"Hoarders'" unforgettable rat episode

With last night's rodent collector, the show sets a new bar for extreme behavior -- without being exploitative

Published January 11, 2011 3:30PM (EST)

Last night's season finale of A&E's "Hoarders" (Mondays 10 p.m./9 Central) may well have the most vivid and unsettling episode of the series, for the way that it illustrated OH MY GOD THE RATS ARE COMING OUT OF THE WALLS!

Sorry. Let's try that again.

The two hoarders featured in last night's episode were Lisa, a Fullerton, Calif., resident and extreme Cat Lady, and Glen, a Llano, Calif., homeowner who -- RATS EVERYWHERE!!!! -- has been collecting and breeding domesticated rats for years to the point where they NUMBER IN THE HUNDREDS, MAYBE THOUSANDS, OH MY GOD!

Seriously, though. The series started out concentrating on traditional, non-gothic-horror variants of hoarders, the sorts of people who stockpile antiques or dumpster-dive and cram their belongings into every available nook and cranny of their homes until the place becomes an eyesore and a public health hazard. This episode and last week's -- which concentrated on hoarders of chickens and rabbits, respectively -- amped up the ick factor. How can they possibly top this? With ferrets? Centipedes? Giant poisonous spiders?

"They're in furniture, up in ceilings, in the walls, in the mattresses, everywhere," said Glen, the rat hoarder. "They're totally out of control. They'd crawl up in a pillow and start pulling my hair out, trying to make nesting material out of it."

"They just crawl all over him," Glen's friend John told the video crew. "He just loves them."

Hundreds of rats. Thousands. Everywhere.

Lisa the feline hoarder only seemed less disturbing than Glen because rats are innately more revolting than cats (at least to most people). Her place was a disaster, too, as homes on "Hoarders" always are: so much junk all over the place that she couldn't find a place to sleep; cats crawling over everything; feline waste piled on the floors and tucked into the corners of furniture and in the folds of clothes. (One member of the cleanup crew confessed that the stench in her house was so bad he could barely breathe.)

And yet miraculously "Hoarders" still didn't feel exploitative, even when Glen's cleanup gang flushed rats from a decimated mattress while accompanied by playfully jaunty cue music that sounded vaguely like Danny Elfman's scores for Tim Burton. (I pictured Edward Scissorhands trimming hedges.)

Some articles (at Salon and elsewhere) have wondered if this series isn't just exploiting mental illness. ("'Hoarders' hurts the human spirit," one claimed.) And it's true that A&E's fascination with extreme and upsetting behavior does point to a tabloid mentality, at least on the part of network executives looking to beef up ratings. But I don't think "Hoarders" can be accused of cynicism. It's sincerely empathetic. It depicts extreme behavior, but only as a means of finding a colorful analogue for a psychological process that "normal" people go through every day: the struggle to identify obsessive and/or self-destructive behavior and then do something about it.

The series isn't solely a rubbernecking, voyeuristic freak show -- though that's the main selling point from the marketing department's standpoint. (RATS!!! THEY'RE ALL OVER!!!!) The recent fixation on animal hoarding drives home the series' focus on psychology -- and its compassion. The hoarders are broken people, but I like how the show insists that (in theory, at least) they're all fixable, that they can get back to some version of normalcy if they can take responsibility for the mess and clean it up -- and in so doing, confront the traumas that are nearly always at the root of hoarding behavior.

Glen's rat hoarding was a response to his wife's sudden 1989 death from a heart attack, which he irrationally believed he could have prevented. Lisa's cat hoarding was a reaction to an ugly divorce and to ongoing tensions with her dad, who helped her buy the house and now held the deed on it.

"I think the mess might be subconscious," Lisa said. "It might be a passive-aggressive -- I mean, doing it that way because of my relationship with my father ... He's a neat freak, and this is my way of getting back at him."

By the end of the episode, Lisa had dug in her heels and become nearly paralyzed, refusing to join in the decluttering and cat wrangling. But Glen had begun taking control of his life -- participating in the cleanup (which entailed knocking out sections of wall to flush out the rats) and talking to hoarding expert Dr. Robin Zazio about the event that triggered it all. Glen's sudden eruptions of tears were the psychological equivalent of the show's many close-ups of previously hidden rodents emerging through holes in walls and furniture -- Freud's return of the repressed.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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