28 June 2010


I ran across Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things in the new issue of Bookmarks magazine.  I find compulsive hoarding is an interesting issue because my entire family consists of packrats - two packrats got married, had three more little packrats, and two of them married packrats so I get it from all sides.  The major difference is that we packrats are able to sort and discard items we no longer want or need while hoarders seem unable to part with anything....even trash which is a major health issue (and gross, ew).  I am quite fascinated with the whys of hoarders (if Hoarders or Hoarding: Buried Alive episodes are anywhere on TV I will watch them) so I downloaded Stuff to my nook.

Stuff is a pretty quick read, clocking in at only about 200 pages.  Professors Randy Frost and Gail Steketee open their analysis of hoarding disorders with the (in)famous case of the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley (the pair formed the basis of E.L. Doctorow's novel); New York legends, the brothers' bodies had to be excavated from the debris that filled their townhouse.  Frost's first "real life" hoarding case, Irene, is profiled in the first chapter and her struggles with her hoard and her illness are used as touchstones throughout the book.  Some of the hoarders profiled hoard paper, others clothes, and a few garbage/bodily waste; others display symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, contamination issues, and processing disorders.

Frost and Steketee do a great job in making the Stuff accessible to both laypersons and scientists.  The language of the book is not complicated but care is taken to use scientific data when discussing possible reasons for hoarding.  The results of many biological and psychological studies, including those of Frost and Steketee, are discussed when working through treatment options for hoarders.  From their work with hoarders, Frost and Steketee are finding that hoarders develop an emotional attachment to every little piece of their hoard (to retain memories, certain feelings, etc.); parting with even the smallest scrap of paper has huge emotional and psychological implications.  Hoarders "see" objects differently than the rest of us.

One thing made very clear throughout the book is that hoarding, like any other psychological illness, can only be treated if the hoarder is willing to undergo treatment. The treatment process is long and emotionally very intense.  At the very end of the book, the authors included a section on ways for hoarders and their families to find help; support groups mentioned frequently in the book include Overcoming Hoarding Together and Children of Hoarders.  The authors of Stuff do urge those affected by hoarding to seek help.  I very much enjoyed reading Stuff both for the information contained within and the empathy shown by Frost and Steketee toward their clients.

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