After the Dumpster

Intro from Jay Allison: Melodie is an obsessive hoarder, trying hard not to be. This story about her is the kind of thing you don't hear much on the radio anymore. It's not exactly a narrative, there's no news peg, it's just a portrait of a person. It's Elizabeth Chur's first piece since getting out of school. She spent a lot of time on it, gathering 35 hours of tape for a twelve-minute portrait. Like Melodie, she had a hard time letting it go. These are efforts worth knowing about.

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About “After the Dumpster “

MelodieI’ve always been a bit of a packrat.  Yet when I recently moved across the country for a few months, I discovered I could live with the bare essentials.  Even more surprising, I liked the expansiveness of living with less.

When I returned home to San Francisco, I spent six weeks clearing out the apartment where I’d lived—and accumulated—for more than a decade.  I gave away bags of clothes that no longer fit.  I put little-used chairs out on the sidewalk, where urban scavengers whisked them away.  When I tried to return books to an ex, he e-mailed back, “Consider them abandoned property.”  (The public library happily accepted that donation.)

Melodie in the kitchenIronically, I started working on this story just as I was finishing my own downsizing.  A colleague at the social service agency where I used to work told me about Melodie, a woman who had developed some ingenious ways to deal with her hoarding problem.

Melodie has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, and a traumatic brain injury that interferes with her short-term memory.  Those disabilities contribute to her hoarding condition.  They also made it particularly challenging to piece together a narrative.  I learned to hold my followup questions longer than I normally do, since questions often derailed Melodie’s train of thought.

She also found it difficult to summarize, whether relating a series of events or describing a section of her apartment.  For example, when I asked her to describe the contents of a tall bookshelf, she read it like a page of text—starting at the top shelf and describing each item from left to right.

Bathroom sinkFor months, she declined to talk about the day that most of her belongings were hauled out to a dumpster because it was too traumatic.  She knew it would be impossible to tell me the story briefly.  When she finally agreed to discuss it, we recorded for three days.

By contrast, I last spoke with Melodie the day after she was mugged while rummaging through neighborhood garbage cans.  Even though her lip was swollen from being kicked in the face, she was almost sanguine about it.  Laughing, she said, “Any story I can tell you in five minutes, you know I’ll get over it!  This was easy compared to the dumpster.”

Melodie often described the difficulties of communicating with various social workers.  They usually don’t have time to listen to her whole story, and pepper her with questions that leave her disoriented.  In fact, Melodie said this was her motivation for participating in the documentary.  If she can play the finished piece for people, then just fill in what is missing, she thinks she might be a step closer to getting the help she needs.  It’s my hope that the piece might be able to say what she herself cannot.

Melodie in the KitchenAs my first piece out of school (I recently studied radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies), I considered this my second year of grad school, with lots of flailing about and lessons learned.  I tried telling the story from different angles.  I discovered that a non-narrated approach didn’t work, since I needed to summarize events and describe Melodie’s apartment for the listener.

I had lots of scenes I never used—Melodie in her rented storage unit, working with one of her three paid assistants, attending a hoarding and cluttering conference.  As I cut 35 hours of tape down to 12 minutes, I could relate all too keenly to Melodie’s difficulty with letting go of things.

Over the months I worked on this story, almost every person I talked to about it would confide that they had a friend, relative, or acquaintance who also had hoarding tendencies.  I think Melodie’s attachment to the material world differs from other people’s more in degree than in spirit.

Tech Info

I recorded this story using a Sony MZ-NF810 minidisc and an Audio-Technica 835b shotgun mic.  I edited and mixed with an Mbox and Pro Tools.  Many thanks to Jay Allison for his brilliant suggestions as I wrestled with the piece, and to Jay and Viki Merrick for coaching me as I recorded the narration in Woods Hole.


