Sunday, September 12, 2010

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding & the Meaning of Things

From the moment I heard about this book, I knew I wanted to read it. Because you see, both of my parents are what we like to affectionately refer to as "pack rats" -- growing up, our house was always filled with lots of stuff. Boxes of old magazines, books, clothing, and other clutter packed every room and hallway, even interfering with simple things like eating meals together at a table or bringing other kids over to play.

But compared to some of the hoarding cases detailed in this book, our house was absolutely tidy... and I'm still not sure whether I should feel reassured or terrified by that.

The book opens by recounting the story of the infamous Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, who filled their home with so much stuff that it ultimately killed them: Langley died when a pile of stuff collapsed on him, and Homer, blind and crippled, tragically starved to death without his caregiver.

From there, the book goes through case studies of a number of other people whose hoarding has had a significant negative impact on their lives. Most memorable to me was Irene, a middle-aged woman whose hoarding drove her husband to leave her -- and even after her marriage crumbled, she couldn’t bring herself to part with the thousands of useless items that cluttered her home.

The underlying reasons why people hoard seemed to vary. Some kept things because of powerful sentimental memories associated with each object, even just a scrap of paper they had once written on. Others kept things because they thought they could use the items later in some kind of project. Still others kept things out of a fear of waste.

But regardless of the reason, the one thing all hoarders had in common was irrationality -- their ideas about the value or usefulness of an item were usually far-fetched -- as well as an inability to realize the cost of keeping a physical object. Are these objects really worth the inconvenience, social isolation, and even potential health risks that can arise from living in an unusably cluttered home? Hoarders never seem to ask themselves that question.

The one thing that I felt the book was missing was a solution -- something you could say or do to reliably help someone who has this problem. But unfortunately, the "cure" remains elusive -- hoarders are likely to struggle with the problem all their lives, even in the face of professional psychological treatment. (In fairness, this seems to be less a shortcoming of the book than it is a gap in current human knowledge.)

All in all, this was an absolutely fascinating read, and I would highly recommend it to anyone -- especially those with hoarding problems, as well as their families, friends, and loved ones.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee

My Rating: 5 out of 5

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