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The front door won’t open. We can’t enter the house because the door is jammed by towers of magazines or mounds of trash. Often, after prolonged knocking, a small voice is heard, asking us to wait a moment.


This is a so-called Collyer house, the pattern of which has been explained to the point of cliché in thousands of accounts, verbal and graphic, of compulsive hoarding. More than 130 tons of accumulated junk heaped behind the blocked front door of the infamous Collyer brothers’ house—until the anecdote collapsed on its subjects in 1947, killing the ghosty men and blowing their secret stash into public notice.


cover art

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: Apr 2010)

Since then, door after door has been buttressed by stuff, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has grown to accommodate hoarding as a disorder of compelling interest to psychiatry, society, morbid curiosity, and the advertising community.


Eventually the door opens, not with welcome, to the would-be freak show. See the hoarder turn away from scrutiny, attempting that most difficult of magic tricks, to make all signs of psychopathology disappear.


But still we watch. We demand to get through that front door, even if a crowbar or sledgehammer must be used. Because we care, deeply, and somehow it is so meaningful to us to see the hallway eventually cleared, Hefty bags twist-tied and flung onto a truck, while the hoarder gabbles or weeps or ponders suicide.


This invasive, sanitizing trend is typified by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. Frost and Steketee are self-conscious about the ethical and even political issues surrounding the drive to get through that front door, but meanwhile they don’t mind riding a court order into a site of human complexity. Frost, the psychologist, seems to be the one who does the rubber-glove field work, while Steketee, a social worker, offers deanly counsel on such topics as materialism and normativity.


Unfortunately, the authors bring only hopeful protocols and often-ineffective regimens to their subjects. They find deep wells of sadness, which they strive to characterize as a syndrome of some sort with the DSM’s help. Still, the symptoms and apparent causes do not line up well among their subjects, and they keep discovering untidy margins where hoarding becomes hard to separate from plain collecting or ownership. At what point does clutter become Collyer? At what point do Frost and Steketee become Dr. Phil?


To be sure, a special label like compulsive hoarding seems required by many of the heart-rending cases they recount, people neck-deep in the slough of their despond, overwhelmed by more whelm than can be weighed. But sadness and dysfunction are hardly rare or new. What is new is the social imperative to ram open that front door. Bring in the wheelbarrows, the commanding case worker, and the camera—especially the camera, which enlists us all in the drive to evacuate these cloacal dwellings. Reality TV rolls up its sleeves, puts on the rubber gloves, and hoards the evidence while Frost and Steketee stand alongside the labyrinth, notepad in hand, giving that Skinnerian nod.


Frost and Steketee appear to have figured out how eagerly readers will revile someone else’s gross ownership, the gaudy stacks of stuff —source of the televisual fascination with hoarding. It’s covetousness turned on its head. As a viewer of those YouTube clips of hoarders or a reader of their book, you see all the stuff you’ve ever had stripped of its sentimental value, heaped ingloriously as if for a church rummage sale, except smellier, dustier, and crammed into a starter house that stopped up long ago.


Frost and Steketee relish the lurid narrative material supplied by hoarders, such as the tale of Daniel, on a New York City street, ripping through newly packed plastic bags from a “forced cleanout” of his crammed residence, in search of a mistakenly seized, cockroach-ridden, leather jacket to appease his nephew, who has gone berserk. Daniel cannot believe that social services would disturb the urine-soaked rags and moldy food containers that were clotting his upper East Side apartment. The nephew, who has anger-management issues but is no hoarder, exclaims to Daniel, “You haven’t got a fucking clue,” and it’s clear that Daniel does not have a clue. But neither do Frost and Steketee. The apartment requires a forced cleanout eight times over the course of five years to remove again and again the magic mountain of street garbage Daniel has hoarded there.


