On What I Didn’t Learn While Watching the A&E Show: Hoarders

Several Saturdays ago I found myself pulling into an apartment complex somewhere not too far from the college, there with two friends in order to move “a couch, a desk, and an overstuffed chair” from an elderly woman’s apartment into an adjacent dumpster. What we discovered there, on what we imagined would be a 20-minute mission, was unexpected to say the least.

In an attempt to best protect her privacy, let’s call this woman Susan. She is a long-time resident of the Pioneer Valley and here is a description of her apartment as of our visit: Her front door opened up into a living room with a kitchen attachment, and there were closed doors presumably to a bedroom and bathroom. However, Susan’s furniture – the couch, chair and desk we came to remove for her – didn’t appear to be there at all. Susan’s furniture was buried. Her apartment was full of stuff, and most of that stuff was trash, and all of it was piled in four-foot-high heaps across nearly the entire floor of her home. There were bags of clothes of different sizes and myriad other bags of paper, food waste, and household goods. There were tattered window shades and broken lamps. There was so much stuff that Susan had to create a narrow path in order for us to walk through the apartment – a path we then had to fill in again to get to the buried furniture. There was mildew everywhere. Susan was wearing one sandal when we arrived because she couldn’t find the other one amidst the chaos. Broken glass littered the floor. Susan does not spend much time at home because there is simply no place to sit down. There is a common term for Susan: a hoarder. Yet, there is more to her story.

I used to watch Hoarders when it was still on A&E. In case you haven’t seen it, each episode of the show focuses on a different real-life person who suffers from what is considered to be the mental illness of “hoarding.” There is always some kind of intervention, during which friends or family of the hoarder try to prevent his or her continued accumulation of stuff – an accumulation resulting from that person’s OCD-like personality. Hoarders is a fairly typical reality television show, like Intervention or Medical Mysteries, in that it depicts real people with real issues. However, while they may be real, documentary-style shows don’t always portray issues in the most accurate way. Television is entertainment, and shows are not made for the people they document. Hoarders isn’t made for people like Susan. Hoarders is made for people like me.

After we had uncovered and disposed of the furniture Susan had requested we take care of, we decided to try to help her out a bit more. We asked her if it would be okay for us to get rid of some of the trash in her apartment. The reason she had requested our help in the first place, she told us, was that she feared she might be evicted, so we encouraged that she get rid of more than just the furniture. She complied, and so we began to make trips back and forth from the dumpster. Each time down, as we pushed wheeled office-chairs piled with stuff across the complex parking lot, my friends and I would exchange glances of amazement, and also, because they were insuppressible, laughs. We were currently witnessing some of the most deplorable living conditions I had ever seen; yet there we were laughing. Why? Little kids laugh when they hear the word ‘sex’ not because they find the word funny. They laugh because it makes them uncomfortable, and that’s how I felt every time I went back into Susan’s apartment. Her life was foreign to me, and her home was shocking to me, and unfortunately, that made it all really awkward. So we laughed.

“I’m not a hoarder. This is what poverty has done to me. I don’t have enough space to live my life.” Susan repeated these words over and over. She was adamant in her attempts to convince us (not that we had said anything to provoke her) that she still needed all the things she had accumulated, and that her problem was one of money, not of hoarding. She wouldn’t allow us to remove so many of the obviously broken or unnecessary objects from her apartment that I don’t believe her when she says she is “not a hoarder.” However, whatever mental illness she may or may not have, it appears Susan is right that her biggest issue may not be hoarding alone, but indeed may be poverty. Whether or not she needs the stuff she hoards would not be as big a deal if she could afford a storage unit. That she lost a sandal wouldn’t be as big a deal if she had another pair handy. If she could afford a bigger apartment, or a cleaning service, or some kind of shelving, she would have an easier time tackling her hoarding problem. Maybe the thing she needs most is mental help – I’m not sure she can afford this either. In any case, I don’t know exactly how impoverished Susan is. I don’t know what she can and cannot afford, and I’m in no position to dig further into it. However, these arbitrary examples serve to prove a point: Susan may be a hoarder, yes, but she is also poor, and that fact contributes to her hoarding immensely.

I debated for a long time whether it would be appropriate to write an article about Susan. I was afraid that I’d come across as patronizing, or as betraying her privacy, or exposing her in some way I didn’t intend. I asked Professor Barry O’Connell for advice because I think he holds a sensitive view of social issues, and after chatting I was actually convinced not to write the article. Yet, something he said resonated with me: “Poverty is invisible in America…except to those living in it.” My friend commented that Susan’s apartment seemed like “something I’d find in West Philly, not Amherst.” Amherst, like most towns, can’t avoid its share of poverty. While in the college bubble, though, I’ve found poverty to be not just avoidable, but nearly invisible. The three of us were truly shocked when we showed up to find a home with not a single place to sit down, no television, no computer, not even a telephone – a home so unlike the one I grew up in, and a home so unlike the one we share here at the college. Let’s not be too comfortable in this home.

In Hoarders, A&E doesn’t delve much deeper than to say, ‘check out this person with OCD.’ By documenting interventions and describing symptoms, the network constantly reminds us that all these people have either created their own problems, or else are suffering from some kind of illness. As a viewer, I am comfortable with this – with the fact that A&E appears to be helping someone out. However, the network avoids the things that make us uncomfortable. Most of all it avoids telling us that it may not be this person’s problem or that person’s problem, but in fact it may be our problem. TV gives us representations, not actual stories, and visiting Susan was shocking – not entertaining. A&E may appear to document real people, but do they really? What reality TV shows do is take real people and then turn those people into taboo. If we want to help those who suffer, then first we need to remember that they exist, and then we need to remember that to those suffering, there is nothing taboo about their situations at all. It’s important to be aware of those around us who slip through the cracks, even when it feels uncomfortable to do so, and even when the college life gives us blinders. My experience with Susan impacted me such that I wanted to share it, so I did. This holiday season I’m especially thankful for what I have.

(Photo Courtesy of http://yhoo.it/FPRAxa)