Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Hoarding: Buried Alive Unwrapped

 My reaction while watching Hoarding: Buried Alive on TLC is disgust with a wave of nausea. I cannot process how a human being can endure these types of living conditions. The camera work of close-ups focus on the mountains of garbage festering and oozing, then moves onto a sink filled with infested water along with other spoiled items that the hoarder refuses to throw away. Items like plastic bottles and newspapers layer the unstable narrow pathways that are used to get from room to room. As the camera focuses to the glue strips hanging from the ceiling that are coasted with a layer pests I involuntarily start to itch. I gasp in speechlessness at the hoarder’s degraded condition of living in the filth and stench of animal feces, fur, and sometimes even the corpses of their dead pets. The images are grotesque and surreal, which creates a pure and simple affect that shakes the viewer to the core. Hoarding: Buried Alive is an example of how certain television shows attempt to govern through the encouragement of participants and viewers at home to be self discipline or self dependent. “Governmentality operates “at a distance” by enrolling individuals as “allies in the pursuit of political, economic, and social objectives” of the state by managing each individual’s capacity to achieve “socially desirable goals- health, profitability, and the like.” (Zimdars, 2014).  Once viewers witness these extreme hoarding cases they will attain the knowledge needed to maintain their waste, and refine from misbehaving, because they do not want to end up like the participants on the show. As I begin to analyze Hoarding: Buried Alive I realize it is a show that does not really emphasizes how powerless these people are in the face of their mental illness, but instead shames and harasses its participants by viewing them as ignorant freaks that are resistant to change.

Hoarding: Buried Alive, season 1, episode 2 “Beyond Embarrassment” (original aired March 21, 2010), follows 43 year old Judi a former personal trainer, and 51 year old Jim who is contemplating moving back in with his mom because he feels like he cannot control his hoarding alone. Viewers of the show might believe these people are getting the help they need, and are being reconstructed back into status quo or normal living citizens. In reality this so-called help is being used to frame the participant as a resistant lazy slob. They are consistently shown in a negative light as being inflexible and foolish for hanging onto what most consider being trash. For example Judi is asked, “When was the last time you took out the trash?” And her response was a year. Healthy minded people know that the trash should be taken out weekly, but Judi cannot distinguish what is trash and what is of value anymore. Judi is shown sitting in her only available space in her 3 bedrooms, 2-bathroom home, and Jim is shown siting in his recliner falling asleep in front of the television. What the show does not focus on is that Judi and Jim have both been victims of trauma.

Judi saw the love of her life die in a freak lifting accident right in front of her, and Jim has to deal with being diagnosed with sever social anxiety, OCD, and the divorce of his parents. These two individuals have built these massive caves of garbage to protect them from the outside world. Judi mentions, “I built up these walls to keep everyone else out, like a cocoon.” There is no way a 30 minute show can build a strong therapist-client relationship to being to address the trauma, make since of the trauma, and begin the healing and recovering process of two traumatized human beings in one short episode. Another element that must be taken into account is the commercial breaks. Each participant maybe gets 12-13 minutes of airtime to make some progress. Since the therapy is just a small portion of the show they jump right into the cleaning process, which creates great distress. This pressure from others to start cleaning before the participants are ready causes them to become overwhelmed by the huge task and causes major resistance. They are not ready to let go of their belongings that have seemed to make them happy or protect them for so long in that short amount of time given by the producers.

I felt bad for Judi’s cleaning experience. The show mentioned previously that she only trusted one other person to see the inside of her home. Now Judi is confronted with a whole cleaning team she has to trust with all her, what she considers, meaningful possessions. Anyone could see the distress on her face. She was completely overwhelmed by having complete strangers tearing down her comfort zone. A professional organizer, psychologist, or otherwise hoarding expert always leads the rationalizing process that is to redeem the hoarder’s logic. “This ritual sorting of things entails speaking out loud about different objects as each is made rational and separate, organized into piles to keep or discard. The mute, material chaos in managed, slowly and methodically, by bringing it into the symbolic order through language. Through this ritual, the hoarder’s secrets are revealed their private shame is exposed and aired (Lepselter, pg. 933). The participants obviously need more attention and time put into therapy than cleaning; their whole life needs to be reorganized not just their living space.

I see this as an act of bullying, and different from any other television shows that promotes human transformation. For example participants on Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition are all willing participants to change and transformation. They know what they have signed up for and have made the choice themselves. In contrast a loved one volunteers the participants on Hoarding: Buried Alive, which is somewhat like an intervention that pressures the participant into treatment (meaning it was not the participants will, but they have no other choice or they will be evicted). I agree with the statement, “The professional help, aside from the psychologist assigned to the hoarder, is generally not helpful either. They spend the majority of their time cajoling, harassing, and berating hoarders to get them to release their possessions more quickly “(Feminspire, 2014).

At the end of the episode both Judi and Jim have made small improvements. Judi has cleared her kitchen, but still has many of her belongings in storage bin in her backyard and the rest of her house to clear. Jim has realized he needs to set small goals for himself so he does not get discouraged and relapse. His goal setting results in an organized kitchen area in his one bedroom apartment. Ultimately viewers should see these achievements as great leaps considering the lack of ethical treatment on these mentally ill participants. Instead the imagery and lack of time of the television show disciplines its viewers into being well obeying citizens who take out the trash and throw away items that are not of use so they do not create fire or health hazards to the community.  

Hoarding: Buried Alive Casting: About the Show: TLC." TLC. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <>.

"Hoarding: When Did Being Buried Alive Become Good Entertainment?" Feminspire. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <>.

Lepselter, Susan. "The disorder of things: Hoarding narratives in popular media." Anthropological Quarterly 84.4 (2011): 919-947.

Zimdars, M. (2014, April) Weight-loss television & governing at a distance. Lecture. Lecture conducted from University of Iowa, Iowa City.

1 comment:

  1. I thought you made some very excellent points about this show. I don’t like to admit it, but I do enjoy watching it on occasion. It’s probably because I feel some sort of superiority complex because my apartment is about 1000x cleaner than the homes displayed on this show. I was particularly interested in the point you made about how the show doesn’t really address the people’s mental illnesses. Thinking back, I do see how the point that the therapists are more bullies in disguise is quite accurate. Even if the therapists did spend a lot of time with the patients they are still dehumanized by the fast-paced way the show is filmed. I think you hit the nail on the head by stating that the show is not meant to help these people, but its real reason is to prime people into behaving a certain way by shaming the mentally ill patients.


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