Rob Walker | Essays


The subjective nature of the value of things dominated 2009, from earnest tomes about rethinking materialism to breathless scrutiny of holiday sales reports. But surely the most jarring take has come by way of the A&E reality show Hoarders. Nobody could doubt that its subjects, trapped in a debilitating mire of possessions, have lost all perspective on the matter. Even they know it. Patty, a trim, well-dressed 48-year-old mother, weeps with shame as she shows the cameras her young daughter’s bedroom, heaped with clothes and other spoils of her constant shopping expeditions to the point that little space remained for the actual child. The whole (huge) house looks like this, rendered practically unlivable by precarious piles of possessions. Which is why authorities have in fact taken away her children, and she is trying to get her life back in order, on television.

Hoarders isn’t about people who are simply messy or like stuff. As every episode of the series announces at the start: “Compulsive hoarding is a mental disorder.” I can’t be the only person who squirms at that disclaimer: I am about to watch people with a disorder, suffering. Nevertheless the show is popular: the first episodes ran this summer, and the first installment in its 13-show second season was broadcast on Nov. 30, attracting its largest audience to date: 3.2 million viewers. (As a point of contrast, the most recent season premiere of Mad Men drew 2.8 million viewers.)

Frankly, the squirming continues throughout the show, which is routinely repulsive, harrowing and unnerving. A vacant-eyed 68-year-old woman named Augustine appears to have disintegrated long ago and lives among piles of trash that conceal (we learn) more than one decomposed cat corpse. Jake, 21, bursts into tears for the umpteenth time as he tries to part with a clearly nonfunctioning CD he has just referred to as “garbage.” One of the show’s experts opines to the camera that “no living creature” should reside in the home Jake shares with his alcoholic father. And so on.

The show’s producer, Robert Sharenow, says that A&E originally envisioned Hoarders as an addition to a block of “lifestyle” programming — “ ‘Trading Spaces’ meets hoarding,” as he puts it. With that mandate, the pilot’s tone was completely off, and it had to be reconceived, and refilmed, in a starker documentary style. Hoarding, he says, has “more to do with a person’s psyche than their taste in decorating.” Given how dark that psyche can be, why do people watch? Sharenow offers several reasons, from the visual wallop to the raw narrative drama. “There’s something kind of Joycean about watching a hoarder,” he continues. “You’re getting this incredibly deep picture of their entire existence in a way, through the objects and through the stuff they accumulate.”

Hoarding has been considered a subtype or a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but recent research suggests that it is something distinct, according to Gail Steketee, dean of the school of social work at Boston University and co-author of a forthcoming book, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. While most hoarders have trouble controlling the urge to acquire, the more severe problems involve an irrational reluctance to let go, out of fear that they’ll throw out something they need or because of the memories a thing represents. “People who hoard are saving things for the same reasons that the rest of us are,” she says. Only more so.

It’s interesting then that Hoarders has found its audience now. In a sense, the show can be read as a metaphor for an entire culture that has lost perspective on the relative importance of things and desperately needs help. Steketee says the disorder is “an age-old problem” but adds, “I do think our consumer culture has probably made it considerably worse.” Then again, it could be read as perversely reassuring, inserting distance between the rest of us and a handful of out-of-control freaks.

Sharenow, however, insists that the show’s subjects are “relatable.” Imagine if strangers tossed your irreplaceable family mementos in a garbage truck; now imagine you had the same attachment to every single object you possess, right down to candy wrappers and crumpled receipts. That is, most everybody’s identity is partly tied up in, or reflected by, their things — and plenty of us have moments of anxiety about that, perhaps in the last year especially. It’s certainly true that after I watch the show, I cast a wary eye on the deposits of object clutter here and there in my home. The scariest reading of Hoarders is that these freakish piles of stuff it documents simply reflect what plenty of us consume as a matter of course; our ability to dispose of the evidence properly is what makes us normal. “The line between the people on our show, who have very severe cases of the disorder, and, you know, most of the population,” Sharenow says, “is kind of thin.”


This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, December 17, 2009. 

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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