The Interior Lives of Hoarders

Cultural portrayals of hoarding tend to invite pity rather than empathy, revulsion rather than self-reflection. A new entrant in the field masterfully refocuses the lens.

Man on ladder next to stacks of books
Tomas Schuler / EyeEm / Getty

I cannot remember whether I knew what compulsive hoarding was before 2009. Likely not. That year, the TV network A&E put the disorder on the cultural radar in an unparalleled way with its show Hoarders. The series introduced a public audience to a sometimes-private struggle—the obsessive need to acquire objects, coupled with the fear of letting them go—and offered its participants mental-health resources and extensive cleaning services. But it aimed to horrify viewers, too, with its footage of gawking neighbors and close-ups on maggot-filled refrigerators, set to a horror-movie-esque soundtrack. The show attempts the impossible union of a serious psychological analysis with the flair of television; its appeal suggests a fascination with witnessing people’s pain as well as a shared curiosity about our attachments to stuff. The premiere recorded 2.5 million viewers, at the time one of the largest audiences for a premiere in A&E’s history. Now in its 12th season, Hoarders remains one of its most popular shows.

I’m an avid reality-TV fan—Plathville, the Real Housewives franchise, and My Strange Addiction all make my rotation—but I’ve always found Hoarders nearly too unsettling to watch. It is not just that I’m seeing people at their most vulnerable as they work through their trauma; it’s that I frequently feel repulsed by them, as I’m supposed to. Every episode ends with what is framed as a redemption: Dumpsters dropped off outside the house, cleaners in respirators disposing of junk, psychologists on hand to reassure participants of the need to let go. Every story ends with an offer of treatment. But if you’re like me, you won’t research whether they’ve successfully been rehabilitated. If they haven’t, the fantasy of the show’s support vanishes. All that’s left is our voyeurism.

In an attempt to mitigate my own discomfort, I’ve tried to find an episode that feels more helpful than sensational. I haven’t quite found one. Instead, I’ve found Laura from Season 3, a 47-year-old writer with Stage 4 colon cancer. Her husband, Wayne, a psychologist, has stood by her for 15 years, despite what he calls the “over-accumulation” of stuff in their home. Laura’s two daughters have had their lives upended by their mother’s hoarding: Stephanie, 20, and her young daughter have moved back in to care for Laura. Michelle, 23, struggles with her resentment toward her mother. “I’ve felt before that she chooses these things over me and my sister,” she says, and even if it’s more complicated than that, she isn’t wrong.

The TV cameras are not generous: They pan across black mold crawling like moss up the walls; they capture Stephanie’s toddler stumbling over boxes strewn on the floor; they land on dilapidated furniture and dust bunnies twice the size of actual bunnies. Laura’s A&E-appointed psychologist calls the house “probably the worst … I’ve ever been in, in terms of the smell.” The cleanup is almost unbearable to watch. At one point, the camera zooms in on Laura’s face as she cries in the kitchen; she is stricken with guilt for raising her children in this home. Laura is having what might be the worst day of her life, on national television. I’m lying in bed eating chocolate-covered almonds, watching.

I imagined that I’d cycle through the same revulsion, pity, and then shame while reading Kate Durbin’s new poetry collection, Hoarders. I suspected that it wouldn’t be able to avoid sensationalism and doubted that a series of poems could really say something new about hoarding. But Durbin’s work has what the A&E show lacks: a capacious sense of humanity, a nuanced understanding of how consumerism might shape compulsions, and a deeply expressed empathy for the subtleties of life under capitalism.

Durbin’s characters collect all manner of things: food, plants, books, dolls, novelties. Some of them are loosely inspired by the real-life people appearing in shows such as Hoarders, though Durbin’s fictionalized depictions grant them more freedom. In this reinvention, each character’s own narration takes precedence over the more salacious details of their disorder, bringing us into their personal, sometimes painful, worlds. Each poem consists of connected fragments, little piles. Each stanza reads like a conversation between the person and their stuff. In italics is the character’s inner world. Bleeding into it, unitalicized, is a catalog of objects. As if to say, This here is my wound, and that there is my elixir.

Take the first poem, “Marlena,” which follows a woman’s storybook romance to its downfall:

But after our daughter was born, my husband started dating other women secretly dozens of Louis Vuitton bags under the bed           

Connecting Marlena’s circumstances with the objects that weigh her down forces us to reevaluate both. Are the Louis Vuitton bags the symptom of a dissolving relationship? Is the relationship a symptom of a larger trauma? Rampant consumerism is everywhere in these poems, but the stuff is treated with tenderness—sometimes even anthropomorphized. A mother treats her childhood dolls almost as if she’s cradling a small, innocent part of herself:

In the kids’ rooms, I have a lot of storage of my dolls too two Bratz dolls huddled on a tiny bed; the pink haired one is holding herself as if she is cold; the other has green skin, a tattered shirt, and a leg brace; next to the Bratz is a their-size Christmas tree

The pink-haired Bratz doll holding herself is an embodied gesture; she might even have the capability to feel cold. (I’m reminded of the phenomenon of users naming their Roombas and then not being able to bear replacing them if they malfunctioned.) In some cases, Durbin doesn’t humanize objects so much as imbue them with a perpetual sense of possibility, as with the belongings of one couple, Noah and Allie, who are “omnivores for every kind of information”:

You can find a book about anything Crocheting for Dummies, Screenwriting for Dummies, Organic Chemistry for Dummies, British Sign Language for Dummies …

The pair are an outlier in the collection, because they’re able to bond over the magnitude of their stuff. A reader might almost forget that their hoarding was a problem, might even begin to see it as a sweet quirk. Of course, the outcome is just as dangerous: “Books behind the front door, collapsing.” Noah has a health condition and Allie knows that an EMT would have a hell of a time navigating through the piles and piles of books in an emergency.

