Elevate Difference

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

I was pleased as soon as I ran my fingers over the pleasantly matte dust jacket of Stuff. My pleasure only grew once I dove in: authors Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee smoothly meld case study and psychological analysis for an engaging read. Throughout their account, they also include a broad (though never deep) smattering of speculations about the anthropological, neurobiological, and political aspects of hoarding.

The case studies are fascinating and eclectic. The most extreme is a dire, almost sensationalist account of a cat-hoarding cult that sprung up around a psychiatrist in New York City in the 1970s, involving many of the psychiatrist's patients and hundreds of cats. A more pedestrian example is the story of a woman who got into the habit of ordering magazines in stacks of three, so that she could touch only the top and bottom copy, leaving the middle copy pristine.

The authors' analysis is insightful, accessible, and deeply resonant. Drawing on sources as diverse as the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and the television special Affluenza, Frost and Steketee muse about the nature of self-worth, meaning, and identity in a consumer age. They sensitively acknowledge the profound significance of hoarding to those who practice it—whether it is the woman who believes that she will lose her memory in the absence of physical reminders; the man with ideas for reusing even the most ragged, cast-off item; or the woman whose stacking behavior began as a way to wall off a room in which she was raped. One chapter at a time, the authors piece together a framework for understanding the beliefs and desires that underlie hoarding—difficulty with so-called “executive” functions such as planning and decision-making; an attempt to preserve memories and opportunities; and, perhaps, an advanced capacity for seeing meaning, beauty, detail, and potential in material objects.

Narratives such as Stuff walk a difficult line, acknowledging the very real havoc that psychopathology can wreak on human lives, without casting it as an extra-human phenomenon that renders its bearers worthless, incomprehensible, monstrous, or undeserving of autonomy. Throughout their book, Frost and Steketee try hard to emphasize the humanity of their subjects—so hard, in fact, that they wind up sounding like they are trying to convince themselves. The book radiates an uncomfortable combination of identification and disgust—for example, the authors joke that they notice their colleagues tidying their offices out of the fear that they too will be labeled “hoarders” by the experts.

As another example, consider the following description: “Some theorists have posited that people with hoarding tendencies form attachments to possessions instead of people.... Hoarders...are remote and suspicious. Irene, however, defied this categorization.... She had a quick wit and a well-developed sense of humor. It was easy to see why people liked her.” The authors continue, “It is no coincidence that most of the people described in this book are highly intelligent. Although hoarding is considered a mental disorder, it may stem from an extraordinary ability.” I appreciate the nuance—I would rather explore hoarders' heightened sensitivities than flippantly label them damaged goods. However, this “madness equals genius” move merely reinforces the idea that human lives are only valuable as long as they are “productive” or otherwise gratifying to an external observer. What if Irene had not been personable, or “articulate and insightful,” as she is later described? Would we then be justified if we failed to relate to her, or to see her life as worthwhile?

Like many human traits, hoarding can be extremely debilitating—at times even fatal. And, as the authors point out, perhaps it is also a form of artistry. However, it is essential to tell the story of both the disorder and the gift without sensationalism and without thank-God-it's-them-and-not-me relief. Frost and Steketee strive for this balance, but in the end it eludes them.

Written by: Ri J. Turner, March 8th 2011