Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Thingsby Published 20 Apr 2010
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What possesses someone to save every scrap of paper that's ever come into his home? What compulsions drive a woman like Irene, whose hoarding cost her her marriage? Or Ralph, whose imagined uses for castoff items like leaky old buckets almost lost him his house?
Randy Frost and Gail Steketee were the first to study hoarding when they began their work a decade ago; they expected to find a few sufferers but ended up treating hundreds of patients and fielding thousands of calls from the families of others. Now they explore the compulsion through a series of compelling case studies in the vein of Oliver Sacks. With vivid portraits that show us the traits by which you can identify a hoarder's piles on sofas and beds that make the furniture useless, houses that can be navigated only by following small paths called goat trails, vast piles of paper that the hoarders "churn" but never discard, even collections of animals and garbage; Frost and Steketee illuminate the pull that possessions exert on all of us. Whether we're savers, collectors, or compulsive cleaners, very few of us are in fact free of the impulses that drive hoarders to the extremes in which they live.
For all of us with complicated relationships to our things, Stuff answers the question of what happens when our stuff starts to own us.
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things Reviews
Not the sensationalized view that the TV show Hoarders gives, this book is great! It breaks down the many different reasons why people hoard stuff, and the various reasons why people become so attached to stuff. This explains a lot about the psychology of Hoarding and the mental state of people who compulsively pile stuff up around them. What I really liked about the way this is written is that it is clinical, yet accessible, and it doesn't feel like it is all "crazy". There is one chapter about people who keep trash and there is definitely plenty of health and safety hazards involved in the squalor. Some of these people know they have a problem, some are in complete denial. It is very interesting to learn about different aspects and reasons for this behavior. I have hoarders in my family and understand it. I fight it in my own life. Reading this made me want to clean house, but it also make me think about the perfectionist, archivist, and preservationist in me. About the quest for knowledge and interests in many things and the idea of not wanting to waste anything and to be prepared - "just in case". I could also understand the impact and influence of OCD and many other common threads that cause one to not want to miss out on any possibilities. Yeah. This stuff runs deep. It is fascinating.
This book was completely fascinating.
I know I say this a lot, but I really should have reviewed this book right after reading, because details don't always stick around long enough for me to remember to write about them. This book in particular was chock full of so many interesting details I know it would be impossible for me to convey most of them even if I'd written this review ten seconds after finishing. And it's been a month and a half.
Randy O. Frost was a professor at Smith college when an undergraduate's project on hoarding, which was believed to be a subset of obsessive compulsive disorder at the time, prompted him to pioneer the research field into hoarding as its own separate thing, with different causes and symptoms (and treatments). He and his co-author Gail Steketee (who he explains in the intro mostly helped him with research and compiling data, while he did the writing) are still the leading researchers in the field.
This book is part explanation of the causes of hoarding, its linkage to OCD, and parsing out of why hoarders do what they do, psychologically and biologically; and it is also part case history. One of the reasons the book is so interesting is that he uses specific cases histories for patients with varying types of hoarding to illustrate the points he is making. He weaves the story of their hoarding in with explanations of their behavior, and of hoarding itself. It is never jargony, but still maintains scientific credibility. In my opinion, it's a book that scholars and pleasure readers alike will find worthwhile.
There was just so much I didn't know about hoarding before I read this, like the previously mentioned connections with OCD (as of the writing of this book in 2010, there were theories about why so many people with OCD are also hoarders, but not all hoarders have OCD, and not all people with OCD are hoarders), and connections with ADHD as well. Even the story the book opens with, of the most famous hoarding case in New York history, is one I hadn't heard before. And it's all grounded in human stories. You really feel for each person he profiles, as he details just exactly how their hoarding has affected their lives.
My only "complaint" here would be that since this is a growing research field, new and exciting discoveries are presumably being made about hoarding as we speak, and the book was published waaaaay back in 2010, it's probably already out of date. I hope they do an updated version sometime in the future, and that some of the lingering questions brought up in this book have some answers.
Note: Do not read or listen to the chapter on garbage hoarders if you are eating now, plan to eat soon, or have recently eaten. It is stomach churning stuff.
I worked for awhile in a non-profit guardianship agency in Washington state and we had many cases of hoarding. One fellow filled up his entire house, then one car, then the other but was sleeping on the back seat of the second. (He lost his false teeth in that mess!!!)
So I had to read this book. The author writes very well and uses people he has worked with to control or eliminate their hoarding. (Obviously, he disguises their real names.) It was fascinating to me to see how many hoarders can give the story behind every item they have - "this was when I was downtown and met my girlfriend for lunch and she gave me this phone number of a guy I might like, but I never called," "I love going antique hunting and I found this broken telephone with such unique colors; I might be able to fix it, but I've been so busy with other things, I just put it aside."