Still from the show 'Hoarders'
A&E / Screaming Flea Prod. / Everett Collection

The poems themselves are cluttered, yet their vibrancy is hard to overstate. Durbin astutely marries content and meaning, overwhelming the reader while dialing into our internal monstrous consumer. Why is swimming in this brand soup so exciting? I suppose because I recognize myself there, in a Luna-bar wrapper, a Safeway bag with shriveled lettuce, Drew Barrymore’s Home Collection. I know them all. A typical passage might feel anxiety-producing, disgusting, thrilling, or deeply relatable, sometimes all at once:

That was really when I started the snowball effect of all this collecting hundreds of Beanie Babies watching as she shops on eBay; Beanie Baby reindeer, Beanie Baby bat, Beanie Baby panda, Beanie Baby lemur, Beanie Baby snow leopard, Beanie Baby harp seal, Princess Diana Beanie Baby bear; inside the Beanie Babies, legs of smothered Barbies jut out into the air

As a kid of the ’90s, I feel an almost erotic desire reading this passage. I recall my Princess Diana Beanie, with small teeth marks on her heart-shaped tag, courtesy of my childhood dog. I cannot think of that baby without thinking of how I always wanted more, how I wanted all of the babies, piled into one of those above-the-bed stuffed-animal nets I’d seen advertised in Sears catalogs.

The pleasure I feel in remembering these Beanie Babies is the real achievement of Durbin’s work. To read it is to attach oneself to something mentioned in its pages—an object, a brand, a trauma, a moment. The effect is something like empathy, which brings a reader closer to an experience they might otherwise feel scandalized by or distanced from. These characters are extreme, but are they not also understandable?

My attachment to stuff is very different from that of the people in Durbin’s book, or the participants on A&E’s Hoarders. But I recognize myself in Durbin’s hoarders. I think of them as whole because there’s a humanity on the page that doesn’t exist on the screen.

Reading these poems makes me curious about my own attachment to objects—how they promise to transform me and, inevitably, turn into obstacles. Sometimes looking around at what I’ve amassed prompts a deep fatigue: piles of clothes, unread books, wrappers, bottles of antidepressants, boxes of sentimental cards, photos, buttons, scraps, receipts, cat toys. When I move from one apartment to another, I donate several trash bags full of stuff and feel relief; so little in life can be let go of as easily as a box of old cassette tapes, novelty graphic tees, and chipped coffee mugs.

But in truth, the reward for letting go is attaching once again. My joy is in the impulsive thrill of acquiring, predicated on a belief that the best version of myself requires the constant consumption of products. The journey of e-commerce—selecting something, placing it in my cart, confirming my order, tracking the package to my doorstep—might not make me happy, but it is the arc of my desire.

That consumer cycle would seem relevant to the A&E’s Hoarders conversation. But the show, which tends to prompt the question “How did things get so bad?,” nonetheless seems unconcerned with understanding hoarding as a symptom (an egregious one, but a symptom nonetheless) of capitalism. Durbin, however, is deeply interested in this connection. Because of that, her focus is different. The excrement and the dust are still there, but she also shows us the items a camera might move right past, ones that could tell a more intimate story: “still life of grapes spilling out of a bowl,” “Ancient Rome Gladiator Barbie,” “Mount Rushmore replica.” Durbin encourages us to recognize our urges in these characters’ need to collect, and by extension, our complicity in consumerism. After reading this list, “cracked pineapple jar with something black inside” somehow does not repulse me.

Durbin does not offer solutions to hoarding, does not condemn it or ask us to approve of it. Rather, she unboxes these lives for us. What the collection offers in its hypnotic fullness is perhaps akin to a hoarder’s serenity prayer, like the wall sign found among one character’s belongings that reads LORD, HELP ME TO DO WHAT I CAN, WHERE I AM, WITH WHAT I HAVE.

After I watched Laura’s episode of Hoarders, I tried to remember something about her that seemed to bring her happiness, and which objects might have represented that happiness to her. She was a writer, but didn’t mention writing bringing her any joy. No amount of clever camerawork could skew the obvious love Laura and her daughters had for one another—even if that love felt like fear at times, or resentment. I think of Wayne, who stayed despite it all. Somewhere in the floor-to-ceiling boxes must have been old anniversary cards from him, family photo albums, manuscripts in progress. If you watch closely enough, you can see Stephanie’s old art projects still hung on the walls.

There is empathy to be felt in this story—it just requires more unearthing. I wonder how different Laura’s episode might have been if Durbin had written it as a poem. Maybe it could have gone: “I’m Laura, mother of two beautiful daughters and one granddaughter box of Pampers diapers, line of pill bottles along the kitchen counter, old manuscript in bankers box, Michelle’s macaroni necklace, red wagon wheels on green yarn.”

In the final scene, all of Laura’s stuff is gone and the whole family is gathered comfortably in the living room. According to the logic of the show, the clean house, not the family’s resilience, is their redemption. Instead of dividing Laura’s life into a horrific before and a peaceful after, I wish A&E had shown its mundane fullness and complicated joys alongside the pain and the trash. If less time had been spent discussing the odor of the basement, perhaps more time could have been spent acknowledging the heavy lift of loving the most broken parts of one another.