The house on Carman Avenue in Woodmere was crammed so full of junk that rescue workers had to rip a hole through the front wall to reach Helen Bushwick. It was April 2007, and Bushwick, then 85, hadn’t been heard from for some time. She was found alive, trapped under a pile of debris that had fallen on top of her.
It took nearly another 24 hours of digging through the trash-filled house for rescue workers to make another discovery: The body of John Tikson, 94, Bushwick’s brother-in-law.
"It was like the Staten Island landfill," David Coffin, Tikson's grandnephew, says of the Woodmere house. Coffin, who lives in Brooklyn, was Tikson's closest geographical kin and so became executor of the estate. As Coffin puzzled over his great-uncle’s death and watched workers fill industrial-size Dumpsters with garbage from the dilapidated house, he recalls thinking, "I have to document this somehow."
Coffin, a professional video editor, began working on what was intended as a short, personal film. Soon, though, Coffin realized his great-uncle was not an isolated case. According to the American Psychiatric Association, between 2% and 6% of the population are afflicted with what is known as hoarding disorder. Coffin widened his scope to interview hoarders, their family members and mental health experts who specialize in the disorder. His debut feature documentary, "Beyond Hoarding: From Disaster to Recovery,” is now available on digital streaming platforms, video-on-demand services and DVD at Walmart, Target and other retailers.
"When we did start digging into this, we realized this is really afflicting a lot of smart, intelligent people," Coffin, 51, says. "People we would maybe not normally think of as someone who's burdened by this kind of thing."
Hoarding isn't a new phenomenon, though it's difficult to say how long it's been around. One of the first cases to make headlines was that of Homer and Langley Collyer, brothers who inherited a Harlem brownstone in the late 1920s and proceeded to fill it with piles of refuse: appliances, clocks, artwork, countless bottles and cans, thousands of books, decades' worth of newspapers and numerous musical instruments, including more than a dozen pianos. Tunnels within the floor-to-ceiling clutter allowed for movement through the house. Homer was found dead in the maze in late March 1947 but, in a foreshadowing of Tikson's fate, the Collyers’ house was so full of trash that Langley's body wasn't discovered until more than two weeks later.
In the 1990s, a professor of social work at Boston University, Gail Steketee, joined forces with Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, to look more closely at hoarding. Steketee, who appears in Coffin's film, says Frost's student researchers put out a call for "pack rat" types and were surprised to get roughly 100 responses — a much higher number than expected.
"We began to realize this is a very common problem, and quite a serious one," says Steketee. "It was like trying to catch a runaway freight train. There were so many people with the problem, and so much need for help."
Hoarding, Steketee says, can be identified with a simple three-point checklist: the accumulation of a large number of objects, the inability to let them go and, finally, clutter. People who hoard tend to be disorganized; they can't put like things together. At any rate, storage is not their aim. They want to see their belongings, not put them away.
"People who hoard have often suffered a loss," Steketee says. Losses lead to a craving for attachment, and objects become attractive because they're stable; they can't go anywhere. "Objects represent something to them," Steketee says. "It becomes part of their identity."
For Coffin, hoarding is a disorder that can hide in plain sight. Coffin recalls his great-uncle as increasingly disheveled in his later years, with dirty clothes and overlong hair — "He looked like the fifth Beatle," Coffin says — but nothing that suggested a debilitating problem. Because the two men met infrequently, Coffin hardly registered the fact that he'd never seen the inside of Tikson's house. Likewise, Tikson's neighbors, some of whom are interviewed in the film, could see little cause for concern. Even when social services paid a visit, Coffin says, there wasn't much they could do.
"They met them at the door, talked to them, and they seemed to have all their faculties about them," Coffin says. "You can't push any further. It’s a private residence."
Coffin hopes "Beyond Hoarding" will raise awareness of a disorder that can be tricky to identify and difficult to treat. "It's not something I went out looking for," Coffin says. "Hopefully it'll get in front of a lot of eyeballs to say, 'Hey, there's something going on here. Go check it out. Dig just a little deeper and you might find something.'"