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.
About “After the Dumpster “
I’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.)
Ironically, 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.
For 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.
As 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.
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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.
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.
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