to do anything about it.
This is something I want to stress about this show: it doesn’t have to be hoarding. It could be drugs, it could be eating, it could be a myriad of ways that a person tunnels into themselves. Trauma affects all of us in a unique way; hoarding is simply an amazing visual of the chaos that is inside a person that helps illustrate what could happen to any of us. You may not be able to see the fear and disordered thinking inside someone, but you can see the rotten cans of food and the boxes of trophies that once belonged to strangers.
The gentle-voiced Dr. Michael Thompkins arrives to help Barbara with her anxiety as she works through the process. The city knows about the mountains of junk on the property, just not inside the home. The doctor didn’t realize what was in the home, either.
Barbara takes him on a tour, explaining about the rat problem (there are rat traps on most surfaces) and she explains that she eats out and doesn’t spend much time in the home. She rarely uses the lights because she worries about starting a fire, which means that during the night she’s stumbling and shuffling in a completely dark and packed home with a rat problem. This is no place for a person to live. The doctor explains very clearly that there have to be basic rules that she must accept about a minimum standard of living. She agrees to his rules. Staying in the home during this process isn’t on the list.
Cory Chalmers and his crew, 1-800-HOARDERS.com, arrive the next day. He establishes an inside and outside crew; Barbara gives her sons permission to make decisions outside without her. They really need the outside to be addressed, as that is the area the city has come down on her for.
The crew starts hustling, loading things quickly and efficiently. Too efficiently, it seems, and Barbara begins to panic. She makes everyone stop. The doctor and Cory come over and we get the first glimpse of how stubborn Barbara can be. My first impression was that she was exhibiting some ADD symptoms, the “Oh, shiny!” reactions such as her inability to hold her own thoughts, unable to focus on what anyone was telling her or asking her as her eyes roamed over the trashcans looking for anything she’d value.
But this is really an avoidance strategy. If she pretends she’s not listening, then she doesn’t have to act on their demands. Cory tells her without preamble that she needs to quit avoiding making decisions. Doctor Thompkins watches all of this, getting a feel for how best to approach her.
“Barbara, do you understand that we are even talking about your ability to live on your own?”
She finds a small toy bear and runs her fingertips through its matted fur. “I understand. See? Costs four dollars!” She shows Dr. Thompkins the bear.
He’s a little frustrated, but wants to get her to understand (or be able to assess that she’s incapable of understanding). “It is life and death here for you.”
She won’t make eye contact, but nods and agrees to go to the kitchen with one of her sons and work. She immediately gets irate when Brian tries to throw useless things away. Gone is the distracted, goofy lady on a bike and here is the angry stubborn woman who just wants to be left alone. She is incensed that no one will let her keep “anything.” She sneaks out of the house to the garden to avoid making decisions.
Dr. Thompkins takes this opportunity to show the boys their mother’s “bedroom.” She sleeps in a sleeping bag on top of a pile of garbage. Her “working” refrigerator is in her bedroom. When he opens the freezer, it’s filled with rotten food that is positively teeming with maggots. Not one thing inside doesn’t have them crawling and worming their way through. If she’s actually eating anything in there, Adult Protective Services will have to be contacted, no question.
The boys start working harder. Barbara hangs back poking through garbage, but the boys are on a mission to get their mother’s house clean, no question. They’re tough with her, standing up to her complaints and powering through; this doesn’t sit well with her at all.
At one point she’s on her knees on her filthy shag carpeting going through the detritus on the floor to find things of “value.” Cory tells her that it’s no different than any pile of garbage at the dump, and that she needs to prioritize. The more anxious she gets (as in, the more she’s pushed) the more she begins to cry and fight. She’s stuck on searching and can’t get past that. The doctor says “she’s tunneling into her illness, actually.” Robert is shocked by this behavior. He’s never seen his mother act in such a way.
Code enforcement arrives several hours early, sending the crews into a panic. One crew is dispatched to her room to tape up the fridge and get it out of there, now. If that’s in the house, she’ll be reported to APS and possibly declared mentally unfit to live on her own. Barbara begs for a few more hours, but he’s not going to wait. Pictures are taken of the property and he explains to her that she can have two more weeks to clear the whole property, or she will be forced off and the house deemed unsafe.
“I am not going to allow myself to lose this house, period.” A fire has been lit in her. Right as the process comes to an end.
Brian and Robert stayed on during her reprieve and cleaned the rest of the hoard. Once her roof has its repairs finished, she’ll move back in. She is now regularly seeing an aftercare therapist.
Fred and Mary, Missouri
Fred, his oxygen tang securely fastened and feeding into his nostrils, says “I’m probably a hoarder.”
Inside his home is utter filth. Rabbit-guy filth. Everything – and there is a mountain range of garbage in the small home – is covered with thick, wooly, grey cobwebs. The cameras pan to the wall where the air intake registers are coated with filth – furry, noxious dust is thickly packed in the grates.
Fred obviously smoked inside his home. The nicotine from his cigarettes have made a sticky paste on every surface where dust and smoke and filth have become trapped. The cobwebs themselves are filthy with nicotine. This may be the first time in my life I’ve ever had a twinge of worry for a spider.
There is food everywhere, rotten and beyond putrid. “A while back,” Fred says, “I saw a roach, so I sprayed. This past month they must have multiplied.” There isn’t a surface shown that isn’t overrun with scores of them. Mary is his wife, and Mary looks miserable.
“I don’t think I’m a hoarder. I think I’m a lousy housekeeper.”
If I may. I think I’m a lousy housekeeper when I leave dishes in the sink after breakfast and don’t get to them until close to lunch, or when I have a pile of freshly laundered and folded towels sitting on the staircase for the day. Mary, this is…beyond being a poor housekeeper, I’m afraid.
