Not until my mother died last year, at 82, did I realize how much she had saved. Her attic, closets and drawers overflowed with Playbills and travel brochures; size two designer dresses from the 1960s; broken appliances; baby furniture; expense receipts and stock annual reports; scrapbooks and photo albums; magazines and newspaper clippings; and every letter, greeting card and announcement she had ever received. It was an embarrassment of riches—and of junk. My exasperation was tempered by a sudden realization: I was hoarding identical emblems of my past, from Playbills and newspaper clippings to ancient letters from almost-forgotten lovers.
So it was with both interest and trepidation that I picked up Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee’s new book, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. To my relief, I discovered that my mother and I were rank amateurs compared with the pseudonymous subjects of this book, who live among clutter so overwhelming that they scarcely have room to walk, or eat, or sleep. Before treatment, Irene mixed empty boxes, expired coupons and old newspapers with photographs of her children, important documents, even cash. Pamela tried to take care of 200 cats, filling her house with excrement. Ralph stockpiled rusty, broken objects and stacked moldy newspapers so high that they threatened to crush him.
Frost, professor of psychology at Smith College, and Steketee, professor and dean of the School of Social Work at Boston University, have been studying hoarding for nearly two decades and have developed a cognitive-behavioral approach to helping hard-case hoarders. But their book, with its insight into the magic and meaning of ordinary objects, speaks to the hoarder in all of us. I asked Frost to elaborate on some of their findings. (Read an excerpt from Stuff.)
Q. How did you first become interested in hoarding?
A. My interest began with a simple question from a student. We were discussing obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the student asked, “Why are there no studies of hoarding?” I couldn’t answer. So we placed an ad in the local newspaper looking for a “pack rat” to interview. We got more than 100 phone calls. I was hooked.
Q. Don’t many of us have hoarding tendencies?
A. We certainly do. The reasons people give for hoarding are the same reasons we all have for the things we save: We have a use for it, we don’t want to waste it, we like it, or we keep it for sentimental reasons. The difference is in the number and variety of objects to which those reasons apply. For all of us, possessions can have special, even magical qualities. They help to define who we are and how we experience the world. Most of what we see in people who hoard is just an exaggeration of the attachments we all have to our things.
Q. What distinguishes hoarding from collecting or simply having too much stuff?
A. Most of us probably have more stuff than we need, but the stuff typically doesn’t interfere with our ability to live. In hoarding, the acquisition, difficulty discarding, and clutter create chaos in the home, making large parts of it unusable.
Q. How many people are affected?
A. There are now three good epidemiological studies of hoarding, in the U.S., in Germany and in the United Kingdom. The studies found that between 2.3 percent and 5.3 percent of the population had significant hoarding problems.
Q. Are there different types of hoarding?
A. We think there may be three categories. First are people who suffer from hoarding disorder, like most of the people described in Stuff. Second, there are people who hoard exclusively animals. Third are people whose hoarding stems from another disorder, like obsessive-compulsive disorder or genetic or neurological causes like Prader-Willi Syndrome.