Book World: ‘The Secret Lives of Hoarders’

June 29, 2011

Anyone who seriously collects anything — whether books, vintage clothing, pulp magazines, vinyl records, old comics, classical CDs, manual typewriters or Golden Age movies on tape and DVD — at least occasionally thinks about hoarding. If, like me, you regularly visit thrift shops and used-book stores and yard sales in search of, well, all the items just mentioned, you sometimes think, while driving home with a trunk full of “treasures”: Has this gotten out of control? Do I have a problem?

Just asking the question suggests that “yes” is the right answer.

Still, I figure that I’m only at Stage One of Matt Paxton’s “hoarding scale.” I’ve got clutter and I’ve got a basement full of “stuff,” but my house isn’t structurally damaged, there aren’t narrow passageways between piled up newspapers and trash, and the upstairs rooms are neat and tidy (excepting, of course, the bedroom of my youngest, at-home-in-the-summer son). But, as one reads “The Secret Lives of Hoarders,” it’s hard not to hear a small voice whispering, “There but for the grace of God . . . . ”

Paxton runs Clutter Cleaner, a Richmond-based company that specializes in total-house cleanup. In the more extreme cases described in this engagingly written book, that means the removal of mountains of garbage and the bodies of dead pets, the excavation of almost geological strata of trash, the occasional discovery of long-lost valuables, and, in many cases, a referral to appropriate counseling for the homeowner.

The most famous hoarders in American history are the Collyer brothers, whose story has inspired both articles and novels, most recently E.L. Doctorow’s “Homer & Langley.” Living in a New York mansion stuffed with newspapers and debris, one sibling was accidentally crushed to death by falling junk, and the other, unable to move on his own, gradually starved. One or two of the people in “The Secret Lives of Hoarders” make the Collyers look like rank amateurs.

“Rank” is the mot juste too. Time and again, Paxton mentions the stench — from urine, feces and decaying food — that he encounters on a job. Take the case of Margaret, who “had been hoarding so many years that her possessions had started to decompose at the bottom of her five-foot piles. Everything in her double-wide trailer home was either broken, rotting, or chewed or peed on by the fifty or so dogs that had free run of the place. There was extensive water damage from broken pipes, with walls and ceilings split and falling down in spots. The house stank, it was hot, and the air was thick with dust. Cobwebs waved from the ceiling and flies buzzed at all the windows.

“In the kitchen, spoiled food stank up the refrigerator, and dirty dishes were molding in the sink. Cockroaches scattered whenever items were moved. The narrow walkways between the piles were swimming in a thick brown muck that actually sucked one of Margaret’s clogs off her foot as she walked through the kitchen on cleanup day. She ignored it and kept walking.”

Usually called in by a relative or the local government, Paxton often needs to spend time just easing the hoarder into accepting the need for a cleanup. In many cases, he recognizes that once he’s gone, the steady accumulation will start again.

Why do people want to hang on to things? In most instances, hoarding is a form of compensation. Most extreme hoarders are depressed. Some suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Paxton, who sometimes works with therapists, writes that “there always seems to be an emotional event that triggers the behavior. . . . Collecting things is what hoarders frequently do to comfort themselves after trauma.” He adds: “Becoming a hoarder is not unlike becoming a workaholic or an exercise fanatic as a way to escape a difficult life or event. People can turn to these activities just like hoarders rely on acquiring and holding on to their stuff.” In short, “hoarders aren’t slobs who don’t care about being clean. They are people struggling with overwhelming emotional issues. A pile in a hoarder house isn’t a pile of stuff; it can be many things: a pile of sadness, a pile of quitting, or sometimes even a pile of hope. It’s never really about the stuff.”

In the course of his book, Paxton describes all kinds of obssessives. Shopaholics, for instance, find that “purchasing an item gives them a rush of temporary joy, so purchasing more items seems like it should give them an even bigger rush. The collecting gets out of hand when hoarders become so compulsive that they can’t limit it.” One possible countermeasure, Paxton suggests, is using only cash to make purchases. Shelling out $20 bills provides the kind of reality check that just signing a credit card slip never can.

What about the various sorts of collectors? “What I see is that 99 percent of the time the collection has little or no value. But hoarders are convinced that they are sitting on a gold mine. Bringing in an impartial third party can clear this up, because it’s harder to argue with an expert.” He stresses that this “can be a really hard moment for a hoarder who has a lot of money and emotion invested in the collection.” Tell me about it.

According to Paxton, the hoarding impulse, like alcoholism, can never be wholly conquered. “Therapists I know report that 60 to 85 percent of hoarders backslide.” One must combat the impulse every day. What’s more, life after the cleanup can actually grow more complicated: “During the hoarding phase, the hoarder has been telling himself or herself that everything else — debt, relationships, health, job — will be dealt with once the house is clean. Now the house is clean, and those problems all come crashing down on the hoarder.”

Americans tend to like owning things, but few of us are quite so over the top as the people described in “The Secret Lives of Hoarders.” Yet Paxton’s book does make clear that our collections can readily turn into accumulations and the accumulations into random clutter, and before you know it, you’re living in a house full of Barbie dolls or canned goods or designer purses or Blondie memorabilia or old books and almost nothing else. Don’t laugh. You haven’t seen my basement.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Join his discussion: washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

THE SECRET LIVES OF HOARDERS

True Stories of Tackling Extreme Clutter

By Matt Paxton, with Phaedra Hise

Perigee. 238 pp. Paperback, $14.95

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