This is nothing to do with Russia, but it is something which has been seriously freaking me out recently. Indeed, I dare say it is a story which might give any of the “Russian affront to civilzation” news items du jour a serious run for their money:
When a reclusive elderly couple were rescued Monday after being buried under floor-to-ceiling debris in their South Side two-flat, the stench was so strong that firefighters donned hazardous-material suits, authorities said.
Thelma and Jesse Gaston may have been trapped for as long as two weeks — the last time they were seen, authorities said. [...]
After the discovery, the city’s Department of Buildings issued 16 building-code violations on Tuesday, citing the couple with everything from failure to maintain fences to failure to “stop noxious odors from permeating dwelling or premises.” The city said it will speed up court efforts to clean the home and will also offer the couple help, including mental-health services.
Bill McCaffrey, a building department spokesman, said he does not know whether the city has ever seen a case this egregious.
“I don’t want to sound insensitive to the needs of the residents. We are concerned about their well-being,” he said. “We also have a public-health and -safety concern.”
Relatives said they hadn’t seen the Gastons face-to-face for six or more years. Rosie Gaston Funches of Glenwood said she would knock on her brother’s front door and leave him notes, but he never responded.
David O’Neal, Thelma Gaston’s brother who lives outside Seattle, said he has tried calling her monthly and has made trips to Chicago just to see her, all to no avail.
“Years ago, I noticed there was not a lot of activity in the home,” said O’Neal, 75.
Relatives said Gaston was a retired zoologist and his wife was a former schoolteacher.
Hattie Fields, 83, who has lived next door since 1965, said the Gastons had resided there for more than 15 years, but it has been years since she spoke with them.
“They didn’t communicate with anybody,” Fields said.
The office of Ald. Leslie Hairston said it had received only two complaints about conditions at the home. One was an anonymous call last August about debris in the alley and a request for rat abatement. Both were handled that month, and another rat abatement was conducted in November, said Rosalind Moore, the alderman’s assistant.
This story has been in my local news for several days and it is freaking me out. I’m unnerved about it, the way I was unnerved with the story of Dolly the Sheep when that happened. Yes, it’s a real freak show! But I’m not simply unnerved for the freak show factor of it, for what they did, how they lived. Nor am I very interested in the debate surrounding the disorder known as “hoarding.” Whether you agree such behavior is an illness or not, the fact is that they were clearly incapable of caring for themselves. Regardless if the nature of their actions was moral (laziness, slovenliness), physical (chemical imbalance) or emotional (fear, and what I’m putting my money on) it is obvious they became unable to live unassisted without posing a threat to themselves or others, that they were unable to provide for their basic needs such as hygiene and safety.
I’m not as upset about what the couple did as I am about everything that everyone else did NOT do.
Their family never visited. NO ONE visited. Ever. It’s not like they lived out in the wilderness. Maybe someone showed up, knocked on the door and left when there was no answer. For 6 years. After a few weeks without contact from my brother I am ready to file a missing persons report. After 6 months I’d be willing to risk a breaking and entering charge to get inside the house and find out what the hell happened to him. And when I got in and saw that, I’d be on the phone organizing an intervention. Yesterday.
Their neighbors did not check in on them. And by check in, I don’t mean “see them mowing the front lawn.” I mean knock on the door, go inside and make sure they are well. This was an elderly couple. I know we live in an age when the greatest generation occupies its twilight participating in extreme sports and speed dating. But life expectancy here is still in the 70’s. And death rarely comes out of left field. Things begin not working. Physical things, mental things. When did we adopt the mentality that everyone is expected to be fully self-sufficient up until their hearts wrench out one… last.. beat?
Someone continued delivering the mail, as previous weeks’ went unretrieved. Someone continued writing parking tickets, as prior ones gathered dust. Someone continued catching rats in the alley, as those on the other side of the fence nibbled on the residents. Apparently their phone had been disconnected.
It is as if everyone knew something was probably up, but assumed someone else was ultimately responsible. The family on the other side of the country left it to the neighbors. Maybe there was a family falling out. The neighbors left it to the city services. No one wants to appear nosy. The city has too much on its platter to go around telling people to clean their house and get their mail. It’s un uphill battle just to get sane responsible people to pay their parking tickets. So they fell through the cracks. They were off the radar. The only thing they were to anyone was an occasional cause for complaint.
