Hoarders: Family Secrets 1.1 – Richard and Jim

Our show is back, after many of us were pretty sure the last season was it. It had a new format for its premiere (more on that), but should return to what we’ve become familiar with as the season progresses.

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Note to any new readers: Hoarding is a mental illness, and there will be no insulting, name calling or harassment of people featured on this show. The production team, the families of the hoarder and often times the hoarders themselves comment on our boards, and we appreciate them being open and honest with us.  

The only real complaint I’ve ever had about the show is when the production staff (as in, producers with final say on editing/head of the network) insist on over sensationalizing the episodes, when the topic itself is enough. The overly dramatic music on occasion or in this episode’s case, the LIVE! aspect that didn’t really tell us much until the last few minutes wasn’t needed. We viewers want to see the mess, we want to see the family, and we need to learn what it is that makes these folks tick. That’s when the show is at its top form.

I grew up in the days of Geraldo Rivera’s “Capone’s Vault” fiasco, so I know that everything was well orchestrated in the background, so that also takes away from any “what will happen?!?” tension. This isn’t a criticism on the real good the show does–and it does a lot of good–but perhaps they could consider that they are building an incredibly effective empathy-blocking barrier between the viewing audience and the people on the show. If you want your viewers to be educated and learn to see the disease and not the mess, then you have to stop with the spectacle. Just my two cents.

Where is he now? Jim, CA 

We met Jim and his wife Dawn five years ago, a hoard that began with some metal to be sold for scrap. We all know by now where that was headed: a hoarded out house of far more than metal, a house on its way to being condemned, a granddaughter being trained to dumpster dive, and a sweet-faced grandson with tears in his eyes as he tells the camera that he just wants to go home.

Jim was the type of hoarder who agrees with the clean up crew (eventually) and then mindlessly starts tossing things. You can almost see this type thinking to themselves, “I can always get more.” But here’s the thing: he did try. He really did, and he continued to try after the show ended and he didn’t get his house back. Dr. Michael Tompkins followed up with him in aftercare and Jim did it: he cleaned the house and his family moved back in.

He even got a $90,000 loan for repairs from the county, interest free! I’m sure many folks are amazed by that golden opportunity, even though it meant the county had a lien on the house. All Jim had to do was continue to keep the house clean for ten years and the house would be his and his families.

Cory Chalmers (whose SteriClean business must be doing well, sweet Range Rover, dude!) goes above and beyond the call of duty by not only checking in on Jim, but once he finds that Jim has back-slided (back-slid?) into hoarding once more, takes Jim to court where he faces 60 days imprisonment as well as losing the house, acting as moral support. That was really good of you, Cory.

He needs to be home, though, because his grandson (grown up and still sweet-faced) still lives with them, and his gentle wife Dawn is in poor health and needs her husband’s care. It’s not looking good, but I bet Cory did some talking to the judge, which cameras were not allowed to record, because Jim gets a slap on the wrist in the form of an extension to get it clean as well as a work release on the weekends for time served instead of any jail time.

Cory has the county inspector come to break down a To Do list for the next two days which consisted of the following bullet points:


Not gonna lie, guys, I laughed at the very unhelpful “breakdown” the guy gave Jim. I mean, it’s not wrong, but maybe it would have been more helpful to say “start with all metal, move on to food items, etc.”

But it’s doable! Cory can round up all manner of folks and supplies to get the job done, which is exactly what he does, only to have the door literally shut in his face. Jim doesn’t want the help. Jim! What on earth?

Not only that, but he leaves the house, instructs his wife not to speak to Cory (she finally does, and it’s pretty upsetting to see her so cowed), and comes back to the house while the cameras roll with new stuff in his car to unload. Oh, dear.

He’s losing the house, and we know it’s really Dawn and the grandson who will suffer from Jim’s inability to move past his block. I wonder if he stopped attending therapy? The entire family had regular sessions, and seemed to be doing well in the beginning.

Another reminder that all hoarding situations are different, and it’s not a straight-line to recovery.


Live Segment, Richard, MA

For me this was the weaker portion of the episode, and it’s because it didn’t really tell us much. I appreciate the effort made, especially by Dr. David Tolin, who stepped into his role as investigator/journalist very well, considering it’s not his background. (Trust me, being the only person on camera and keeping it interesting for twenty-two minutes is no easy feat, especially when interviewing “regular folks”.)

We can see from the outside that this house is a potential fire-trap, the yard is littered with five and six foot high piles of garbage, boxes and appliances, and in one amusing moment, Matt Paxton–the organizer who hopefully will be working with Richard–points out a table that’s been set up for a yard sale… who knows how long ago. The plates on it are broken now, leaves and dirt coating everything else. Well, they tried? Sort of?

Matt also points out how the curtains are pressed against the windows: a clear sign of the hoard inside pushing up against them. The whole house is likely filled at this point. (And allow me to point you to my pal Matt’s company, Clutter Cleaner.)

Other aspects of the live portion that I appreciated: the fire chief answering Dr. David’s questions, including the empathetic tone of voice when he explains that their city (as do many around the country) have a task force for just such an event as a hoarder seeking help. It makes sense: that house is a fire trap, and a fire could spread to nearby houses. He gave an air of authority and gravitas to the moment, which probably helped some viewers struggling with this issue, too.

We finally see inside (where a cameraman is waiting, so that makes the “will he allow the crew to help him?” question moot) and meet Richard, a wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights older gentleman. His ex-wife and children desperately want him to get help, and with Dr. David and Matt on the job, I feel pretty confident he’ll get it.

Richard is a grief hoarder (yes, there are categories of hoarders! Buy Matt’s book, The Secret Lives of Hoarders, or check it out from the library–it’s a brisk and fascinating read). Decades before, Richard and Judy lost their baby Cheryl to SIDS. It’s devastating, not just for the loss of their child, but for their marriage.

As we’ve seen happen so often, grief becomes the spouse’s significant other. Communication shuts down, walls go up, and in the case of a hoarder, literally. Walls of boxes, things to be recycled, food, on and on start to surround Richard, squeezing out his family. Judy divorced him three years after their child died, taking the children. Another huge loss for Richard, his hoarding escalated until he reached the point he’s at now.

But the big question is: will he accept the help? Of course, and we knew from the start he would, but irrelevant, because a person who needs help understanding why he’s doing this in the first place as well as with clean up is going to get it.

I turned away for the last few minutes, feeling schaudenfreud-esque, like we were just poking at an open sore at that point. I have a very low embarrassment level, though, and this is when the live aspect was hard for me, watching Richard struggle to answer questions while clearly pleading for help. (Then again, I have to walk out of the room if someone falls during the Olympics. Ahh!! They worked so hard to get there!)

Richard is all in, and I assume we’ll be catching up with him either in his own 22 minute segment, or as bits and pieces throughout the season.


Thoughts on the hoarders

As Dr. David stated, “The path to healing is long and complex.”   Recovery isn’t a straight line, as anyone who has a family member or friend with an addiction knows. This is true for depression, bi-polar, other forms of mental illness. We’re still trying to understand what causes this disorder, both genetically and environmentally, so there is no clear answer to helping hoarders overcome that urge.

What does work is time, patience, a support net for the hoarder, and discovering the root cause of their hoarding. In Richard’s case, it’s the loss of his child causing him to hold onto everything else. Now to help him see that, finally mourn his child, and more importantly: move on to the next step.