Honey, I swear to start cleaning the den this weekend, the bulging bibliomaniacal den where a cotton-blend rabbit burrows in the James Baldwin section, where a backup alarm clock has wedged itself between Balzac and Zola, where I cannot even find Gogol's Dead Souls to quote a relevant passage about the old miser Plyushkin and his troves of trash. I swear to clean the den. Up by the ceiling, between the spare printer and the complete run of Men's Vogue, the señorita on the cover of the Alfredito Plays Mambo LP will end her obstinate cha-cha-cha with Vanessa Lorenzo, the cover girl of the March 2003 issue of Glamour. No longer will a stack of summer hats shade a precariously stationary tower of stationery boxes. Hoarders (A&E, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET) has scared me straight.
Compulsive hoarding is the excessive collection of items, objects, things, stuff, and, quite literally, sentimental junk. On each installment of Hoarders, A&E profiles two people suffering from the disorder, and the channel does so in a way consistent with its gravelly voice. Throughout A&E's transformation from a network airing footage of the cellist Pablo Casals to one scheduling performances by the bounty hunter Dog, it has kept up its interest in noir tales and investigative narratives. Hoarders announces its link to that tradition with a bit of text appearing on-screen near the top of each episode. Rendered in a central-booking typeface, it reads, "More than 3 million people are compulsive hoarders. These are two of their stories." The hoarders stand accused of violating standards of personal hygiene and public health, the laws of the fire marshal and the feng shui master. Having hit bottom, they may be faced with eviction or losing custody of their children. Their homes are crime scenes, and the evidence is everywhere.
All of the hoarders appear to be free of guile, even campy Dale, whom we met last Monday. Dale, a fabric artist, is unemployed, depressed, and yet abidingly fabulous. A snappy dresser, he favors neckerchiefs and at one point wears around his shoulders an animal-print rug converted into a Duchess of Windsor-quality shawl with the loop of an elegant knot. The clatter of chunky tribal bracelets on Dale's wrists reflects his main hoarding interest. First laying eyes on his Boston apartment, I assumed that someone had delicately crammed the entire inventory of the gift shop at the National Museum of African Art into the most commodious wheelchair-accessible bathroom stall in that same building. Dale, steadfastly sassy, describes the condition of his place thus: "Stuff-after-stuff-after-stuff-dot-com." Like many of the people on Hoarders, he knows that things aren't right. Witnessing at once his self-awareness (which is of course limited) and his supply of Yoruba masks (which is not), we feel for him all the more.
The hoarders are free to laugh at themselves, but the show never laughs at them. Inherently exploitative, Hoarders redeems itself by way of its tone, which is frequently compassionate and occasionally clinical. Like Intervention, A&E's tried-to-make-me-go-to-rehab reality hit, it turns its profiles of dysfunction into stories about relationships. We respectfully size up Dale's dealings with his worried family and also with the professionals helping him clear through the actual and emotional rubble of his life. The team includes a psychiatrist, an organizing consultant, 12 or 15 beefy guys constituting a "removal squad," and three or four hearty women down in the sorting area. In hopes of scrounging up some self-analysis, Dale and the shrink take a field trip to his favorite Dumpster. When "trust issues" arise during the cleanup phase and a jittery Dale snatches an antique iron back from the trash heap, Hoarders avoids psychobabble and sweeping generalities in favor of a plainspoken analysis of the dynamics at play.
I dwell on Dale partly because he is a jolly fellow—"I love men with muscles," he theatrically coos at the removal boys—and partly because so many other Hoarders situations are totally gross. Are you enjoying a snack right now? You won't be after hearing about Judi, who describes her problem in syntax and diction that heighten its horrible poignancy. "Unfortunately, I keep not just grand treasures, but I keep treasures that are not so grand," she says while the camera pulls back to gape at a heap of spent Pepsi bottles crowding one corner of some unrecognizable room. Judi is not incontinent or anything, but some years ago, she made a move to forgo using the toilet in favor of adult diapers. The cleanup crew takes this in stride. "We're already at 3,000 pounds of poop," someone calculates matter-of-factly. An average person raking the lawn would bring far more passion to saying "I already filled four bags with leaves!" Elsewhere, the delicate head doctor tries to draw Judi into a respectful discussion: "Are doormats meant to be kept forever?"
Of the many philosophical questions Hoarders poses, this is among the most compelling, ranking third behind, Are hoarders trying to build a fortification against the ceaseless attack of time? and How the hell do things get this out of hand? If I am correct in understanding Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow's handsome new novel about the notorious Collyer brothers, it happens slowly and then all once. The novel gets its juice from the sensitive narration of Homer, who goes at the lists of the Collyers' possessions like his namesake delivering the Catalog of Ships in The Iliad. Near the end, describing the progressive loss of his hearing late in life, Homer also seems to be explaining the brothers' steady descent into becoming the chattel of their own possessions: Deafness "came upon me gradually, allowing me progressive degrees of acceptance, with hope that every degree of loss would be the last, until, in the growing quiet of my despair, I resolved to accept my fate." That's what it says in the galley proofs, at least. I've got a copy of the finished book around here somewhere, but I can't seem to turn it up right now.