I have a friend who says that people spend too much of their life idly consuming media, and fixate too much on it as a way of relating to other people. I think he’s right, but still certain pieces of media can be life-changing under the right circumstances, or at the very least evoke new insights or strong emotions that stick with you forever. As someone who got into the game/software industry to do just that, it’s something I think about a lot. I want to dedicate some space on this blog to sharing some of the bits of media that have stuck with me for a long time for one reason or another.
However, I’m starting this off with something that might be perhaps a little unexpected.
It’s an episode of the show “Hoarding : Buried Alive”, Season 4 Episode 1, titled “Tiny Monsters.” The show is another crappy reality tv show, the kind where every episode has the same plot, whether it’s Kitchen Nightmares, Hoarding, or whatever. In this show they find someone who has a hoarding problem, show how crazy they are, talk about how what they have is a compulsion or a mental illness, then eventually they have a dramatic turnaround for the camera where they resolve to change, clean out their place, and have some nice before/after shots to make you feel good at the end.
This episode of the show, however, is special.
It depicts the absolute nadir of the human experience.
It’s about a woman named Sherry. She lives in her hoarder-home with her daughter Ally and her son David. She collects disability for 13 illness including fibromyalgia and diabetes. Her husband, Mark, left the home because of the hoarding. He says that his wife had always been a hoarder, that “she hates to get rid of anything, even trash.” Interview quotes like this as well as the backstory and narration seem to be setting you up for a typical episode of Hoarding, complete with traumatic backstory of how the family moved into the home to take care of Sherry’s mother, who shortly after died, at which point the hoarding became more extreme.
However, despite the seemingly familiar setup, despite the quotes from her husband which depict her as a typical hoarder, you immediately know something is different from the footage alone. Most of the episodes on these shows, while there may be trash, or there may be pests, generally the hoarder has a compulsion to collect, and it’s usually stuff the hoarder at least *perceives* as valuable.
Instead, you get the impression that Sherry is simply someone who has given up entirely on life. You see the most deplorable conditions and filth imaginable. In every frame of the video there are hundreds of cockroaches skittering. There are black widow spiders in the kitchen. Sherry is a diabetic who leaves piles of her needles laying around the house we see her teenaged daughter ambling through barefoot. We see a coffee can filled with cockroaches. You see the most vile bathrooms imaginable, complete with festering sinks and filled to the ceiling with discarded maxi-pads.
We see what must be a typical day in the life of these individuals. The daughter Ally wakes her mother up in the morning. She fetches her mother’s booties so she can shuffle safely through the refuse to get to her chair in the living room. She sits down and grabs a nearby 2-liter of Diet Pepsi off the floor and starts drinking it while her daughter is in the roach-infested kitchen making her mother’s breakfast. You get the impression that Sherry sits in that chair for the full day before going back to bed and doing it all over again. In fact, most of the early part of the episode is the entire family saying that Sherry uses her health as an excuse, and pleading with her to just get out of her chair.
When the psychologist arrives, you learn that there is nothing of even perceived value in this “hoard.” There is no internal struggle or anxiety to get rid of things. When asked why the home is packed to the ceiling with garbage, Sherry answers, “because the kids decided to quit taking it out,” and “I think my kids quit taking responsibility for anything.” When prompted “I know you want your kids to have a good life.” Sherry answers, “They have had that, but they chose to let it fall apart.”
The exterminators come in and are rendered almost speechless, and leave in disgust. The cleanup crew comes in but the conditions are so vile they need to bring in the HAZMAT team.
You wonder, why no one does anything about the situation this entire time. The father says that Sherry has full custody, and won’t let the children stay with their father because it would reduce her benefits. Obviously we don’t know what the real story is but it seems that either the father didn’t fight to get his kids out of hell, or our legal system is literally broken. You wonder why the psychologist doesn’t immediately make a call to get the kids out of the home. You wonder why no one does anything, everyone just goes along with the show, even when it’s clear that Sherry is an unfit mother whether the home is clean or not. You wonder why, even if Sherry is physically and mentally ill, that she doesn’t seem able to admit or care that the situation is unlivable or want better for her kids. You wonder how the kids are able to just pretend that this is normal.
When confronted during the cleanup about the fact that there are black widow spiders in the kitchen, her answer is “Ok. So?” Then she shuffles off to sit in her van, upset that she’s being implied to be a bad mother, then later goes to lay down in bed and tells the cleanup crew to just shovel the garbage around her.
In this episode, there is no turning point, no acceptance of responsibility, not even so much as a break from Sherry’s emotional flatline save a few tears over the psychologist “attacking” her. There is no hope for the future, except that Sherry’s children bear her dead weight to make sure that things don’t get this bad again. At the end they have a forced family reunion where they celebrate how much things have improved, even though nothing has changed and you can see a new pile of diet soda next to Sherry’s recliner, in the exact same spot, in frame.
The editors of the show are trying to fit the “plot” that all of these shows have onto this case, but because nothing positive came out of the experience, save maybe the children’s ability to cope with these abusive circumstances with grace and a positive attitude, it doesn’t work and you are left feeling sick inside. You get angry at the fact that circumstances of birth and evolved sense of familial loyalty allows people to accept such conditions.
When you watch these type of shows, you might feel humor or horror at how ridiculous some of the homes are. You might feel pity and sympathy for the families and for the hoarder themselves. You might feel impressed or happy at the resolution to change, and the turnaround at the end. You might feel nothing because it’s trash TV and you don’t really care anyway. Not here. Instead you just leave feeling disgusted.
You should check it out.