Additional Support for this work provided by
Open Studio Project

with funding from the
Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Elizabeth Chur

About
Elizabeth Chur

Elizabeth has always been intrigued by the interweavings of sound and story.  She taped her first interviews with her grandmother and great-aunts, hearing their tales of growing up in the early 1900s as children of Japanese and Korean immigrants to Hawaii.  At Oberlin College, she studied English and music history/theory. Elizabeth interned at The Seattle Times and the Chicago Tribune as a print reporter.  As a Thomas J. Watson Fellow in 1992-93, Elizabeth interviewed 150 journalists about the development of free press in Eastern Europe.  They ranged from editors of a newspaper for young right-wing Germans to a Czech feminist who began translating Harlequin romance novels. Back in the States, Elizabeth worked for ten years at St. Anthony Foundation, a social service agency in San Francisco.  She developed an interest in oral history, and documented stories of formerly homeless guests at St. Anthony's.  Elizabeth also recorded interviews with her first piano teacher that culminated in an "88 Years/88 Keys" birthday extravaganza of music and tributes from dozens of former students. Elizabeth studied radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, ME, and currently works as an independent radio producer and grantwriter in San Francisco.

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  • Jay Allison

    6.10.06

    Reply

    Melodie is an obsessive hoarder, trying hard not to be. This story about her is the kind of thing you don’t hear much on the radio anymore. It’s not exactly a narrative, there’s no news peg, it’s just a portrait of a person. It’s Elizabeth Chur’s first piece since getting out of school. She spent a lot of time on it, gathering 35 hours of tape for a twelve-minute portrait. Like Melodie, she had a hard time letting it go. These are efforts worth knowing about.

  • Rene Gutel

    6.12.06

    Reply

    Great piece, Elizabeth!!!

    Who knew there was such a thing as a conference for hoarders and collectors? Now if that isn’t a peg, I don’t know what is!

    Being close friends with a couple of hoarders myself, I can very well imagine the difficulties you faced in the recording and interviewing process, and then in trying to piece it all together and give some sense to it.

    Good details here and there — of her sleeping on the mat, and not having bathed in her own home in years. They succinctlyy explain just how extreme her situation is.

    I also liked some of the "behind the scenes" details you listed on the story’s page and wonder whether you could have included those in the story? It seems that you developed a complicated relationship with Melodie and I would have liked to hear about that. Perhaps that’s a separate piece.

    I like Melodie’s voice. She seems so friendly and aware of the oddness of her apartment.

  • Elizabeth Chur

    6.12.06

    Reply
    Behind the scenes

    Hi Rene,

    Thanks so much for your comments. The hoarding and cluttering conference in San Francisco is an annual event, so maybe I can pitch some version of this around the next conference.

    Yes, Melodie and I developed a complex and interesting relationship. By the end, we had figured out some shortcuts– for example, I could say "Got it," and summarize what she’d said, so that she knew I’d understood correctly and we’d be free to move on to the next question.

    Melodie has had such a history of being interrupted or misunderstood; it’s one of the reasons I tried to do this piece non-narrated at first, because philosophically I liked the idea of her telling her own story. I found it challenging to situate myself in the narrative– if, or how much, to include of myself.

    It took a while to establish trust and rapport. At one point she told me she trusted me absolutely with her story, which was both an honor and a heavy responsibility. I hope I’ve done her justice. She said she’s so desperate for help that she was willing to risk potential repercussions from participating in the documentary.

    Melodie asked me if I could help her get on Oprah, once the documentary was completed– she thinks that might get her closer to help. I had to explain how I was a documentarian, not an advocate, and wouldn’t be the best person to assist her with that. She was disappointed, but understood. She even said how she doesn’t always have good boundaries, so she appreciates it when other people do.

    Occasionally, when I got too tired, I could feel myself starting to get impatient. I tried not to let this show, but that was my signal to stop and come back another day.

  • Jon Miller

    6.12.06

    Reply

    Elizabeth — this is a very cool piece. I was intrigued by Melodie’s ability to see herself as if from the outside (i.e., to understand her situation more or less objectively) and her inability to do much about it. The piece feels like a fable in that way: it speaks to a universal aspect of the human condition. (I mean, isn’t life all about the disconnect between what we think and what we do??) But of course Melodie is not a device or a symbol, but a real human being with a very particular story. Which makes me think about one of the great challenges of doing profiles — treating the subjects as people and not object lessons. I thought you did a very good job with that. And I like your delivery!

