Open Book

Possessed by Our Possessions

Hoarding as Pathology and Metaphor

Magazine Issue
September/October 2010
Possessed by Our Possessions

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
By Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 290 pp. ISBN: 9780151014231

Homer & Langley: A Novel
By E. L. Doctorow
Random House. 208 pp. ISBN: 9781400064946

The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—and a Vision for Change
By Annie Leonard
Free Press. 317 pp. ISBN: 9781439125663

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.

Given the lack of a standard profile, perhaps it’s no surprise that explaining hoarding’s psychological origins remains problematic. Theories abound, none of them completely satisfactory. Some research suggests the possibility of a genetic component; another hypothesis holds that attachments to possessions are substitutes for parental love missing in childhood; still other psychologists propose that hoarders are actually staving off fears of death by creating “time capsules” of stuff as a personal legacy. One of the most common themes among hoarders is their inability to differentiate between the significance of one item and the uselessness (to everyone else’s eyes, anyway) of another. For them, every single knickknack, piece of junk mail, broken dish, or worn-out battery carries as much personal significance as a painting by Leonardo—and you certainly couldn’t part with a masterpiece, could you?

Trying to convince hoarders to divest themselves of their possessions can be time-consuming, with what can amount to an individual debriefing session before parting with each item, and even then resistance can be high. As for sudden interventions that forcibly wrest possessions from their hoarders, they may work in the short term, say Frost and Steketee, but the behavior resumes almost immediately. Within weeks, the residences overflow with new stashes of stuff.

One of the most discomforting aspects of reading their book is the recognition of at least some aspects of these messy lives in our own. Aren’t we all prone to some amount of clutter? Loath to part with prized souvenirs? Don’t museums exist precisely because we prize collectors and collected treasures?

So where do Frost and Steketee draw the line between prizing our possessions and pathology? “It hardly matters how much stuff anyone owns as long as it doesn’t interfere with his health or happiness or that of others,” they write. “But never has hoarding been so visible as it is today in westernized societies. Perhaps the abundance of inexpensive and easily accessible objects makes it the disorder of the decade.” Indeed, in the same way that a few decades ago eating disorders remained largely hidden behind a screen of shame or privacy, hoarding may well be the latest behavior to spill out of our psychic closets and into public consciousness.

But that doesn’t let us nonhoarders off the hook for the environmental impact of all of the stuff spilling out of our closets. That’s the subject of 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. Her basic message is that we need to rethink our consumer-culture mantra of shop-discard-replace-repeat and repeat-forever.

Leonard, a long-time environmentalist who’s best known for the animated 20-minute film with the same title as her book (the film came first and can be seen for free on the Internet) takes us on a roundtrip tour—from raw materials to manufacturing plant, distribution and sales points, our homes, and ultimately to garbage dump and toxic waste—of such everyday items of Western culture as electronic devices, clothing, and paper goods. This documentation of how we’re passively buying into production practices that contribute to poisonous waste every time we go shopping and depleting the earth in the process is more gruesome and troubling than the edgiest film imaginable.

The bare facts are overwhelmingly depressing: not only does the United States, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, consume 30 percent of its resources and produce 30 percent of the world’s waste, Leonard writes, but if every single country consumed at the same rate, we’d need three or four additional planets just to keep pace. Think about that before you throw away another of the 150 million cell phones our population ditches each year.

Despite page after page of downers like that, Leonard is correct when she claims that she isn’t “against stuff.” She just wants us to recognize “that each thing we buy involved all sorts of resources and labor.” Nor is she wrong to see herself as an optimist, an active cheerleader for positive change. Part of that is reframing the widely held assumptions that changing to a green environmental model will lead to, if not real sacrifice, at least less convenience (there go the water bottles). Her answer: instead of focusing on “the quantity of our stuff” we should imagine a world based on the “quality of our stuff.” It’s a great motto, but some of the examples she presents of how to lessen our dependence on oil (do away with war!) and lower levels of consumerism (try community living and sharing, like her Berkeley, California, neighborhood does!) seem like throwbacks to the 1960s.

At the same time, Leonard boosts practical projects that do sound promising. Chief among them is, a free, research-based website that rates consumer products according to their environmental, social, and health impacts. Equally important, consumers can click on the link “send a message to the manufacturer” that allows you to do just that, questioning, for instance, their use of toxic chemicals or criticizing their pollution record. Combine that with sending additional messages through your votes and political activism, and you might even begin to see some positive change.

But remember: reading a book (even if it’s printed on recycled paper) isn’t enough to keep more stuff from happening—which is why we have to get our own stuff together and figure out what to do.


Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.