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BOOK REVIEW

Gripping case studies of compulsive hoarders

By Ethan Gilsdorf
May 5, 2010

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Collecting Beanie Babies is one thing. Amassing piles of, say, old newspapers, yogurt containers, and rusty buckets is another. If you’re unable to discard mountains of what most people would consider random clutter, your collecting bug has crossed into the realm of obsession. You can literally drown in stuff.

Take the case of the Collyer brothers, which kicks off “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.’’ Langley and Homer Collyer, two well-heeled brothers living in New York City, packed their mansion over decades with more than 170 tons of debris, including an X-ray machine, a Model T Ford, 14 grand pianos, and thousands more mundane items. In 1947, police received a tip that something was amiss at the home, but they found the door blocked by clutter when they came to investigate. They finally entered the home via a second-floor window and found Homer’s body. It took them three weeks to find the other brother, who had died from suffocation after a tower of baled newspapers crushed him.

A highly readable account of this perplexing impulse that affects as many as 6 million Americans, “Stuff’’ offers a peek into the lives of compulsive shoppers, cat ladies, junk scavengers, even children who hoard things. The authors, Randy O. Frost, a Smith College psychology professor, and Gail Steketee, dean of Boston University’s School of Social Work, have been investigating hoarding for a decade. They’ve developed long-term relationships with hundreds of hoarders whom they’ve treated.

“Stuff’’ isn’t exactly a narrative; it’s a series of case studies. We experience the “awe, the excitement of discovery, and empathy for those caught in the web of hoarding.’’ We accompany the authors as they navigate the “goat paths’’ through the home of one woman, Irene, who is trapped by “a sea of boxes, bags, ski poles, tools, everything imaginable all in a jumble, chest-high.’’ We see Colin, collector of hundreds of articles of free designer clothing. For him, dressing each day is a nearly paralyzing act. We meet Madeline, whose penchant for hoarding drove her husband away, and we watch her grown daughter, Ashley, struggle with her own relationship to material possessions.

The most gripping chapter, “You Haven’t Got a Clue,’’ offers the pleasures of “you are there’’ immersion journalism. The authors arrive with a social worker and cleaning crew to empty a Manhattan condo whose rooms are, effectively, “a solid wall of trash 20 feet deep’’ and infested with cockroaches. Amazingly, a family lives amid the squalor. The account of trying to clean up the health hazard while the hoarder, a man named Daniel, refuses to see any problem, makes for stupefying reading.

The profiles of people save “Stuff’’ from reading like a dry academic conference paper. By turns fascinating and heartbreaking, the hoarders explain their rationales. For some, piles of clutter contain endless possibility. Others make nests or private worlds of potential knowledge. Some may be fearful of waste. Some see stories and find meanings in every item. “This outdated coupon seems as important as my grandmother’s picture,’’ Irene says at one point. Later: “If I throw too much away, there’ll be nothing left of me.’’

The irresistible fascination with a book like “Stuff’’ has already been proven by reality TV shows featuring makeovers and weight-loss quests: It’s the lure of oddballs trying to clean up their lives. But the book succeeds beyond mere voyeurism, because “Stuff’’ invites readers to reevaluate their desire for things. Which, as far as things go, is not a bad thing at all.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.’’ Contact him at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

STUFF:

Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things By Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp., $27