At the heart of the book is its portraits of a dozen or so hoarders, each identified by first name only in the usual way of medical case studies. They are lonely, isolated people, male and female, from a range of classes, with an average age of about 50. By the time they come to professional attention, their lives have unraveled to the point where even family members have fled and jobs have been lost. They can seem like characters from a Beckett play—strangely poignant, weirdly acute about how difficult it is to know and accept the world. And now the dreaded knock at the door has come. The professionals enter.


Their task, as Frost and Steketee appear to frame it, is not so much a matter of alleviating the agony of the hoarder as it is of restoring cleanliness, order, and rationality to the home. Again and again, they point to a dread hoarded thing, some item of manifest inutility or triviality or capacity to evoke the yawning void, and they challenge the hoarder to send it on its way to the landfill. One of their star patients, Debra, receives from them a postcard, blank except for the address and a stamp. Her assigned task is to throw it away, yet Debra clings to it. Days later, she has not had enough time to absorb all its details, and the thing is “personal.” She does not want to discard it.


It makes sense to me. In fact, I find myself coveting that card, and it was not even addressed to me. Debra may well feel compelled to hold on to that blank postcard because it stands so beautifully for an essential meaninglessness that lies within unexamined ownership. A possession is an object, an other, which somehow has your name on it. Human beings survive by means of ownership of such things as clothing, building materials, credit cards, and everything else that identifies and empowers us, since nakedness does not do so well.


But it’s all sort of random which things those are, who has bricks to build a house and who has only straw. Hoarding vividly acts out the Dadaist aspect of this existence. Junk mail floods our mailboxes, each piece screaming our databased name and alerting us to the many things we probably lack.


At times, it seems the world presses down on all 88 keys of our instrument at the same time. Most people deal with the cacophony by jamming their ears with cotton. Hoarders seem to accept the noise because it is theirs—they own it—and because there might be some message to be heard within the mass (no pun intended). They hold onto the junk mail, also yesterday’s newspaper, last year’s calendar, perhaps because there might be some clue there to find what’s missing in modern life.


The hoarders own and embody their distinctive im-property, knowing it is right for them, as if in homage to Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau—that Dada construct (bau) of shit and commerce (Schmerz/Kommerz), in which Schwitters imagined the artist of the 20th century perpetually stuck. Frost and Steketee supply the typical outcry against the impropriety of the Dada-hoards and the hoarders who just want to be left alone, These accumulators are unhappy people, but never more so than when intruded upon, maybe because the intruders do not recognize their sensibility. Ownership in profusion is a common phenomenon among collectors, and the rationale offered by many collectors might be hard to distinguish, in terms of common sense or the DSM, from the irrationale offered by hoarders. 


Frost and Steketee recognize that hoarders’ “special ability to see uniqueness and value where others don’t may stem from inquisitive and creative minds and contribute to this attachment. The desire to experience everything; may expand the range of attachments hoarders enjoy.” Maybe they need appreciation instead, or help in figuring out what owning tens of thousands of magazines in pristine condition might say about ephemerality in the modern world. Maybe the retention of junk mail should be put in dialogue with the art of Barbara Hashimoto or Sandhi Schimmel. Maybe there’s a little Walt Whitman, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Simon Rodia, Harry Partch, Nicholson Baker, Andy Warhol in there. Maybe the prodigious accumulators need help in framing what is wonderful, unique, and meaningful in their chambers of curiosity, then the door could swing open.


Indeed, the average gated MacMansion holds a good half-Collyer of belongings, once you count all the Waterford, Steinway, Escalade, and Braun. Just because the Merry Maids keep the baronial hallways immaculate, wine glass tags in a drawer of their own, might we not also find the mansion mac’s ownership gross and unbecoming? Where is a crowbar or a sledgehammer when you need one?


King is the author (and owner) of Collections of Nothing (2008), which consists of . . . a lot of nothing


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Relax, PopMatters readers. All of those back issues of The New Yorker stacked by the bed, the ticket stubs tucked in a drawer, the movie titles written on the back of junk mail -- all of these don’t really mean anything. You’re probably all right. Probably.
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