THE PROTAGONISTS on Hoarders, the engrossing pack rat-makeover show that's now in its second season on A&E, mortify their offspring. Upper-middle-aged, often lumpy and garrulous, these men and women embody the dark side of "home"—the bog, the smother, the inescapable repetitions and compulsions of family life. The cornerstones of their hideous stashes of rotting rubbish are often baby clothes and infant baubles. Acquisition No. 1 may have been the children themselves.
No wonder the grown children, often neatly dressed scolds in their 20s and 30s who are nominally worried for their parents' health, seethe. (On ChildrenOfHoarders.com, they commiserate over esoteric afflictions like "doorbell dread"—fear of answering the front door.) Parents who hoard also hold on too tight. They're disgraceful. They befoul the family home—a child's birthright!—and disgust guests, suitors, social workers.
Hoarders, then, differ from drug addicts and alcoholics—the other darlings of televised spectacles of reformation. Addicts are hyperconsumers who'll hock anything for drug money; hoarders won't part with so much as a Reese's wrapper. On television, addicts are intervened upon by wits'-end family members who recount with sorrow the fall of gentle Jason or Amyinto meth or inhalants. He or she "threw it all away"—all that promise, beauty, talent, money.
But in hoarders, we have cultural protagonists who won't throw away jack. According to Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, the authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, these people have a range of reasons for hanging on. Above all, they can't process information well, which confounds what should be routine decisions about discarding or organizing. They also harbor false beliefs about the value of their possessions, and how integral their things are to their identity..." More