Hoarders

To this day, I get goosebumps when I walk through certain aisles of the supermarket. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve riding in the cart or straggling alongside my mother on her Saturday morning groceries trip, getting to pick out my favorite cereals, snacks, and cheeses as reward for providing company and assistance. Sometimes, as a grown man, when I’m stressed out or anxious, I’ll make an excuse to go shopping and just wander up and down the aisles for a half-hour, because it comforts me in some incredibly specific way. So I can often empathize with the connection Hoarders subjects have with inanimate objects, the sense of private, unassailable intimacy it provides. Consequently, I can understand why Phyllis and Janet—the heartbreaking focuses of tonight’s season four premiere—would protect one of the few relationships that makes them feel safe with the primal instinct of a lioness. 

The only issue, of course, is that Phyllis and Janet—like most Hoarders participants—have made that attachment their world, and in effect completely disconnected themselves from the reality of their health and the effect that hoarding behavior has on their families. Phyllis and Janet’s situations, in particular, share a kindred link, in that both elderly women are veteran nurses, yet both are completely incapable of demonstrating regard for their own well-being. The similarities don’t end there, but the two compulsive accumulators do represent drastically different forms of the illness.

Phyllis lives in Griffin, Georgia, with her mentally-challenged son, Bobby. She is currently without heat but not utterly destitute or residing in squalor. The only problem is that she and Bobby share their home with literally thousands of children’s dolls that Phyllis has purchased compulsively from thrift stores. She even maintains a “doll hospital” wing of the house where she performs doll amputations and surgeries. Her other son, Ed, is determined to correct his mother’s addiction and calls in Hoarders' resident psychotherapist, Dr. Mark Pfeffer; professional organizer Geralin Thomas; and a cleaning crew. Phyllis’ backstory leaves quite a bit unexplained but has something to do with being ostracized from her mother’s memorial service 13 years earlier. It’s hard to fully understand the nature of Phyllis’ ritual without more insight into her personal trauma, but not every televised hoarder is comfortable divulging their life’s history to perfect strangers. 

What we do know, as Pfeffer groaningly puts it, is that, “Like the bag of dolls stored away in her shed, Phyllis has stored away her emotions.” (Yes, and State Farm is there like a good neighbor. Metaphors. You’re a shrink who assumes most of their audience isn’t smart. We get it.) But the depth of her willingness to turn that pent-up inadequacy on herself through not only hoarding dolls but also verbal self-abuse, is devastating. At one point, Phyllis tells Dr. Pfeffer, “I see my label for myself as VUP: Very Unimportant Person.” And later, while growing weary of the cleanup efforts, she brushes everybody off and asks them to “throw me in the Dumpster; I don’t care.”

There’s not a tremendous amount of domestic drama between she, Bobby, and Ed, although Bobby does briefly confront his mother about money issues and Phyllis bemoans Ed as being too controlling. And while Dr. Pfeffer is mostly smug and confrontational, organizer Thomas is stern but more nurturing and reassuring. She also accurately clarifies that Phyllis is not unintelligent but “lacks insight into how serious her problem is.” What breaks your heart, however, is Phyllis herself, as she insists that all she sees among piles of filthy toys is “a lotta real cute little dolls” and laughs with discomfort to mask the pain of seeing her figurative world literally get thrown in the dumpster.

Janet, on the other hand, is one of the most horrendous cases Hoarders has documented yet. She lives in the town of Washington, Michigan, in abjectly pitiful conditions. Despite the fact that she can hardly walk on her own, Janet’s home is stacked nearly to the ceiling in trash, urine, feces, and little else and has gone a great length of time without active heat, hot water or plumbing. Her traumatic narrative is clearer—the devoted church-goer was allegedly abused by her ex-husband, who makes a brief and unsettling appearance on-camera, and lost two of her 11 children shortly after their births. Her family is much more demonstratively in tatters, and she openly acknowledges that her hoarding is a problem.

A scene in which her neighborhood pastor, Father Doc, gathers around the calamitous living room with three of Janet’s children (Beth, Keith, and Dan), and the entire group collectively takes in the depths of her condition is simply tragic. The children present haven’t visited the home in years, and they are visibly shaken by guilt, not to mention resentment toward the remaining six siblings who chose not to show up. Things take an unfortunately soapy turn when Beth’s prissy twin sister, Mary, arrives with puppy in tow at the umpteenth hour to get some TV face time, causing Beth to break down, in addition to agitating Janet. 

The most shocking moment of the entire episode is when the cleaning crew—headed by pro organizer Cory Chalmers, who’s working alongside one of my other least-favorite Hoarders regulars, psychologist Robin Zasio—assesses that they’ve moved between 7,500 and 10,000 pounds of garbage from Janet’s home. It's as if Chalmers is all but reading my mind when he suggests, “I have actually seen homeless people live a cleaner lifestyle than her.”

None of these evaluations are intended to be mean or insensitive. Hoarders isn’t some militant program about self-improvement through disciplinarian tactics like Celebrity Fit Club. But one of my favorite things about it is the very real human response it captures from all involved. Which is why, perhaps, I tend to cringe at Drs. Pfeffer and Zasio so often. There’s something patronizing and self-helpy about their approach. Or perhaps they’ve just seen it all before. Likewise, the episode is occasionally guilty of routine Hoarders shtick like corny,  fade-to-black caption screens and infomercial-y flashes of the ultimate refuse piles. But it also holds up to the series' standard of generally being incredibly well paced, edited, and produced, and it doesn’t go in for either the cheap dramatized effects of similar shows or shaky hand-held verite. The only thing there isn't really time to air is how Phyllis and Janet's aftercare progresses, but hopefully it's proved some comfort outside of their obsessions.  

Stray observations:

  • A little levity: When Phyllis says, “Bobby knows he can come live with me, but this is Bobby’s world,” was I the only one who rushed to YouTube to relive some Bobby’s World clips?
  • Phyllis, on her “doll hospital”: “People wait for donors, like a kidney donor. What’s the difference between [that and] my little doll waiting for a hand donor?” Just heartbreaking.
  • Janet: “Whether God cares if your house is clean, I don’t know. I haven’t talked to God about it.” Pretty obvious producer-spoonfeed of a question, but it was definitely one of the episode’s saddest reflections.
  • Yes, both Phyllis and Janet are in therapy as part of their aftercare.
  • “That’s the trouble with these plastic bags. They do break on ya.” Truth.

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