Thursday, January 28, 2010

Exploitation or Information?

One of the first questions that people ask me is where I got the idea to write Dirty Little Secrets. The answer is simple - a magazine article on people who had grown up in hoarded homes. The second questions is usually: Did you grow up in a house like that? And the answer to that one is also simple. No.

While I have had some experience with hoarding issues, my house was always neat and clean. Except maybe my room in high school. My mom used to walk in there and ask where I kept my bed, but that's teenagers for you.

Way back when we were subbing the manuscript for DLS, one editor at a big publishing house was interested, but ultimately passed because she thought writing about hoarding might come off as exploitative. Honestly, it was the first time I thought about it that way, but it's been in the back of my mind ever since. Is writing about "issues" when you don't have them yourself exploitative? Is writing about anorexia or drug use or suicide exploitative if you aren't anorexic/drug addicted/suicidal? How about writing about vampires if you aren't one?

Unfortunately, there isn't really an easy answer. As much as I hate to admit it, there is a bit of exploitation in a lot of what we do. I think part of the attraction of Hoarders on A&E is that of voyeurism - how could people possibly live that way? In the backs of our minds, we feel a little creepy sitting back and watching people paw through their piles of junk trying to justify why they need to keep the 20 year old can of baked beans. People often ask me what I think of the show and as long as the participants go into it with their eyes open, it does shine a light on a disorder that nobody has talked about until now (for the record, I think they should keep minors off the show). I think that's healthy. But is it exploitative? Do they pick the worst, most disgusting, least empathetic characters sometimes just to get ratings? Sure.

The people I worry about reading DLS the most are people who have hoarding in their lives. I did a lot of work with several people who grew up in hoarded homes and they did a great job helping me get the details right. I've had several people who have lived with hoarders write me and tell me what an emotional read it was for them. DLS does not have a conventionally happy ending. There's very little understanding or revelation at the end. Lucy does not come to terms with her mother's disorder in a mere 24 hours, just like the participants of Hoarders aren't cured of the disorder once their houses have been cleaned in two days. The ending is shocking and real and perfect for her particular story. It may also upset some people in the hoarding community.

There are two definitions for the word exploit. One is simply to use something and one is to use it in a cruel or unjust manner. I didn't set out to negatively exploit people with a particular mental disorder. I saw it as a story about something that at the time was deeply underground. Nobody had written YA fiction about hoarding before, and to me that was the best reason in the world to write the book.

While I hope that people read DLS and enjoy it for the characters and the story, the best outcome for me would be to get people talking about their own difficult living situations. I'd love for the book to be a jumping off point for discussions both within the family and in school situations about all kinds of mental disorders.

In that way, I guess I did exploit hoarding for my own purposes. But I did it for all the right reasons.

On this date: In 1986, the Challenger exploded.


Emily said...

I read DLS this week and I really loved it. Lucy's story was gut-wrenching. And I have no experience with hoarding.

I think that while a lot of "issues books" could be considered exploitative, I think it's even more important to consider the amount of teens who will be made aware of these issues when they read the story -- and not just those who identify with the issues directly.

The more teens (and adults) who are aware of things like hoarding, anorexia, cutting etc., the more likely a teen dealing with these issues is to have a friend who won't lose their shit when they're confided in. Maybe if Kaylie had read DLS (how meta!), Lucy would have had someone to talk to.

cynjay said...

Thanks Emily - great point about Kaylie!

Julie_c said...

Also, I think you made a point to get things right and be fair.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's exploitation if you do your homework - and you did.
I don't think it's exploitation is you aren't sensationalizing the topic - and I don't think you did.
I don't think it's exploitation if what you write could be helpful to teens who are dealing with hoarding - and it could be.
Since you are really the first one to write fiction about this topic, it could only help to bring out what I know has been a pretty taboo subject.

cynjay said...

Thanks L - your comments mean a lot!

Anonymous said...

I've just spent the last 3 days in a freezing house cleaning up the debries of a hoarding friend. I still reek of rodent dung (and we even found a Kliben "mousey-dung" t-shirt) even though I've showered a couple of times.
Anyway, I checked my goodreads email this morning and what do I see but a blurb for your book! I read some reviews, and ordered it from Amazon, pondering the stacks of paperbacks I'd spent the weekend moving, and look forward to reading it in the warmth of my clean and not at all messey home.

Good luck!

Phil R.

cynjay said...

Wow Phil, what a story. You're not alone if that makes you feel any better, and what a good friend to help like that. If you need any resources, check the resources page on my website - there is a lot of info for family and friends.

Thanks so much for ordering the book - I imagine you'll find some familiar scenarios.

Anonymous said...

I've known the guy for 30 years - he and his ex were best man and bridesmaid at my wedding, 25 years ago. Saturday, I found the hat she wore. They've been divorced 10 years.

Phil R

cynjay said...

A big clean up can be a lot like an archeological dig. So glad you could help him.

Anonymous said...

*Part* of the attraction of "Hoarders" is voyeurism? What's the other part?

"Hoarders" is poor/miserable people porn, plain and simple. It's not the first, it won't be the last, and it's perhaps not even a bad thing at all to turn misery into entertainment, but that is what it is.