31 July 2012

Are ALL Americans at risk of hoarding?

A while back I read A Perfect Mess, making me feel okay about disarray - it's productive and a sign of a my active, creative mind!  Yeah!

Last week I read E.L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley.  Oh boy, not the same good feeling.

Doctorow's Homer and Langley Collyer live in a brownstone on 5th Avenue.  Homer is blind, and later deaf, and Langley is a World War I veteran, injured by mustard gas.  He is well enough to care for Homer, but becomes a severe hoarder.  Over decades, the large, multistory home becomes a labyrinth of "stuff" with only narrow pathways.  The windows are shuttered, and all but a single door is blocked. They meet with a very sad end. One day in the 1970s the hoard topples on Langley, crushing him to death, and miserably, Homer, now quite old, blind, deaf, and trapped in the house, cries out in vain for Langley....

Public safety workers removed 140 tons of
stuff from the Collyer Mansion.
Homer & Langley is in the 1st person, purportedly a letter by Homer to a mysterious "Jacqueline" (you learn who she is toward the end).  It's a bit rambling but very believable, and tragic.  It wasn't Doctorow talking, it was Homer. 

Doctorow's Collyers are fictionalized, but the Collyer brothers were real.  They lived at 5th & 128th, and their hoard killed them in 1947.  It took weeks to clear away enough stuff to find both bodies.  They had amassed 140 tons of "collected items." I've heard that in the 1950s if your kids had a messy bedroom, you'd tell 'em that they were going to turn into the "Collyers."

I have a bizarre interest in hoarding.  Or maybe I have a fear of it.  I'm not alone, because there are television series that focus on hoarding (TLC seems obsessed with them).  Clean Sweep puts kind of a funny, quirky spin on hoarding.  Although there are very often tears involved in the cleaning-out process, the subjects always get a big, lavish home makeover.  And they all live happily ever after.  Hoarding: Buried Alive is a lot grittier, following individuals whose homes are truly dangerous, who can't use their kitchens, or their bathrooms. Who are often in rough shape financially, in poor health, and terribly isolated from their family & friends. These are people who need a lot more than a professional organizer; they need loving support from family, a clinician on site during the big "clean-out," as well as significant mental health treatment ("after care").  Even What Not to Wear gets in on the gamePart of the schtick is a segment in which Stacy & Clinton discard every single piece of (often junky) clothing that their victim subject owns so the lucky lady can go out and buy... OTHER clothes.

Just last week Time reviewed a book by UCLA researchers, exploring just how much STUFF Americans have: Life at Home in the 21st Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors.  Even Yankee Magazine ran a recent how-to article: "Hide Living Room Clutter".  Not "reduce" it... "hide" it.  What is wrong with us?  When a true-blue YANKEE has a problem with clutter, what have we become?  We buy too much stuff, for ourselves, and our kids, we're given "free" stuff all the time (go to just about any public event and you'll get a promotional travel mug, pen, frisbee, flash drive, reusable shopping bag, t-shirt...) According to Time, "The UCLA researchers say  accumulating bigger piles of stuff may in fact decrease happiness and increase stress."
Did you know: there's even a subset of hoarding called bibliomania?  Not to be confused with bibliophilia, the LOVE of books.  However, bibliophiles are very often avid book collectors.  Where is the line between -philia and -mania?

Do you ever fret about having too much stuff?  How do you feel about it?


  1. Doctrow's book was an excellent book club read. There was so much to discuss - the writing, how he wove fact and fiction together, and, of course, the lives of the Collyer brothers. A similar type of story is "Let the Great World Spin." Again, a great meld of fact and fiction. No wonder it won the National Book Award. Highly recommended, very highly recommended.

  2. Let the Great World Spin is on my list! I think I've been reticent to start it because I know it's about the World Trade Center, and it will make me very sad - as I was with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I'll just need to brace myself and dive in ;-)

  3. No. Not all Americans are hoarders. I do know seven individuals who are hoarders, five of whom are family members. Of these seven, four will no longer allow anyone into their homes, as collectors would. Collectors are different in that they are proud of their acquisitions and like to show them off.
    Because I know so many serious hoarders, i have studied the issue with a variety of inspection tools, not the least of which is the plethora of articles on the subject. I find it interesting that none of my hoarding acquaintances have a thing in common. Their backgrounds and ages are different. Their incomes range from $500,000.00 a year to pitiful pittances. Their levels of education are extremely varied, as are their interests, hobbies, employments, successes and social lives. All of them seem to have deep psychoses, but none of them are dangerous unless you touch their stuff.
    I had hoarding tendencies at one time in my life, when i was trying to practice the art of homemaking and was not good at it. After my mother died and we found things we had never dreamed of in her closets, I decided to hoe out. It took almost a decade, but i was determined not to fall into the habits of the hoarder, and i succeeded. I did not even become a minimalist, as some people do. I feel quite normal now.
    My conclusion is that it is none of anyone's business when it comes to another person's living style behind closed doors, and there is nothing wrong with a hoarding lifestyle. If the stuff is there for them to hide under, then the stuff is there, and it is theirs.

    Not all Americans are hoarders, but in the attempt to include the bottom feeders of society into the porpoise section, all Americans are obsessed with each other, and examine each other's lifestyles in ways that were never done before. There is a difference between one person and another, and between one group or layer of society than another.

  4. We could get a few sitcoms going on the subject of 'Big Toes and their Dissimilarity" or "Let Us compare Ear Sizes." Those subjects make about as much sense as this fixation on hoarding. I am not a hoarder, but I could have been. It was my choice to stop my tendencies in their tracks, and it took many years. But if I were, it seems to me that it doesn't matter, and shouldn't matter, to other people.
    I just sent an answer that was almost 300 words long, and submitted it, but it disappeared. Do you see it? Happily, I copied it into my documents.
    Cordially, Debbie Caldwell.

  5. Thanks for your remarks, Debbie! I'm glad that you have been able to avoid the urge to hoard. I wish the best for you and for those in your life for whom this is a difficulty.

  6. I am very much looking forward to reading Homer & Langley but I disagree with a couple of commenters above. Hoarding is definitely not ok when it becomes filth. Just hanging onto items or having multiple collections of meaningless items seems harmless enough. But when people become 'slobs' and never clean up it creates a haven for rats, pests & diseases. In these cases, hoarding is a big problem and requires intervention.