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By Diane Cole
Possessed by Our Possessions
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
Homer & Langley: A Novel
The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—and a Vision for Change
Clutterers of the world (and who among us isn't, these days) unite, and lighten up your load! You have only some stuff to lose—and not just you, but the planet itself might be better off.
That's the basic message from a spate of recent books that focus on the dual perils—psychological and ecological—of compulsive consumption and obsessive accumulation. That shopping-till-you-drop and hoarding exist along a slippery spectrum is inescapably suggested by the similarity of two of these books' titles: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by psychologists Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, and environmental activist Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—and a Vision for Change. Leonard nails the further connection between shopping-hoarding and exhausting-junking the earth's natural resources through a vintage quote from that purveyor of pop wisdom Jerry Seinfeld: "Our houses are basically garbage processing centers."
Thanks in part to two popular cable television reality shows (Hoarders on the A&E network and Hoarding: Buried Alive on TLC), the public has a new awareness of hoarding as a psychiatric ailment that can be even grislier than the phrase "pack rat" suggests—and not just because years' worth of everything from newspapers to hardware to not-quite-empty food packages stacked floor to ceiling can easily attract vermin, posing a public health threat; or because those floors and ceilings have been known to collapse on themselves (and the people inside, as well as those in neighboring apartments) under the weight of, literally, tons of stuff. (Let's not even get into fire safety violations.) There's also the financial burden Frost and Steketee point to, incurred when hoarders, unable to part with their ever-growing mass of possessions, feel compelled to rent ever-larger storage spaces (or whole residences) to house them, sometimes going broke in the process. Then there's the private toll of the personal isolation (no space in any room to invite anyone over) and broken marriages and families, including removal of young children from parental homes deemed unlivable.
Frost and Steketee preface their comprehensive overview of this phenomenon with the cautionary tale of America's most infamous compulsive hoarders. In 1947, the lifeless, decaying bodies of brothers Homer and Langley Collyer had to be excavated from the 130 tons of debris and assorted junk they'd amassed in the course of their 60-some years in their utterly decayed New York brownstone. The Collyer brothers are also the subject of author E. L. Doctorow's most recent novel, Homer and Langley. Doctorow takes numerous factual liberties with his main characters, and I wouldn't count this as my favorite work by this esteemed writer. However, his unnervingly matter-of-fact tone does succeed in describing the chilling, step-by-step creep in the brothers' habits from mere acquisitiveness to hoarding and then beyond to chaos and madness.
While the Collyers represent the nightmare extreme of the phenomenon, in their numerous patient case histories, Frost and Steketee demonstrate that there's no simple "case book" version of this complex ailment. Although it's often classified as a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder, it can also coexist with depression. Demographically, it claims a wide variety of sufferers, rich and poor, young (even children) and old. Hoarders have different preferred styles for amassing their trove, from nonstop shopping to dumpster-diving to never letting absolutely any object that enters the house leave it. If the hoarder stereotype remains that of the senile senior citizen unwilling to part with a lifetime of souvenirs, it's because the severity of the problem might only become apparent when seniors can no longer independently take care of themselves—at which point the massive possessions they've been able to hide from others become visible to all.