  • Lu

    6.12.06

    Reply

    Hi Elizabeth, Lu here. Beautiful work! Congrats. I guess my question (since you had 35 hours of audio) is when did you begin recording? how mnay months went by before you stopped? and when did you get the very best stuff? at the very beginning? middle? or end? and what made you STOP recording? when did you say, "damn it, I have enough!" was there a specific moment when you thought, "this is it! this is the piece of the puzzle I’ve been waiting for!" or did you just hit a wall – like, "I cannot do another interview…"

  • Megan Martin

    6.13.06

    Reply
    Response to Hoarder piece

    Hey Elizabeth.

    This is a very nice piece. I especially enjoyed that the project follows no common narrative conventions; we’re so accustomed to that format. It was refreshing to hear a small snapshot of a woman–a snapshot that invites us to multiply the image in our minds to imagine the whole picture.

    Your piece inspired lots of pondering (which I think is a great jumping off point for any radio piece). I wondered how Melodie survives. How does she pay assistants to help her get her place together? From your descriptions her home seems to be in such disorder, and yet she can recognize and articulate that. That is such a particular and interesting piece of her character.

    I’m interested to know how working for such a stretch of time on this piece affected you? Did you find yourself changed at all by it? It is mentioned on Transom that you had a hard time cutting tape–is that run-off from spending time with someone who is so attached to things?

    Great job!

    –Megan Martin

  • chloe

    6.13.06

    Reply
    Ah, So…

    Bonding with Items…….not bonding so much with people…seeing junk and loving it…bonding with it…sad that it will be destroyed… We just emptied out my father-in-law’s apartment in Florida…the only things I really wanted to take home from Florida…his papers, his writings, his books…that’s what matters, after all…the things that are personal….and meaningful. But I can understand exactly what Melodie wanted when she accumulated this visual stimulation. And once it comes into the home, it becomes "Special" and "Significant"….so….

  • Elizabeth Chur

    6.14.06

    Reply

    Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts and comments. Yes, Melodie’s ability to understand so much about her condition, yet be limited in her ability to change it, was fascinating. I had the phrase "Cassandra of her own fate" running through my mind as I worked on this piece– knowledge alone wasn’t enough to forestall sometimes dire consequences.

    I recorded between July and November 2005. The first group of interviews were interesting, because I was so intrigued and because Melodie had a lot of fascinating things to show me. Because she has to explain her condition to so many people, she’s developed a number of demonstrations and tools to try to illustrate her experience of her condition. I really think she’d be a great presenter to people studying to become therapists or social workers. She had a whole extended metaphor of the card game "Concentration," where trying to remember what is where in her apartment is analogous to trying to remember what cards are where.

    The last set of interviews was where we really got into the details of the dumpster and her larger reflections on what she thinks her life could be like if she can address her problem. In our last hour of interviews, she said a lot of great things that I ended up including towards the end of the piece. I really don’t think I could have gotten those pieces without going through the previous interviews. When she compared her situation with trying to live long enough for the cure for cancer to be discovered, I felt like I was approaching the end.

    Melodie is on disability, and qualifies for a certain number of hours of paid help through various government and non-profit agencies. Until her disability was diagnosed, she worked a whole series of jobs: stocking equipment in a hospital, cleaning rooms at a bed and breakfast, etc. She talked about how short-term gigs like working at fairs were the best fit, because by the time her bosses figured out she was slow with tasks, the job would be over.

    The difficulty cutting tape predates my work with Melodie, and I suspect will continue, alas. It’s hard to let a great actuality go! But it’s for the good of the whole. I think I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea of telling a partial story in order to tell any story at all. Also, although I sometimes felt frustrated that the editing process was taking so long, in retrospect the time away from the piece made it easier to cut large sections.

