By Carolyn See
Friday, April 30, 2010; C03
Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
By Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 290 pp. $27
I had to make a few formal apologies after I read this book. To a dear friend who, on a business trip to New York, rummaged through her carry-on bag and pulled out a 36-inch-long Japanese cucumber. "I brought this along for us just in case," she said. And to my sainted ex-husband, who some years ago came back from a beach run with a very large, dead fish. "We can have this for dinner," he said. "I'm sure it died of natural causes." And to a beloved relative who recently invited everyone over for Thanksgiving dinner. The floor was awash in newspapers, and the dining room table was stacked high with laundry, which we all had to fold before we could get to the business of the turkey. And finally, 200 pages into this amazing book, I remembered my first stepmother, who, in a quandary about what she called a "window treatment," acquired about 17 couches from thrift shops to possibly go with that "treatment" and then stored them out in the back yard. Being a rebellious teenager at the time, I moved out, but the couches lay there moldering until the lady herself finally sickened and died.
I apologized to all these people, in words and in prayers, as well as to a dozen others I had unwittingly written off as eccentric, or very sloppy, or bad house keepers, or all three. They were (and are) simply compulsive hoarders. It's a medical condition, and it needs to be not just "forgiven" but understood.
"Six million to fifteen million Americans suffer from hoarding that causes them distress or interferes with their ability to live," authors Randy Frost and Gail Steketee write. "You may have noticed some of the signs but have never thought of it as hoarding. . . . The attachments to objects among people who hoard are not much different from the attachments all of us form to our things."
The writers here take the position that hoarding is an actual physical and neurological condition that may be related to OCD or autism or Asperger's syndrome, not a simple bad habit that can be cured by an afternoon spent in the company of a clutter organizer. It is not a symptom of a lax character or bad work habits or something that reading a few articles in popular women's magazines can mitigate.
The authors are refreshingly uncertain about what the causes of hoarding might be; it certainly seems to cluster in families. It might be the result of a genetic condition, but whatever it is, it's serious and should be approached in a serious manner. Hoarders who are suddenly and unfeelingly stripped of their possessions -- whether they be grand pianos or gum wrappers -- may become suicidal. Even more sobering is the likelihood that there is no easy or sure-fire treatment. After things have been cleaned up around them, hoarders very often fill up their empty dwellings again.
The authors' approach here is anthropological rather than sociological. They have evidently compiled studies with many participants, but the studies don't figure in this book. Instead, they rely upon a series of in-depth profiles of women and men, each of whom they treat with remarkable compassion and respect. (Hoarders, they suggest, are often extremely intelligent, outgoing and friendly, even though they may be at pains to keep their immediate surroundings off-limits to their friends and acquaintances.)
"Irene" occupies an entire chapter here and informs the rest of the book. She's a typical hoarder. When she first contacted the authors (who, beyond their teaching and writing, try to help individuals clear their clutter), Irene had just been dealt a severe blow: Her husband, who had repeatedly threatened her with divorce unless she cleaned up their house, had finally made good on his threat and left. She was afraid she would lose the children as well. The authors found a house that will appear familiar by the end of the book: "A two-foot pile of stuff covered her kitchen table. The pile contained a wide assortment of things -- old newspapers, books, pieces of children's games, cereal boxes, coupons, the everyday bric-a-brac of family life." The whole house was stacked with junk except for one patch in the television room where she could sit and sort through things in an effort to get organized, never really throwing anything out but just moving things around -- an activity the authors came to call "churning."
The authors began, slowly and patiently, to work with Irene. Her tears were plentiful, her agony acute. "Sometimes she could decide to throw things away, but the effort it took was enormous. Often the effort was simply too much, and things went back on the pile." Again and again, with other troubled hoarders, the authors went through this experience. In another case, a pair of gentlemanly, identical-twin bachelors who lived in separate hotel suites had amassed "large eighteenth-and-nineteenth century paintings, Italian busts, tapestries, furniture and jewelry." The quality of stuff, then, was drastically different from Irene's, but the quantity was equally daunting and impossible to clean up. All three of them loved their stuff too much.
The puzzling thing is that the hoarders here exhibit extreme ambivalence about their possessions as well as their condition: One of the twins describes it as having your life "in shards." On the other hand, stuff gives their lives meaning. They ask for help cleaning up and then resist that help every step of the way. To some extent, the authors seem to share that ambivalence; they make crucial distinctions between clutter and squalor, disorganization and filth. If a person isn't hurting himself or others by living in an abundance of, say, newspapers, why must that person be changed, "improved," cleaned up?
My only complaint about "Stuff" is that the authors never address the gender issue. Hoarders are divided fairly equally between men and women, but women endure the gossip and the disgrace, because -- the feminist movement notwithstanding -- men are seen to simply live in their houses, while a woman's house is perceived as an extension of herself. It's a shame. But it's one part of the feminine mystique that still remains alive and well.
But be assured, men are just as enslaved by the hoarding instinct. The surreal account of a trash-collecting uncle and his surly nephew who shakes out his cockroach-infested leather jacket on a grossed-out cop, and the ungodly mess that provoked this scene, is certainly a guy thing. It's just one example of many in this utterly engrossing book. Read it -- and get ready to apologize to many of your nearest and dearest.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.Sunday in Outlook
-- The conspiracy theorists are gaining on us!
-- The hunt for Colombian guerrillas and buried treasure.
-- "Passing" in the U.S. Foreign Service.
-- Evan Thomas's "War Lovers."
-- And Scott Turow's sequel to "Presumed Innocent."