Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Holy Hoarders, Batman. Reality TV IS Reality.

Big numbers on the reality TV show, “Hoarders,” over Labor Day.  A&E publicized its third season like crazy, with images of possums in the kitchen and counter tops covered in inhuman filth.

The publicity campaign worked, as millions tuned in for an all-day marathon peek at piles of … well, anything you can imagine (and lots you don’t want to). Yesterday – the day after the show aired -- “Hoarders” was a popular topic on Twitter.

What’s wrong with this picture? Quite simply, it’s getting awfully real. “Hoarders” and every other examination of mental illness cast as human aberration is vastly more disturbing – and frighteningly more common -- than it is entertaining.

For example, now that “Hoarders” has come out of the closet onto TV, media reports of the mental illness are growing. In Schaumburg, IL,  a 79 year-old woman was found dead amid rubbish. Her 54 year-old daughter – whom social workers didn’t know existed -- lived there, too.

Why doesn’t somebody “do” something? Schaumburg officials say various laws make intervention nearly impossible unless the person cooperates. Hoarding expert Christiana Bratiotis of Boston University, says “The front door can be a nearly insurmountable obstacle, literally and figuratively … A true hoarder would never ever, ever let you in."

I started checking around and it turns out that everybody I asked knows two or three people who hoard. If you get into people-who-know-other-people-who-hoard, you’re swelling into double digits. A&E says 3 million Americans are hoarders. If you look at the number of American households, we’re talking 2.5 percent of our neighbors, easy.

While all hoarders pile up  junk, the stuff of the illness apparently varies. Paper, other people’s discards, knickknacks, clothing, and even food are the downfall of many. Meanwhile, “animal hoarding”  is exploding, say experts.

In his review of the Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, journalist Aditya Chakrabortty observes that “The Godfather” and other popular stories about the Mafia have influenced the way Mafioso view themselves. No longer mere “gangsters,” these guys now believe they are “legitimate businessmen” whose practices of violence and intimidation can be practiced and perfected.

If “godfather syndrome” holds true for folks with too much “stuff,” we can expect mirroring to produce new levels of, and tweaks to, hoarding. After a marathon viewing of A&E compulsion, for example, maybe our own 750 bags from Target piled in the bedroom, or those boxes of mail dated back to 1998, won’t seem so bizarre.

Since, a lot of us are already detached from the broken lives and mental problems other people are suffering, maybe it’s not a giant leap to our own personal indifference about the possums, cockroaches, and dead cats, Maybe familiarity will breed more indifference than contempt.

If that seems laughably impossible, please consider whether, in 2010, it seems “predictable” that four wealthy women from New Jersey will put on fancy cocktail dresses, then go on national TV to yell and spit at their neighbors? Ho-hum, right? But how did we get immune to that?

And how long before we also get accustomed to seeing three-year olds with lipstick, fake teeth, and tiaras? Driven to desperation, will it become commonplace to try to “treat” a loved one’s mental illness in an hour by staging our own “interventions”?

Possibly, like the hoarders – and without any huge external Wall Street collapse or terrorist intervention -- society will rot from the inside out and we’ll all think it’s “normal.”

More possibly, reality TV – a joke we thought was on other people – mirrors more than we want to see.