I was lucky enough to be in the audience last week, on the night “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” opened at the E Street Cinema in Washington D.C. This lovely film, starring Sally Field, is the story of a 60-something woman who has sacrificed much of her own life while serving as caretaker for her mother, who was a hoarder.
While the hoarding part of the story is really just a subplot, coming from a family of what my coauthor and I prefer to call “keepers,” I found one of the many pleasures of watching the film to be the sensitive treatment of this ill-understood disorder. In an interview in Glamour magazine, Field, who consulted with psychiatrists in preparation for playing the role, says, “Doris is not a hoarder on the level that you’ve seen on television shows. There are degrees of these disorders…” And indeed, this is made clear in the film. Certainly the house Doris lives in is beyond merely cluttered: but as the story develops, the implication is that while her mother was probably a bona fide hoarder, Doris is not. In the beginning of the film she is not emotionally ready to clear out the mess accumulated by her mother over a period of years, but by the end of the film she is. She just needs time: time to grieve the loss of her mother, and time to move on to the next part of her life.
Through the character of Doris, the film presents some of the practical and emotional reasons that keepers have difficulty getting rid of things. At one point she says to the therapist her brother has insisted she see, “It’s just that there are so many useful things that people just throw away…” and, though she mumbles the line, obviously a bit embarrassed about her situation, what she says comes out sounding not pathological, but simply as a statement of truth. A scene in which Doris’s brother and sister-in-law come to the house and attempt to shame her, and force her to throw things out before she is ready to do so is a textbook example of how not to help hoarders, or for a less extreme term, packrats. (You can find some suggestions for better ways here.) And in the final scene of the film, Doris takes a lamp she has picked up off the street and brought to her office in the opening scene, and gives it to a coworker, who happily accepts it, as a parting gift. Because, well, the lamp is useful–and also kind of cool-looking, in a retro kind of way.
In a Skype chat with the film’s director, Michael Showalter, the night I attended the film, he admitted that while he had tried to present the phenomenon of hoarding in a more or less realistic light, the housecleaning that Doris does toward the end of the film is achieved more quickly than is realistic, for reasons of dramatic resolution. “I know it’s not that easy to resolve in real life,” he said. He explained that for the purposes of the film, showing that characters can and do change their lives, and that even long-entrenched habits can be changed, was more important. And indeed, though it is very difficult to get hoarders to change, when approached with enough patience and sensitivity, it can be done.
But in some of the lesser degrees of “keeping” behavior, drastic change may not be necessary. In an interview with George Pennachio on ABC 7, Field says she is not a hoarder, that she prefers to think of herself as a collector, but that she has sympathy for Doris. “I have boxes and boxes of things that are memorabilia of my life,” she said. “But so much of it is my kids and grandkids. It’s ridiculous. And they look at it and go ‘Why are you keeping that?” Her answer to them? “I’m just keeping it, OK?”
And you know what? In some cases, that may be answer enough. It’s too hard for your Mom to get rid of sentimental, or useful, things, so you’re going to have to do it when she’s gone–is that really such a big deal? Is it?
Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.