- Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
- Year: 2010
- Pages: 304
Hoarding recently got a representative–for better or worse–in pop culture with the arrival of TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive; I’ll leave it to your own judgment if this is a good or bad thing, or just how “pop culture” TLC is, but in any case, it goes to show the tabloid power of psychological problems. Everyone gapes and gawks at home filled to the ceilings with piles of accumulated junk and wonders how these squirrely people can live their lives this way.
Stuff is an attempt by a noted academic and active therapist in the field (Randy Frost, along with a coauthor who is rarely mentioned by name) to summarize the state of scientific knowledge about hoarding, where it comes from, why it doesn’t easily conform to stereotypes, and how at least some of these people can be successfully treated.
The book begins with the tale of the Langley and Homer Collyer, two idle rich brothers who, it turns out, were severe hoarders; at least Langley was, whereas Homer was a blind invalid who either endorsed or at least acquiesced to Homer’s oddities. When Homer died in 1947 and details about the state of the Collyer’s brownstone in Harlem1 leaked to the press, the popular mind got its first real, publicized taste of a peculiar disorder that would become more common—or rather, likely, more visible—in the years to come, and culminating so far in the sort of insipid, voyeuristic dreck that TLC is so fond of airing.
The first modern-day hoarder we read about it is Irene, a severe hoarder whose husband has recently left her for obvious reasons, and who stands to lose her children in the upcoming divorce (this last event being common with hoarders). To Randy and Gail, she represents a perfect prototype from which to cover their various illustrative stories about hoarders: though she fits some hoarder characteristics to a T, she flouts other common stereotypes. She is amiable, outgoing, and sociable; she is intelligent and well-educated. She also displays characteristics of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, though Frost (who, beside being an expert on hoarding, is also active in the OCD field) notes that thinking about hoarding as a sister disease to OCD is misleading, despite the correlation—Irene maintains careful notions of “clean” and “dirty” items, which can be contaminated merely by someone bumping into them and sterilized with a moist towelette.
At its most fundamental, hoarding is about the perceived value we attach to objects; from the expensive red pumps we buy because they make our ass look good, to the ratty heirlooms we keep because they were our nanna’s, or the books or magazines we collect because one day we’ll get around to reading them, we swear, humans attach arbitrary notions to worth to stuff. For most, value works along a sliding scale, and we can prioritize what we buy and what we keep around based upon common sense and our monetary or spatial limitations. We are also capable of feeling more or less attached to things depending on their nature. To most hoarders, everything is important, or has the potential to be important. In prototypical Irene’s case, she has newspapers, magazines, and miscellaneous scraps of information all laying around because they might contain things that might be useful or important someday; alternatively, a seemingly useless object might have sentimental value even if it represents something unremarkable. To many hoarders, throwing away anything is like throwing away part of themselves.
Though hoarding is not necessarily an easy mold to fit, Frost’s exploration of its causes are unsurprising: like many mental health issues, there seems to be a connection between hoarding and psychological trauma. Sudden and tragic loss, or violation may cause a person to feel steerless and out of control; a fetishization of objects is a form of coping with that psychological trauma: it “affords many of its sufferers the illusion of control and replaces fear with a feeling of safety” (93). The recoil of the mind against trauma blurs the distinctions between normal and excessive, appropriate and inappropriate, healthy and harmful; the sense of proportion that imbues every decision we make is warped. In many cases the perceived difficulty of relinquishing an item is worse than the actual; or, the actual trauma is short-lived. So it seemed to be with many of the hoarders that Frost and his colleagues were able to help, though admittedly there were also a great many who made little progress or refused help entirely; as Frost insists, a hoarder has to want to recognize the illness (obliviousness is relatively rare) in order to get better, and of course it’s a long and difficult process.
Each chapter tells a different story or set of stories in the grand tradition of Oliver Sack’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, illustrating some new aspect of the disorder: animal hoarders, garbage-hoarders, city-mandated cleanouts, hoarder relationships, and genetic influence. The good news is that recent work in the field (including Frost’s) has made the treatment of hoarders more successful, as more psychiatrists and public health official understand the disorder as something specific and distinct, and more effective treatment plans have been developed.
- “The house was packed with junk—newspapers, tin cans, magazines, umbrellas, old stoves, pipes, books, and much more. A labyrinth of tunnels snaked through each room, with papers, boxes, car parts, and antique buggies lining the sides of the tunnels all the way to the ceiling”[↩]