Beauty in the Mess: On Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee’s ‘Stuff’

Fear not, PopMatters readers, Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee are quick to point out in their new book, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, that a reasonable amount of accumulation is OK, even normal. “We all become attached to our possessions and save things other people wouldn’t”, they write. “The passion of a collector, the procrastination of someone who hasn’t taken the time to put things away, the sentimentality of one who saves reminders of important personal events — all these are part of the hoarding story”.

Part, but hardly all. The line between normal and abnormal appears when the hoarding becomes disruptive: “If clutter prevents the person from using his or her living space, and if acquiring and saving cause substantial distress or interference in everyday living, the hoarding is pathological”. So relax. 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.

Frost and Steketee begin their study by recounting the legendary story of the Collyer brothers, who function as a kind of patron saint of hoarders. (Incidentally, the Collyers are the subject of E.L. Doctorow’s new book, Homer and Langley: A Novel.) After the Collyers mysteriously died in March 1947, authorities removed over 170 tons of stuff from their home. Among the items excavated: a Model T, 14 grand pianos, the top from a horse-drawn carriage, an x-ray machine, and the remains of a two-headed fetus. Though the workers started in the basement, “city engineers determined that without the tons of stuff supporting them, the walls of the building would not be able to sustain the weight of the contents of the upper floors”, so they quickly switched to a top-down cleanout.

Frost and Steketee ignore the metaphor, but the image of floors supported by the accumulated things below is apt, for Stuff is populated by people whose lives are propped up by their belongings. There’s the woman who can’t throw away the phone number of someone she barely knows because she’s convinced that her daughter would get along great with this person, the man who has gathered the materials he needs to make a “sawdust-free band saw that the could operate inside without making a mess”, and the boy who wept for some spilled fruit drink because “he thought it was burning on the hot pavement”.

Give yourself a prize if you think that this kind of behavior smacks of whatever you know about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Frost is an expert on OCD, and one of the book’s ongoing threads discusses the degree to which hoarding is an offshoot of this diagnosis and the degree to which it is its own thing. For the most part, however, Frost and Steketee wisely resist indulging in overly clinical analysis.

Everything about the book indicates that it was written with a general readership in mind, from the eye-catching cover that hearkens back to the TV network logos from the 1970s to the final pages that list steps one should take to seek help for a hoarding problem. Even though both authors are doctors, you don’t have to have a PhD in psychology to understand this book. My Psych 101 served me just fine.

Opting for the human-interest rather than the more academic angle also serendipitously leads to some of the book’s most evocative writing. Frost acknowledges that he handled most of the field work, and I can only image how his mind raced each time he set foot in a new house. As a writer, the potential for detail is such a rare gift, and Frost seizes it. Here’s an example of the kind of thing that Frost regularly encountered:

The entry hallway and first-floor landing were full of children’s clothing and toys, shoes, decorations for various holidays, books, Sunday school papers, and lesson plans from her teaching years. Just as we’ve seen in so many homes, ineffective efforts to organize were evident in the innumerable empty plastic bins and lids stacked elsewhere. The living room and adjacent dining area were waist-high with clutter of a similar sort — lots of clothes and shoes, plus place mats and table decorations, random papers, and assorted knickknacks. The stairwell contained more plastic containers and covers, cascades of newspapers and magazines, and more clothes and shoes. The bedrooms ranged from waist- to ceiling-high mountains of mostly clothes and shoes. The children could still sleep in their beds, but barely.

I’ll spare you the specifics of the later incident in which an innocent woman is showered with cockroaches from a hoarded jacket. Suffice it to say that certain passages are as rife with drama as they are with detail.

In fact, some of the book’s most memorable set pieces actually work to its detriment as they call attention to a structure that doesn’t so much as build as it just moves from one example to the next. I understand that chapters covering the impact of hoarding on families or the early onset of hoarding in children belong to the end of the book, but the chapter on the twins (who claim to be modern-day Collyers) fails to surpass that of Ralph (the sawdust-free band saw guy) or Daniel (he of the cockroach jacket) or Pamela, whose story of cat-hoarding achieves such an epic scale that it threatens to take over the book. The result is a work that’s more up and down than it is consistent.

The final chapter, which almost certainly stood alone as a conference paper at some point, also strikes me as being misplaced, as a lot of the context I found myself wanting throughout is found here. For example, did you know that “forty years ago, facilities for storing unused personal possessions were virtually nonexistent” and that “now nearly two billion square feet of space can be rented for storage in more than forty-five thousand facilities, and most of that space is already full”? Yeah, I didn’t either. This is the kind of information that I would like to have had at some point before the book’s final 16 pages. This social contextualization and the subsequent discussion of the ills of modern consumerism retroactively color these stories, but by the time we get to this point so much of what is being colored is lost.

Lest we forget, the second part of the subtitle is “the Meaning of Things”, and I can’t help but think that the meaning part of the discussion could have meant more if the book would have been frontloaded with some of the cultural criticism. As it is, while Frost and Steketee do offer some general conclusions about why people hoard — they define themselves through their stuff, they see potential everywhere, they want to experience everything — the bottom line is that stuff means different things to different people, and only in the book’s waning pages do they attempt to bring everything under the same tent, that of consumerism run amuck. The Doctorow novel. The show Hoarding: Buried Alive on TLC. Something seems to be in the air, something that deserves a deeper examination than four pages allow.

But even if the book is flawed, it’s flawed with its heart in the right place. The authors could do worse than leading with the stories rather than the criticism. The net effect is that these tales of compulsive hoarders end up humanizing the subjects, so much so that I couldn’t even bring myself to use the term “deeply disturbed” at the beginning of this sentence because it struck me as being too judgmental. I guess if pressed I would admit that they are disturbed, but their madness is not without a method, if you will excuse the cliché.

Frost and Steketee even go so far as to acknowledge that there are things that we, as allegedly less disturbed people, can learn from these individuals. In an effort to accentuate the positive, they write, “We wonder whether the attention to the details of objects indicates a special form of creativity and an appreciation for the aesthetics of everyday things. In the same vein, empathy with the physical world expands life’s horizons and can give meaning by connecting us to the world and one another”.

Or, to close on a more personal note, as a daughter said about her mother who was unable to throw away anything because it is all pregnant with potential to her: “The pieces of the physical world she picks out to focus on are incredible, things I would never even notice…Her brain can see things mine can’t. I can see the beauty in objects, but it’s like she sees the atoms of the objects. She sees more than anyone I know and attaches more meaning to each piece of it”.

I certainly don’t want to romanticize a behavior that challenges so many lives, but part of me can’t help but think that there’s something admirable about being able to recognize the beauty in all of that mess.

RATING 6 / 10