Vicky is their adult daughter. She said it was a messy house when she was a kid, but it was nothing like this. Mary and Fred have a teenage son, Kevin, who is fourteen. He knows this isn’t normal. Kevin seems to have completely retreated into himself, and I can’t blame him.
The county was brought in to investigate and found the house to be infested, filled with trash, and deemed it to be uninhabitable for human occupancy. This is a shock to Fred. Criminal charges were brought against him for child endangerment. He can’t understand how he could be accused of hurting his son just because his house is “dirty.” He doesn’t see what the big deal is and finds this all to be an overreaction. The family is currently living in a hotel, which is eating up his paycheck.
Mary is unhappy with their life. Four years ago, her mother died. Shortly after that, her brother died as well. She is stuck in her grief and has no motivation to do anything. Her daughter recognizes that her inability to deal with Fred and their home is attributed to her being trapped in a grief cycle. As a result of this life, Kevin is anti-social and never associates with children his age.
Mary says with utter despair, “I don’t feel that I’m a good mom.”
Dr. Suzanne Chabaud, my favorite Creole, arrives on the scene. She’s shown Kevin’s bed: a mattress balanced on top of a pile of garbage. Mary feels incredibly guilty about all of this; Fred doesn’t see what the big deal is: Kevin is a sweet, nice boy, so clearly that means he is fine with all of this.
Dr. Chabaud says, “Just because he is a kind boy doesn’t mean he isn’t hurting.” And again, this show isn’t about people who collect garbage, it’s about understanding what we do to one another, how we can hurt each other unintentionally. And ultimately how to stop.
The kitchen in the house is dreadful – it seems to be the epicenter of where the roaches are focused, understandably. Next on the tour is Kevin’s actual room. It’s packed with dirty things and again, Fred doesn’t seem to get it.
Dr. Chabaud, on a roll, explains that “What’s buried here is the child’s potential: for friendships, for education, shared family life.” This is what all children should have access to, and Kevin has none.
Fred tells her that the county showing up was his wake-up call. Well, of a sort. If they hadn’t come, nothing would have changed. Fred is only reacting to what he’s being told must happen, nothing has resonated with him.
Got Junk and Matt Paxton arrive as Mary tells us that Fred has been notified that she will leave him if he squanders this opportunity.
Matt says that without question, no one will go into the home without masks on; that’s how toxic the dust and air is. And Matt has coined a phrase even better than “It smells like sugar and butt.”
“It’s a lasagna of filth.”
Everything is crawling with bugs. Everything. Matt is no wimp – he’s been in some sketchy places before. He doesn’t get creeped out. He says “I’m totally creeped out by this house.” The camera pans to a mounted deer head that is almost indistinguishable from the thick, dirty cobwebs covering it.
The oldest daughter is Christine; she’s not been in the house in nine years. When she sees where her little brother is sleeping, she begins to cry. Vicky is sad for him as well, knowing that she had a healthier childhood than he currently has.
Matt brings in a hose and sprays everything down to keep the dust from becoming friable. As they begin shoveling, Matt stops them all – there’s a hissing sound that means an oxygen tank is leaking. This is a potential explosion and is no joke. They happen to be in the place where Kevin has been sleeping, by the way. They pull everything away and find the tank, carefully shutting the valve and getting it out of the house.
Everything is wet and putrid and covered in roach droppings. Suddenly Fred realizes that he has left “important papers” inside on the table. Somewhere. He goes in to find them and instantly struggles to breathe. Matt hustles him outside tout de suite; the girls come in to look in his place. The daughters are completely grossed out by the task at hand, but Christine finds an envelope that she thinks might be it. Nope.
Mary clenches up and can’t speak; she’s so angry and so upset, but she can’t bring herself to vocalize that yet. She begins to cry, telling the doctor that she just wants “to burn it to the ground.” She shakes with the force of her sobbing and says, “I’m tired of living.”
Mary clearly is depressed and miserable and Fred’s obliviousness to the situation at hand isn’t helping matters.
As the work continues inside, the floor is revealed to be rotting away. Some of the hoard has fallen through to the basement. Matt takes Fred down the stairs so he can see, and Fred looks visibly shocked. Finally! He starts struggling with breathing again, so he’s taken back outside and caution is taken in the kitchen so that none of the workers are injured. OSHA standards are always followed, I’m happy to say. No one else should be hurt by these homes.
Fred lets Matt do what he needs to with the basement. “It’s all going.” Matt finds Kevin in his room, buoyant and happy as he throws things away. The kid is happy to have a clean space, that’s all there is to it. He’s a nice boy and he’s practically bubbling over with excitement.
Most of the garbage is cleared out, but that’s all they’re able to accomplish. The city inspector comes and points out that the house must be sterilized and cleaned before anyone is allowed to move back. The kitchen remains unusable, repairs must be made (the cabinets are destroyed, the floor is rotten in places) and the infestation of roaches must be dealt with, as well. There’s still a lot to do, but it’s a start, at least.
Mary and Fred’s aftercare included therapy, junk removal, fumigation and sanitation. It’s a lot to tackle. They’re still living in the hotel while repairs at their home continue.
This was a tough one – there weren’t any major breakthroughs to give the viewer the satisfaction of “a job well done.” But I think it’s important to show the reminder of how difficult this process can be. There isn’t an easy fix, no magic bullet to solve the issues at hand. We don’t really know what brought about this need to “collect” with Fred; we don’t know if Barbara is understanding the danger she’s lived in for years.
But we have seen how alienating hoarding is. How difficult it can be on growing children to live in filth such as Kevin was forced to do. We saw that family members want their loved ones’ lives to be better, will stand up to them in order to help them see it for themselves. That’s pretty heartening.
In other words, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.