Archive for September, 2009

A&E’s Faux Altruism

September 29, 2009

A&E has a new television series in the reality-sideshow genre about compulsive hoarding, Hoarders. So far, The Husband and I, both children of hoarders, have watched two episodes, and I am mostly disturbed by the fact that this is yet another example of superiority porn masking as an exercise in altruistic concern.

The format for each episode is fairly typical. Two hoarders in different parts of the United States, each having recently been given some sort of ultimatum regarding his or her hoarding, are provided with guides (psychotherapists or organizers specializing in compulsive hoarding) and a professional cleaning team. Throughout the show, they give brief information about the fact that compulsive hoarding is caused by one or more underlying mental/emotional disorders. The aftermath of the experiment/treatment is relegated to a brief paragraph posted on the screen at the very end, often startling the viewers.

By profiling two separate hoarders and their families per episode, precious little time is available for honest analysis and reflection. n one episode, a couple has had their children removed by social services (and placed with their grandparents) until their house is cleaned up. Throughout the episode are shots of rats living in the garage and basement of this upper-middle-class home as the mother/wife is shown obsessively picking through garbage from the bathroom or otherwise slowing down the clean-up process in a compulsive attempt ensure that nothing she deems important has been thrown out. However, despite all of this, the home is clean by the end, but the basement is positively stuffed with more than 1400 boxes of possessions she has found herself unable to let go. While the fact that she is not “cured” is obvious to the audience, the mini-paragraph at the end detailing what she faced after the cameras stopped is shocking: social services refused to return her children, largely because of the fact that she retained so many possessions in storage; her husband filed for a divorce and moved out, helping him to get one child placed with him. That’s it.

A&E can tell themselves that this and its other “educational” reality shows (e.g., Intervention) provide a healthy alternative to standard reality-show fare, but by failing to provide any depth of analysis in the twenty minutes allocated to this woman’s situation, they have achieved no such goal. Rather, they have created on this screen a one-dimensional caricature of a selfish, hysterical woman unwilling to give up her possessions for her children, more likely to cause the audience to spew vitriolic criticism than enlightened compassion. As a daughter, niece, and great-grandaughter of hoarders, I felt some compassion but was mostly wracked with a fear of becoming “like those people.” The positive side is that my desire to pursue a life of voluntary simplicity was reawakened, but only through an air of condescension that reminds me that I may be able to recognize the flaws in A&E’s brand of faux altruism, but I am not above it.

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