Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Most of us understand what it is like to have an emotional connection with a cherished possession. How about that ratty rabbit you’ve owned since you were three? The sentimental value attached to this stuffed pet makes even the thought of parting with it painful. But imagine you felt as strongly about every single item in your room, including the magazines from two decades ago and the clothes that no longer fit. Hoarders form intense attachments to even their most trivial possessions—everything seems worth keeping.
In the riveting new read Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, Randy O. Frost, a Smith College psychologist, and Gail Steketee, dean of the Boston University School of Social Work, reveal the world of hoarding disorders. The homes of hardcore hoarders, who represent up to 5 percent of the population, are more trash dumps than living spaces. It is only possible to navigate their interiors using “goat paths,” narrow trails that wind through the mounds of books, old food, clothes, trinkets and containers.
Frost and Steketee explore why hoarders find their compulsive behaviors so pleasurable (hoarding may activate the same reward centers in the brain as addictive drugs such as cocaine do), where the compulsion to hoard originates (at least one study suggests the impulses are imprinted in our genes), and how hoarders live.
To illustrate this pathology, the authors describe several case studies. Meet Pamela, a filmmaker who kept more than 200 cats, until her neighbors and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals intervened. And Daniel, a 50-year-old man who scavenged so many objects from the streets of Manhattan cockroaches stained the walls of his apartment brown with their dung.
The authors argue that hoarders see potential and value in objects most of us do not. In fact, hoarders have exceptional powers of observation and attention to detail that far surpass the average Joe. They notice every hue on the cover of a magazine, every crack in a vase. “When I am trying to decide what to keep, this outdated coupon seems as important as my grandmother’s picture,” says Irene, a librarian whose disorder led to divorce.
Stuff also demonstrates that hoarding disorders can be treated. Over a period of 18 months the authors worked with Irene to change the thoughts and behaviors responsible for the disarray of her home. They helped Irene create an efficient filing system for all her belongings and taught her to remove or hide objects before she could develop superfluous attachments. Eventually Irene and her family began to live in a home that was virtually clutter-free—a kind of freedom they had not known for years.