    I actually was very interested in pursuing the bonding with items vs. bonding with people angle. I recorded one of Melodie’s last sessions with a departing case manager whom she really liked. Although I was moved by witnessing their interaction, it didn’t translate to tape so well, alas.

  • Melissa Allison

    6.15.06

    Reply
    Fine Lines

    Elizabeth,
    This is an amazing piece– even more so when we get the back story, the endless hours of recording, which *do* seem somehow necessary for this piece, even if you didn’t use 99 percent of the tape. I once interviewed someone with ADD for many hours and while good tape was only the tiniest fraction of the whole, I felt like I needed the whole in order to understand the guy and represent him honorably.
    And so to my question- were you ever faced with moral conflicts in representing Melodie? How did you walk the line between telling us too much or not enough?
    Your writing is simple and sensitive without making any pronouncements….did that come easily for you?

    thanks much.
    Melissa

  • Lu

    6.16.06

    Reply

    Hi Elizabeth – to echo what Melissa said, I do find that sometimes to need to interview someone for a long time – just to *get* the whole situation, then the last thing they say is the best. But, I still cannot get over the sheer VOLUME that you recorded – were there any favorite tidbits that were beautiful, but just did not fit into the story as you were telling it. And if there were, can you recount those moments and maybe have the good folks at transom post some of the rejected gems…

    Also, I’ve been wondering if you can talk a little more about how working on this piece changed the way you look at possessions – you know, stuff. Stuff you have that you don’t really need. I know since I’ve heard it, I have been walking around the house randomly throwing things out – and I already have a rather spartan approach to my surroundings…

    There’s a great Carlin sketch about the lengths we go through just to ‘keep’ our stuff. I wonder if Melodie ever heard it.

  • RobinF

    6.21.06

    Reply
    very touching

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I’m a college student from the East coast working in the Bay area for the summer. I found transom.org through a foundation arts publication and listened to your piece. I loved it.

    I noticed that you’re also a grant writer. Do you have interest in media for social change? I’m working for a really great Bay area company and their work is concerned with storytelling for social change. We’re having an event in August and I was wondering if you might be interested in attending. Email: rpearce14@gmail.com if you are.

    Keep uncovering the stories that need to be told. Thank you for your inspiring work!

    – Robin

  • Jesse Dukes

    6.23.06

    Reply
    Melodie’s voice

    I read an early draft of this story before hearing the current version. At the time, I was mostly fascinated with Melodie’s system of scrapbooking the items that she throws away. That image–cutting a scrap of her couch and attaching it to a notecard–worked very well on paper and felt like the central metaphor of the story.

    In listening to the completed piece, I am struck by the power of Melodie’s voice. She has so much personality and charm and her voice is so revealing. This changed the story for me–it became less of a metaphor about how we use symbols to forge order–and more a story about an amazing person. She seems always bright and upbeat, but with a hysterical edge that to me suggests a sense of overwhelmed helplessness. This definitely makes me care about her more.

    Elizabeth–when in your process did you decide to do the story about Melodie? How did meeting her in person affect the decision? Did her voice and the attitude it conveyed surprise you?

  • Elizabeth Chur

    7.05.06

    Reply

    Hi everybody,

    Thanks so much for your comments– it’s so interesting to hear what you found intriguing.

    I *did* feel like all those hours were necessary to get a true understanding of Melodie’s story. One of the challenges was weighing what would still be true in the streamlined context of the piece– would it make sense if listeners hadn’t heard what came before? And would it represent her whole story fairly, and her as a person? Those weren’t always easy questions for me.

    One of my favorite bits that didn’t make it into the piece was when Melodie was talking about how, on a fixed income, she couldn’t afford to hire a professional organizer. She said, "The people that are trained in this – they’re $60 an hour, $100 an hour. And since I don’t have that kind of money, I’m basically hiring – I mean, it would be the equivalent of hiring a five-year-old to rebuild your car engine."

