If your acquaintance with women obsessed with shoes is limited to Imelda Marcos and Carrie Bradshaw, you may want to take some time to meet Darlene Flynn on the Sunday, August 21 premiere of the TLC special, My Collection Obsession. When you’re talking shoes, this is the go to lady. We’re not talking about a closet filled with shoes, we’re talking about a house filled not only with shoes to wear, but miniature shoes, shoe ornaments, shoe-decorated knick-knacks, a shoe lamp, and as she makes ready to purchase her 15,000th shoe-related collectable, a shoe-shaped planter. A certificate from the Guinness Book of Records, attests to the fact that when it comes to shoe obsession, this woman is the champ.
She is the first of three individual and one pair of obsessive collectors featured on the special. Joining her are a vacuum-cleaner-collecting teenager, a doll collector, and a male couple who collect Dolly Parton memorabilia. Like Darlene they all live in houses stuffed to the rafters with the objects they have collected over the years, every piece, be it a Kirby Legend vacuum, a life-like breathing newborn doll, or a Mae West costume Parton wore on a TV show, as prized and beloved as if it were a piece of fine art or a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation.
We meet their families, supportive for the most part, although the vacuum-cleaner collector’s sister has trouble avoiding rolling her eyes talking about his “weird” obsession. We follow them as they pursue their passion. Marilyn goes shopping for shoes with a doll the size of a five-year-old in a stroller.
Kyle spends his Saturdays running around to garage sales in search of a rare Kirby or Hoover. Patrick and Harold make weekly visits to Chasing Rainbows the Parton museum in Dollywood to see if they can get something from their collection put on display. Through it all we hear them explain how important, how fulfilling their collections are to them. If they feel that there is anything odd in their behavior, they never show any embarrassment. As Kyle says at one point, there is nothing stranger about collecting vacuum cleaners than there is about collecting rocks or baseball cards. And if you think about it he’s right, except it may make sense to differentiate between collecting and obsessive collecting.
My Collection Obsession makes no judgments about these people and what they do. There are no talking heads describing the psychological stresses underlying their behavior. There are no narrative voiceovers editorializing about their obsession. There is no snarky commentary by people they come in contact with. Kyle gets called upon to help people repair their machines. Patrick and Harold get serious treatment from the Chasing Rainbows curator and one hell of a surprise visit. Marilyn takes her doll to the playground and attracts a few interested children. And if Darlene is dismayed, after an appraisal, to discover that her collection may not be worth what she had thought, that dismay doesn’t last very long.
This is not to say that the viewer comes away from this show without making judgments. It is nearly impossible to watch these people and not at least smirk at them. When Marilyn treats the arrival of a new doll as though she were giving birth, the viewer has to wonder. When Darlene’s boyfriend serves her breakfast in the form of a shoe, some viewers might think it cute, some might cringe. When Kyle shows off his ability to identify vacuum cleaners by their sounds, the viewer might find it hard not to agree with his sister. In some sense, you really don’t need a talking head to tell you that these people have a problem.
In an environment where people—celebrities and ordinary folks–are more than willing to go on TV and parade their neuroses and behavioral problems before the public, these obsessive collectors are a lot closer to normal than many. Human beings do some odd things, and if these people are not necessarily doing the oddest things, what they are doing is certainly odd enough to be interesting. If you’re looking for “oddest” on the other hand, you’d probably want to be watching My Strange Addiction.