Review: Stuff

Stuff by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

While my college is just a small but significant hour away from my hometown, moving between dorm and room has really made me rethink my possessions; space has become a huge issue for me. In fact, I rearranged my room at home to try and match the amazing space I have at school. Quite literally, I need space. This is why hoarding is so alien to me as a behavior. But there’s no reason, in this day and age, to remain ignorant about the things you don’t understand, so I added Stuff to the old reading list to learn more about why hoarders hoard.

Stuff’s authors, Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, are both experts on compulsive hoarding, having branched out from obsessive-compulsive disorder studies. In this book, they examine several hoarding cases ranging in severity to explain to the average reader why a compulsive hoarder does what they do, how the lure of possessions over a normally functioning person overwhelms these hoarders, and, most importantly, how to treat hoarding—but as Frost and Steketee point out, they must want to change.

Stuff starts off with the harrowing case of the Collyer brothers, one of the first and most spectacular hoarding cases to catch the public imagination. While I was interested, I wasn’t grabbed by the material until Frost and Steketee mention that, on a first pass after their deaths, crews removed nineteen tons of junk from their homes. (Their deaths are also horrifying; Langley was crushed in one of the “goat paths” through the staggering mountains of clutter, and the police conclude that invalid Homer starved to death—their corpses were found a few feet away from each other.) Starting with a worst-case scenario situation such as the Collyer brothers is a great way to grab the reader, but it’s also relevant to the authors—when a student brought up the Collyer case to Frost, it began his journey from research in obsessive-compulsive disorders to research in compulsive hoarding, which, while it has significant similarities, differs from them. I really liked that the first chapter introduced Frost and Steketee and explained who the book is referring to when using first person pronouns, which is a useful thing to have when you’re dealing with two authors.

As Frost and Steketee see it, hoarding is a compulsive behavior that may solidify in adulthood—the few children hoarders they discuss hoarded only in response to stressful situations and stopped after (They’re always careful to tell the reader when something isn’t proven or is just a correlation, which I appreciated. It’s for this reason the chapter on animal hoarding is so slim; there are few studies on the subject.) For hoarders, their identity is wrapped up in their possessions—Frost and Steketee have noticed a lack of support and acceptance in the early lives of many hoarders, which, they hypothesize, may lead to hoarders creating powerful bonds with objects instead. But don’t think that hoarders are antisocial; Irene, the woman whose case is heavily relied on throughout the book, hoards objects because they connect her to the people in her life. For instance, she has difficulty throwing away a phone number because she thinks her daughter may be able to use it. According to Gail and Steketee, hoarders see possibility in every object, as non-hoarders do, or perhaps even more so; hoarders tend to identify as artists, leading the authors to ponder if creativity doesn’t have something to do with it. Their problem is that they can’t accurately value the negative effects of keeping an object. Hoarding can also be linked to traumatic events; one woman, who already had tendencies towards hoarding, began to hoard furiously after she was raped in her own home—other hoarders report that their fortresses of stuff feel like cocoons or bunkers, a safe place away from the rest of the world. If hoarding is a compulsion that soothes them and helps them avoid anxiety, it makes sense that they also avoid cleaning their hoard and throwing away items; they’re so attached to these objects that throwing them away is a distress they want to avoid at any cost.

This is also why forced cleanings are traumatic events that can leave hoarders distrustful of help and even more prone to hoarding. Like anyone suffering from a compulsive behavior (such as, say, compulsive gambling), a hoarder must want to address their hoarding before they can be helped—Frost and Steketee provide an example of an unrepentant hoarder at the end which was simply terrifying, especially since he lived with and bullied his sister and her family. (One afternoon, she napped on the couch; she woke up to a new wall of trash.) In the case of Irene, Frost and a student worked with her to help her make decisions about objects—they never told her to throw away anything and counted a decision to keep something as successful as a decision to trash something. As hoarding can overlap with other compulsive behaviors, it’s also important to address those before or in tandem with the hoarding. I think it’s too easy for someone with a passing acquaintance with hoarding, such as myself prior to this book, to dismiss it as messiness and lack of willpower; Stuff explains, in calm, accessible language and the words of hoarders and recovering hoarders, why hoarding is a compulsive behavior, how hoarders see the world, and how to treat hoarding. It’s a slim volume, but certainly educational.

Bottom line: In Stuff, the compulsive hoarding experts Randy Frost and Gail Steketee calmly and accessibly explain the psychology and possible treatment of hoarding by discussing several hoarders and recovering hoarders, ranging from young children to grandmothers. An education for anyone interested in the psychology of hoarding.

I rented this book from the public library.

5 thoughts on “Review: Stuff

  1. “I think it’s too easy for someone with a passing acquaintance with hoarding, such as myself prior to this book, to dismiss it as messiness and lack of willpower.”

    So true. You completely sold me here.

  2. Last paragraph, “accessibly.” 🙂

    Very interesting and well written. I think compulsive disorders are some of the scariest mental illnesses to suffer from, simply because other people don’t often understand the why behind the behavior. There is a tendency to blame the victim for their illness, or to try to shock them out of it. It’s a frightening disorder, especially when the patient doesn’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing either.

  3. I know I’m late to the party here, but have you read E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley, a fictionalized account of the Collyer brothers? It’s very interesting as it is told from the blind brother’s point of view, so you never actually “see” the mountains of trash that are stacking up in the Collyer home–instead you observe it all through the brother’s other senses, what he can touch, smell, taste, and hear.

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