Some of the hoarders he was able to help. Most hoarders have supreme anxiety about letting go, but when he has them throw something minor (to him - like a paper with a phone number on it with no name or other identification), he asks them immediately on a scale of 1 to 100 how they feel about throwing the item out; 10 minutes later he asks them again. Then before he leaves, he asks them again and usually a week later. Most are astounded to find that their anxiety levels are very low on the scale when he leaves. This starts the process for some of them as they realize that they really won't miss something they thought they would.
It was also fascinating to see how some of them reacted when they asked friends over to help them clean up and the friends thought they really meant it. One woman screamed and told her friend to go home when the friend picked up a gum wrapper to throw away.
If you've ever wondered about this behavior, please read this book!
The hoarding shows cruise along on shock value, and geez, if you've seen one house filled to the brim with newspapers, unused storage bins, cat turds, and raccoon corpses, you've seen them all. Wasn't it Tolstoy who noticed that clean houses are all the same, but the messy ones...
This book is much more interesting than the TV shows. Sure, all the classics are here, the Collier brothers, the people who keep their pee in jars (don't look to closely at those Oh Henry bars...) but without the smack smack smack of jump cut b-roll, this book can really get into what situations (isolation) and individual characteristics can lead a mild mannered matchbook collector down the goat path to death by newspaper; so heavy and smothery once they're piled over 10 feet.
Am I a cleaning lady away from death by book? I am lucky enough to have one of the great ones. She knows how to keep me in line without making my house feel strange to me. There is not an empty shoebox or old piece of useless crap that doesn't leave this house within 2 weeks of official POS-dom. She has a lovely understanding of my relationship to my stuff including the pile of books in the corner of my bedroom that will soon go onto a bookshelf. (revolution!) AND my back porch is empty. EMPTY! Just thrown into a small trailer and taken to the dump, except for one old roller skate. When I pick it up, I can feel the vibration of steel wheels on asphalt shaking my 9 year old knees as I tear-assed down Avondale hill on summer afternoons.
She is a gem, and while reading this book, I thought a lot about Cynthia and wondered if some of these people entering their houses through the strait gate (stuff piled against the front door) might not have gone so far if they had that extra voice of reason in the mix. But that extra voice costs money.
We all let ourselves go a bit at a certain age. A certain amount of this letting go is liberating, but for some it's a quick slide into the oubliette of non-youth to lie in the ash heap with the other discarded toys.
Anyway, this book really gets beyond the usual shock images and is well worth reading to get to know these people above and beyond their designation as 'hoarders'. They also get into what it's like for the children of hoarders, and the authors tie in societal changes in our relationship to possessions through the rapidly metastasizing presence of storage places.
Why I Read It:
I love the shows Clean Sweep, Hoarders, Life Laundry, etc.
The authors come from an academic background so there is a slight text book feel to the work, but it is all punctuated with example after example. And the truth they find at the bottom of the piles is it’s not about the stuff. I think the common misconception people have when they see examples of hoarding on TV is just to throw it away. Getting rid of the stuff will not be a miracle cure. In fact on example from the book the city did just that with a court order. By that night the gentleman involved began searching the streets for more junk to put in his apartment; even filling it again within weeks.
What it comes down to is the relationship the person has with the objects, or the inappropriate meaning they attached to at. Everything becomes either valuable or possibly valuable and hence cannot be removed. For example, I might decide my grandkids will one day want to make forts out of old oatmeal containers. Now it doesn’t matter that I do not currently have grandkids, I might one day and they might want to make forts. I then proceed to save them and actively seek ones that others have thrown away. I also manufacture cherished future memories of love between possible grandkids, the fort building and myself. If I throw them away, or do not collect them, I am throwing away love. Now imagine that times every object that comes into your life, and I mean every object. It is crippling.
My favorite short example from the book is when the author was working with a patient and found a torn scrap of paper in her piles. On it was a handwritten telephone number, clearly several years old.
Dr: Can we throw this away?
Patient: No, it has a number on it.
D: What is the number for?
P: I don’t know, but if I wrote it down it must be important.
D: Can we call it to see who it is?
P: Not right now, but I will later.
D: When later?
P: Just later
Anyways, this is an endlessly fascinating book which will make you think. After talking about it with everyone I know (and you will want to as well), I came to a conclusion.
I f your reaction to it is “OMG I have too much crap in my house (life) and I need to get rid of stuff immediately,” then you are not a hoarder. You are just messy like the rest of us.
If your reaction is “at least I am not that bad so I am okay,” then you probably got a problem. Seek help :-)