Why ‘Hoarders’ Should Merge with ‘Judge Judy’

[12 March 2010]

By Terry Sawyer

I like to think of insanity as the best way to put your finger to the cultural breeze. Crazies tend to latch onto predominant themes in the ether tacking on justifications for some insane stuff they would have done anyway. Consequently, we now have people gunning down guards or flying planes into the IRS in order to cement their anti-government bona fides. Because nothing fights the power like murdering secretaries. When I saw Lindsay Lohan outing her clutter to Niecy Nash, I realized that hoarding had arrived. It’s this year’s molestation, for stars who want to resuscitate their careers by setting themselves up as national empathy objects. Despite the celubante hangers on, Hoarders is another triumph for A&E’s “in the mouth of madness” lineup, which includes dysfunction staples like Intervention and Dog the Bounty Hunter.

The psychology of Hoarders makes for such compelling TV because it’s a disordered behavior with an infinitely complex web of origins. Some people hoard in post traumatic response, like some kind of compulsive gathering of synechdoche, every piece of junk is in some way the person they lost. Some hoarders collect in anticipation of all the activities and hobbies they will begin just as soon as they stop hoarding, like cokeheads who talk about all the things they’re gonna do, unless of course, they just end up doing more coke. Of course, there are also the Saint Hoarders who clutch the shopping binges because they are going to be gifts or donated to charity and people who insist that they’re grandchildren will be able to rake in cash by liquidating the junk when they die. Like any good rationalization, these excuses are diversions designed to prevent the afflicted from touching their open-sored compulsions. These might be shit piles, but they’re just one garage sale away from becoming junior’s tuition.

Despite the fact that it is my new favorite television, show, it suffers from a curious case of kid gloves. Part of this isn’t entirely their fault since the people spotlit by the show are usually big feral grab bags of assorted nuttery. They have so many issues piled up that getting to the root cause would be like hunting for ants with your sense of smell. The other difficulty comes from the fact that the people on Hoarders are almost universally repellent. Perhaps it’s difficult to show the magnitude of the problem and humanize the subjects at the same time, but I end almost every episode with a sense of what a bunch of ungrateful pigs they are. Most of them mutter some clenched thanks while lamenting the project they were just about to start with the hundreds of broken dryers stacked in the front yard.

When I say that the Hoarders repulse me, I politely elide the issues like goats eating holes in the walls, piles of used adult diapers dissolving through the floor, or even pets who have wondered off into the clutter only to be discovered years later by the clean-up crew, melted into the carpet. For the most part, hoarding is a moat constructed by the aggressively anti-social. One iconic image from the show for me came from the woman who allowed cherished pets to decompose into her carpet. She simply sat on the porch eating a raw hot dog while her family and the professional organizers dug through her waste. Every once in awhile she would drop a snide comment or freak out about a rotted piece of furniture headed to its rightful place at the dump. The show mysteriously avoids the issue of laziness, but surely it’s a character flaw that fumigates the lives of these people. I understand the attachment to objects means that people lose the ability to distinguish between what can and can’t be thrown away. But what does hoarding have to do with doing the dishes, sweeping the floor or cleaning a litter box?

The hoarders routinely choose their junk mountains over ties to family members desperate to break through the clutter blizzard. As much as I have sympathy for them, I also can’t help but think of hoarding as one of those mental illnesses that afflict a culture at a low point in its decadence. As much as its a problem of emotional affect, it’s also a problem of depth. Where Intervention openly engages questions of moral responsibility, Hoarders treats the participants like babies. Not surprisingly, they more often than not act accordingly: clinging to stuffed animals, passing their pathologies to their children, denying that they have a problem that a quick trip to the Container Store couldn’t fix. One angry hoarder, when confronted with the fact that he might lose his house for his disrepair yelled at the therapist “I wish you would stop using that word” (the word: reality). One father, who’d collected Fred Sanford levels of junk in his home, leading to numerous insect infestations, had his children sleeping in tents in the winter on the front lawn. He seemed so ethically dense that he refused to recognize that displacing his family for the garbage was anything but a bargain of a trade off.

Perhaps the worst hoarder was the nasty piece of suicidal work who hoarded guns and ammo. He even threatened his wife’s life over pifling household disagreements. This seemed less like hoarding and more like the construction of ample opportunity. That’s where Hoarders seems to err the most, by emphasizing one festering flower in a bouquet of madness. Remove their animals, take away their kids, get the threatened wife out of harm’s way and then address collection of fast food toys that will be worth something some day on eBay as soon as they get that computer up and running. Estimations of future returns on the trash market make frequent appearances on Hoarders. The show’s counselors talk in morning TV calm, palliating the tantrums with soothing reassurances about the legitimacy of their manifestly illegitimate feelings. Intervention usually seems to be able to spot that addiction is merely the caboose of the crazy train; and, in turn, usually get addicts into treatment for undercurrent issues like sexual abuse or some other trauma that, while certainly damaging to the addict, does not make them above using it to silence people about their drug abuse.

I know when I watch this show that I will never be a therapist. I would simply offer each person a stay in a hotel instead of listening to each rambling rationalization about why they can’t throw away the 1990 issue of Parade covered in rat shit. Then I’d incinerate their homes, clear the ashes, and provide them with a generous camping gear package provided by the new sponsor of Hoarders, REI. Sometimes horrible epiphanies heal narcissists and sometimes patience for the permanently regressed is simply one more indulgence in allowing them to defer adulthood.

Even Intervention seems to understand transformation through confrontational truth, by forcing the family to remove the entire support system surrounding the addict, stop sheltering them, force them to confront the pain they’ve inflicted stop providing them with food and money, and stop treating this as if it were strictly a disease, which it is not. The the psychological industrial complex and its pharmaceutical money tree enables this blatant abuse of language in part because arbitrarily adjusting the fluid range of normalcy opens new markets for new disorders, treatments and drugs.

We need to permanently stop talking about drug addiction and cancer as if they existed in even remotely the same categories of human experience. The fact that virtually everyone on the show chooses treatment in order to avoid the deprivation of their abandoning enablers, tells me that this is not a tumor. The day that angry letters from my family cures me of encephalitis, is the day I start referring to meth users as having a disease. Both shows traffic far too much in this language, which addicts eat by the bucket full in order to cower under the misunderstanding of their “illness”. Yes, I stole your TV, but it’s a DISEASE. These people are sad, but it is a sadness wholly self-imposed, accumulated over years of lacking a critical inner voice. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life thought that a reality show treats people too nicely, but Hoarders needs to have at least one person who doesn’t look at a floor caked in human feces and “understand”. I hereby recommend Judge Judith Sheinlein.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/122016-why-hoarders-should-merge-with-judge-judy/