He shuffled into my law office for his 10 am appointment, his shoulders were hunched over and he looked completely defeated. I asked what brought him in to see me and he quietly removed some photographs from a yellow envelope and set them up like a slide show on the desk in front of me.
I had never seen anything like it. A living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, all piled to the rafters with newspapers, junk mail, pizza boxes, dirty laundry, bags of garbage, kitty litter and much more. A trail through the house, no more than a foot wide, was left open as a passage way. In one photo a little girl in a pink dress sat smiling, leaning on a tower of junk.
He was embarrassed as he told me that his wife had transformed their home into a waste pit, that she wouldn’t or couldn’t stop accumulating stuff, refusing to throw anything away, and he was worried sick about his three-old daughter.
He said he loved his wife but believed the home environment was hurting his little girl. He asked me whether he should take his daughter and move out.
I was stymied. This was long before television turned hoarding into a spectator sport and intuitively I knew his wife’s behavior was an extreme form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I sent the photos to a child psychologist and asked his opinion. I expected him to tell me that my new client had a legal and moral obligation to rescue his daughter from the chaos of their home. But he surprised me. He said that removing the little girl from her home and her mother would only increase her anxiety, for after all, what she knew was a crowded, dirty, infested home.
My client got his answer and I didn’t see him again.
I didn’t question the psychologist because after all, he was the expert. But later, after scanning Kimberly Rae Miller’s book entitled “Coming Clean”, her personal story of her childhood, I wondered how that little girl was, the one in the pink dress.
Author Miller describes her wretched childhood: the rats, the bugs, the insecurity she felt as a result of her parents’ activities. Her mother was a compulsive shopper, her father a hoarder, and between them her life was isolated, secretive, and shameful. In her late teens Ms. Miller had a breakdown, overdosing on pain killers. That’s when she finally left home and began living in her car. Yes, a car she vacuumed every day.
Family law lawyers see the best and worst of domestic life. That day I saw the misery of hoarding.