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‘The house they shut off to the world’: Alicia Witt’s tragedy was nearly mine

Books sit stacked in a bedroom at a hoarder's home on April 8, 2011 in San Diego, California. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images for YOU Magazine)
Books sit stacked in a bedroom at a hoarder's home on April 8, 2011 in San Diego, California. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images for YOU Magazine)

When actor Alicia Witt shared the news of the untimely death of her parents in their unheated, decaying home, I took a voyeuristic interest in her story.

Her parents had resisted her pleas to help. Witt, known for her performances in "Orange Is the New Black" and "Nashville," could only imagine their dire living conditions because she had not entered her parents’ home for over 10 years.

Her tragedy evoked a flood of panic and pain, unearthing bitter memories of my past. Luck alone prevented a similar outcome in my family.

My elderly parents lived in inconceivably dire conditions. I knew my parents' house was falling apart, although my frustration was heightened by living next door. The arrangement provided a front-row seat to the evolving disaster.

The exterior of my parents' home hinted at what was happening inside. They never allowed me in, knowing I would take issue with their cluttered hoard of boxes and newspaper. When my children visited their grandparents, they shared sketchy accounts of what they saw, like spies over enemy lines.

Since Witt's career is based elsewhere, she depended on nearby relatives and friends to keep an eye on her aging parents. When police found her parents deceased in their home in late December, the house they shut off to the world had become their tomb.

After my mother died in 2003, conditions inside the home became unlivable. When the furnace stopped working, Dad refused to repair it. Without heat, water pipes froze and shattered. I pleaded with him but he wouldn’t accept my help. My heart broke as I imagined my father spending nights in his frigid home. Eventually, my sadness turned to anger and detachment. Dad's defiance presented me with a problem to solve. I sought the help of hoarding experts and elder advocates, but their textbook advice failed when applied to Dad and our emotional distance grew with each attempted intervention.

I always wondered what the neighbors and passersby thought about the rundown, split-level ranch perched prominently on a hilly, corner lot, and occasionally, I found out. People often connected where I live to “the scary house,” asking me “Who lives there?” and “What’s going on with those people?” When I revealed my secret — "those people" were my parents — the conversation ended, the air tinged with prickly discomfort. I shook off any embarrassment I might have felt and replaced it with helplessness.

In the spring of 2004, I received an anonymous note, the scratchy handwriting begging, Could you please do something about that house? When I shared the note with Dad, he exploded. “I don’t give a damn. No one is getting into my house!” He tore up the paper, threw it in the trash, and stormed out of my house. I seethed to think others believed I wasn’t trying, but there was little I could do. Every time I broached the subject, my father’s anger ended the conversation.

When I revealed my secret — 'those people' were my parents — the conversation ended, the air tinged with prickly discomfort.

I looked to the city for help but the woman from the Board of Health affirmed my father’s right to “live any way he wants. This is America.” She detected my frustration, adding “There are plenty of people like him. You know the houses. The ones with the rotting cars in the yards and the overgrown lawns. They are all over the city. These people figure it out.” My throat tightened. I wanted to scream, “Yes, but those people are not my 86-year-old father!”As she predicted, my father’s survival skills kicked in. He flushed his toilet with jugs of water he collected from the spigots in the nearby cemetery. He opportunistically sought warmth and comfort. Every day, he visited my aunt for coffee, dropped into the American Legion to beat the chill and took his lunch by eating samples at Whole Foods.

Most of all, he avoided me. I felt both concern and relief when Dad fell on ice in his driveway in the winter of 2009. At the age of 89, he finally gave up. He came to live in my house, next door to his cold, decaying fortress.

Research on elder concerns shows that 2-5% of the population suffer from some form of hoarding. Clutter provides an outward symptom of greater mental health concerns. I assume adult children who live in the shadow of at-risk elders teeter between the lifestyles portrayed in the documentary "Grey Gardens," which profiled the Beale family living in the remnants of opulence, and the Collyer brothers, the infamous residents of a New York brownstone filled with junk and booby traps.

We sense the judgment of society and crumble under the weight of self-judgment. Alicia Witt and I are kindred souls. Like me, she probably questions what could have been done differently. The truth is, probably nothing, which is the saddest realization of all.

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Marie F. Cahalane Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Marie F. Cahalane, a lifelong Bostonian, is a writer, educator and entrepreneur.

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