    I was really fascinated by Melodie’s story when I first heard about her swatches a couple years ago from a co-worker. I carried that story with me for about a year, and was really excited when I finally had a chance to work on it. I think I was surprised by the level of insight she had into her condition, and also by the really vivid metaphors she used to explain her experiences.

  • Gillian Beresford

    7.08.06

    Reply
    Feedback

    An intriguing piece that held my attention strongly. It makes me think once again that human beings are so complicated. What good sentiments motivated you! You are helping to tell Melodie’s story in a way she cannot. And drawing attention to someone that many might normally think not worthy of media attention – in other words helping someone have a voice.

  • Bren Ahearn

    7.09.06

    Reply
    After the Dumpster

    Hi Elizabeth,

    What an amazing piece. A few things that Melodie said really struck me, e.g., her comments that one has to be involved in the cleaning process and have ownership, i.e., the process can’t be forced on a person. Also, I was struck by her comment that it’s easier to deal with someone else’s situation than one’s own!

    I think that you presented her in a respectful, non-exoticizing, manner. Also, you’ve done a great job technically. Congratulations!

    Bren

  • chana

    7.11.06

    Reply
    Your Voice

    Elizabeth,
    This is a really compelling piece. I felt lucky to get so close up to Melodie. It felt like we could do so through your respectful observer eyes. I really liked your voice too. Was nice to stay with her and her sounds for long segments but then we could move forward with your help. Your voice kept the piece moving – throwing in neat details and moving us to new stories within this larget one.
    I’m curious what Melodie’s response to the finished piece has been? and the feedback?
    Nice work!
    Chana

  • Erik Thogersen

    7.28.06

    Reply
    After the dumpster

    Nice piece Elizabeth.
    I was struck by the fact that Melodie could get rid of things after creating records of them. I’ve actually done that myself, taking a photo of myself in a favorite shirt just before dumping it.

    So many people seem to burden themselves with too much stuff. I imagine that having your house burn down might be a relief for some, though maybe not if Melodie is an example. I would have expected that the dumpster would be a relief after the initial skock. It sounds like the order she had imposed on her things was more important than the things themselves.

    Erik

  • Frank Tavares

    7.31.06

    Reply
    The Challenge of those 35 Hours of Recordings

    Elizabeth,

    Very well done and very interesting! The piece holds together well and the 12 minutes tells a powerful story. Melodie came across as a real person to whom we could connect, and about whom we could care. Thank you for your hard work on this.

    And juxtaposing your experience of having to choose among your 35 hours of recordings with Elizabeth’s experience is a nice touch that helps to bring it home. (The little compulsive secret that most producers have is the knowledge that if left alone with no deadlines we could edit and re-edit raw material for ever, never feeling totally satisfied, and never feeling totally finished.)

    As you noted, just about everyone has had some experience with hoarding. In my case, it was my late brother — a Vietnam vet.

    Yes, as another listener wrote, I’d very much like to know what Elizabeth’s reaction was after having heard it.

    Frank T.

  • Elizabeth Chur

    8.15.06

    Reply
    Finishing and feedback

    Hello everyone,

    Thanks for your great feedback. Yes, there was definitely a risk that I would tinker endlessly on this piece. Knowing that I would produce *a* story, rather than *the* story, let me go ahead and finish this version of it.

    I think it was an intense experience for Melodie to hear this piece for the first time. She was taken aback by some of the content of it, and we spent a lot of time discussing that. It was very helpful that we’d also discussed on tape during the interview process the parameters of what I could include. She did express the hope that the piece might help other people in some way. It’s been illuminating to hear from people here and elsewhere that the piece has moved them, or helped them see a friend, family member, or themselves a little differently.

    Elizabeth

  • Tricia McInroy

    8.18.06

    Reply
    Flattening Life

     As an artist and a photographer, I was especially interested in how she can sort of document something as a photo, or flatten it into a card of record and then get rid of it. On some level, I think she is doing something we all are doing (photographers, journalists, historians, artists) in the long run, but going about it in a totally different way. 