Many have insisted that the couple were reclusive and refused all offers of help. Yeah they had a hoarding problem, but that is their problem. Yeah they had an antisocial problem, but that is their problem. Men wanting to marry men is moral outrage, a threat to society! But people living with so much garbage in their home they pose a public health risk, they have made a legitimate lifestyle choice? Since when do we give people whose lives are in danger, who are clearly mentally compromised and who are committing building code violations a choice? When my grandmother began doing things like leaving the oven on all the time, we moved her out of her home. Oh boy, she resisted our help! She was pissed. And stubborn. Dear god, was there ever an unpleasant, difficult, heartbreaking scene. But first things first: ensure her (and her neighbors’) safety and then debate her illness and mourn the loss of her independence.
Of course, the only way we knew she was leaving the oven on was because we stopped by a few times a week…
There are messages throughout the Chicago public transportation system: “If you see something, say something.” A more vague demand has surely never been made. They clarify: “suspicious behavior, unattended packages…” Since 9-11, we’ve been thrust into a society of vigilance, suspicion, surveillance. While we’re busy wondering if that’s a bomb in that guy’s backpack, while we’re reporting every white van and spilled packet of Equal between Pittsburgh and Peoria, we don’t see something and say something when the suspicious behavior and unattended packages are right in our backyard. Saving innocent Americans from jihadists makes you a hero. Saving innocent Americans from themselves makes you meddlesome. We’re obsessed with moral decay: drugs, gays, gangs, Lindsay Lohan. Meanwhile hoarding and obesity are looked upon as acceptable failures. Nothing to be proud of, but if that’s the way you want to live your life, go ahead. You’re a public health hazard and a drain on the healthcare system, but least you aren’t smoking pot or having anal sex in your own home.
The whole story is drenched in irony… Our society implores people to acquire, acquire, acquire. Owning stuff will make you happy. Buying stuff with help the economy. Our nation is under attack? Stock market tanked? Go shopping. (Jeez, and no one has told the Greeks this?) People are judged -at least in the tv- according to the stuff they have. No matter how much you have, rest assured, it is not enough. When one mentions “hoarding,” the focus of our collective disgust falls on the hoarder’s unwillingness to discard anything. Often you may hear them explain, “But it s still good. It still works. I might need a new tire iron one day.” I’m pretty sure this was still a morally acceptable position to take when I was born. You don’t throw away perfectly good things. Right? Isn’t that bad for the environment? Doesn’t that illustrate a lack of appreciation for what you have, and others have not? Of course hoarding goes well beyond this. Nevertheless, it’s curious to me that the aberrant psychosis in our materialistic culture is the inability to throw stupid crap away, not the inability to keep from getting stupid crap in the first place.
There is also the matter of what it means to be civilized. Hoarding terrifies us, like most mental disorders, because it defies civility and social norms. People, behaving like animals. It frightens us because, like death and the kind of sex they can’t show on most tv, it reminds us that we are animals too. But we’ve evolved to be civilized! To be civilized means to have everything in its proper place. To practice extreme hygiene and maintain a healthy lifestyle. To have a home where people may visit, and sit and make themselves at home without getting lice. To dispose of trash and hide that which is not disposed of. The closer we are to God, the further we have progressed from our savage origins, and cleanliness is next to, well, you know.
But civilization is a concept that concerns not simply the actions of individuals, but precisely how they function together as a group. I don’t know how we can claim the civilization high ground here. The reactions of this couples’ family, neighbors and city don’t seem very civilized at all. They seem as savage as anything. We are so busy looking out for ourselves, so willing to leave our family and neighbors behind, so mindlessly going through the motions of our jobs. We get the message that we should stay out of others’ business, and we abide it because we don’t want others in our business. Our homes are sacred private property, our castles. And it doesn’t matter if it means living next to a trash heap that reeks of dung. “Not our problem.” How this mentality is anymore civilized or humane than that of our hoarding couple is beyond me.
This story terrified me. I’ll never be crushed under a pile of my own trash. Everything I own can fit easily into one studio apartment, with enough room left for an overnight guest. I’m a clean freak and obsessive organizer. But I live alone. A lot of people say, “Why should we care what happened to this couple? I am not my brother’s keeper.” I suspect such people are lucky enough to have strong families and support networks they take for granted. My family consists of one very close brother, a step family with whom communication is initiated 9 times out of 10 by me, and distant relatives of close dead relatives. All of whom live far away from me. What if my mail piled up? What if I could not be reached? How long before people would notice? How many years could pass without a visit from a family member? I do keep to myself. Would people assume I was just being anti-social? How long would it take for someone to file a missing persons report? I am not always capable of taking the best care of myself. And I’m even less capable of accepting help. How easy would it be for me to fall through the cracks?
I feel like most of my life is spent spackling the cracks so I don’t fall through.
I think spackling the cracks is what we call “civilization.” It’s not just the hoarders who failed at that, but society as a whole.
That’s why it terrifies me.