    I appreciated her self awareness, even empathy for her landlord and strive to be that self aware in my life.

    Tricia McInroy
     

  • PS

    10.21.06

    Reply
    Close to home

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I want to thank you for this piece, which I’ve just heard on Weekend America. While my situation hasn’t reached Melodie’s heights or depths, this problem torments me, as well. You’ve given me both inspiration and resources. You’ve also scared the heebie geebies out of me, which is a good thing, too.

    Listener in Ann Arbor, MI

  • Ann Marie

    10.21.06

    Reply
    Daughter of a hoarder

    I really connect with this story because I am a daughter of a hoarder.

    My father couldn’t throw anything away. Everything was too important and significant value. He needed all the daily newspapers and any magazine he could get a hold of because they told history. He needed at least 5 of every tool for every project he never started or finish. He needed old textbooks so that we can understand how society changed in thought. He needed hundreds of old phones because one day…a museum will want them. And then we would understand.

    But I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t understand if everything was so valuable why was it on the floor, or in the basement so you couldn’t find it.

    I couldn’t understand why my brothers and sisters and I needed to share our house with all the junk that kept getting collected.

    We couldn’t retaliate or we would be in real trouble.

    So we lived with this.Every year the house got smaller and smaller.It got worse as he got older. Holidays were hard. Finding a spot for the Christmas was never an easy task. No one would ever come over…we wouldn’t let them.

    Eventually, each of us left the house to my dad, his junk and my mom who tried to "clean" and organize it.

    I thought we were the only ones. But now I know that maybe…we can defeat the junk and have a home.

  • Elizabeth Chur

    10.21.06

    Reply
    Resonance

    Hi Ann Marie and the person in Ann Arbor,

    Thanks so much for listening, and for writing in. Almost every person I tell about this piece pauses, arches an eyebrow, and mentions that they or someone they know has hoarding tendencies. It seems like there aren’t any simple solutions, but that there are some strategies that work.

    After spending so much time on this story, I wasn’t sure if the heart of it was coming across (especially after editing it down so much.) I appreciate your feedback very much.

    It seems like each person’s relationship to their belongings, and to paring down their stuff, is very personal. For those who hoard, I wonder if there are other methods like Melodie’s swatches which have helped people let go of things? What originally struck me about that story was that it was both effective and dignified. By keeping a little bit of something, she was able to let go of the bulk of it. It seemed like a good yin-yang balance.

  • Dianne M. Longdo

    10.22.06

    Reply
    An old friend

    Elizabeth,

    Thank you for the story on Melodie. I have wondered for years how she has been doing.

    I visited her apartment "before the couch" and
    long before the dumpster. I was there to help her get things organized in just two days. I parked my family of three children and caregiver in a nearby (and very costly) hotel. Melodie and I threw out trash for the two days I was there.
    Our efforts in no way made any difference in her apartment. I advised against the new couch, knowing full well it would just end of being a place to pile stuff. I returned at some later date to find the couch taking up full well 1/3 of that tiny main area. Melodie thought the couch was so lovely and I didn’t even like the couch. It made me sad to know the eventual fate of the couch, first as storage and later as something to be stripped and sawn apart.

    Melodie may seem a pathetic person in the article
    on Weekend America, but she is an amazing human being. I have always considered Melodie an everyday, everyman hero. She takes her disabilities on as a responsibility and works hard to find answers and help. As a friend, Melodie touched my life in many positive ways. She helped me move, helped with earthquake reconstruction and worked with me refinishing furniture for my new home. I can reach out right now and touch the cabinet she and I refinished. Melodie’s greatest gift to me and my daughter was the many hours she spent with Hanna teaching her to read. Melodie was as stubborn as Hanna and would not give up on the child until she learned to read.

    I, too, tend to not throw things away, though I have not had my entire life filled to overflow. It is heartening to know that there is a movement toward help for those who can’t seem to let go of anything. Many thanks to Melodie for being willing to share an uncomfortable side of her life and thanks to Elizabeth for doing the research and interviews for such a valuable article.

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