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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Stuff
You can't hook up a U-Haul to a hearse.

Ever since someone (I forget who) reviewed Stuff years ago, this book has been on my must-read list. I always knew I tend to occasionally pile up stuff (and throw them later) but I was curious to find out if I was a hoarder.

Luckily for me, I did learn that my hoarding inclinations are nothing (almost laughable) compared to what many victims mentioned in this book have. I've also realized that to jokingly throw around the word hoard or hoarding or hoarder, is to insult the people who actually suffer from it, because honestly, I had no idea this could be such a big problem.

In Stuff, the author Randy Frost narrates his experiences dealing with and helping some sufferers of this ailment. He starts of by mentioning the famous Collyer brothers, who had so much stuff in their New York apartment that both of them died (in 1947) indirectly thanks to the messy and secluded lives they led. (There are some jaw-dropping photos at this link if you wish to see just how much stuff was found at their house.) Frost was just beginning to get interested in the hoarding phenomenon more than a decade ago and what it really means to be a hoarder, so he and a student together researched this habit and visited quite a few homes of people who contacted them.

Through several chapters, Frost describes what he sees and learns. Most victims have very little control over their problem, making it a psychological ailment rather than something easily acquired. For a long time, I imagined hoarding to be a first world problem - I thought you had to have so much stuff to be able to accumulate them. But the people studied in this book easily span cultures, lifestyles, and economic makeup. Some started hoarding as children for various reasons - lack of stability in their lives or an obsessive possessiveness of one's own things ("that's mine!"). Others acquired it as they grew older, getting comfortable with their collections and over time, overlooking the fact that there were just so many piles of stuff around them that one could not eat at the dining table or sleep fully stretched out on the bed.

Randy had several theories as to why hoarding manifested in some of these people. He found that people with other psychological ailments like depression, OCD, ADHD, etc had a higher tendency to hoard their possessions. He also found that hoarders tend to view stuff differently - rather than looking at something as just another material possession that may or may not have value, they also had memories linked with each item, so much so that most victims were able to recount exactly when and why they kept something. To them, the act of throwing something away was nearly impossible - those who tried it got invariably angry or attempted to get the item back.

There is a lot more fascinating research in this book - this isn't so much a "How to stop hoarding" book as it is an attempt to understand this illness and the people who suffer from it. The author does mention a few Don'ts when it comes to trying to help someone get rid of their hoarding habits and sadly, those don'ts are exactly what most people would try when helping someone. I loved this book a lot more than I expected to, mainly because rather than look at hoarding as an illness itself, the author focused a lot on the people mentioned in this book. Not everyone has a happy ending however. Some people are evicted, some continue to hoard until their deaths, some relapse. But many did recognize that they have a problem and were somewhat willing to try solving it with varying degrees of success.


This audiobook is from my personal library.

18 comments:

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

I thought hoarding was a first world problem too. This sounds fascinating.

Kay said...

I have had this book in my audio library for quite a while. Maybe I'll soon listen to it. I find hoarding kind of fascinating, but I also know that I wouldn't have patience with it. I'm kind of the opposite. I have no trouble getting rid of things. In my mind, they are just things. Thanks for reviewing this. Don't know that I've read another review of the book and it's nice to know a bit more about it.

JoAnn @ Lakeside Musing said...

Fascinating suff! Those photos are pretty impressive... and scary, too.

Belle Wong said...

This looks like an interesting read. I'm not much of a hoarder of anything but books, but my husband does tend to link memories to the items he wants to keep. When we downsized from our house to a condo that was less than half the size, it was quite the challenge for him!

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

Shudder. This unfortunately runs in my family (along with depression and OCD, dammit!), so I am super super vigilant about never EVER becoming a hoarder. (That may not be how it works but I am convinced I can mind-over-matter the dark parts of my genetic inheritance.)

Priya -Tabula Rasa said...

Wow, I would never have imagined hoarding was a serious ailment. Like you, I have used that word to describe myself often enough. I am a possessive sort of person, after all. This book sounds very interesting. I like non-fiction that focuses on randomly specific topics (if that makes any sense - like The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, about the guy who used steal rare books, not a great book but a fascinating research!) The fact that you say this is less of an instruction-giving book, I want to read it even more. Nice review. :)

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you will enjoy it if you choose to listen to it. I had been pushing it off for a while thinking it may turn out to be boring but it was a very interesting study of this problem.

Athira / Aths said...

Moving, downsizing are always challenges for me too so I understand what your husband must have felt. It's so hard to look at something and try to toss it when it has so many memories linked to it.

Athira / Aths said...

And you are probably right ... when you are very conscious of not letting something happen, that something will probably never happen. :-) To me, it kind of made a lot of sense that people with depression and OCD were more inclined to be hoarders, but the numbers are very low at this point, so I really wouldn't worry about it, if I were you.

Athira / Aths said...

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much sounds pretty fascinating! I like weird nonfiction books like that - always very enjoyable! There was another book I heard about recently - something to do with living in hotels - and that sounded terribly fascinating too. But the reviewer mentioned that the writing was bad so that was a bummer.

Lisa Sheppard said...

I've occasionally watched those hoarding shows and it just baffles the mind. It does seem to be a mental illness for which there is no cure, no pill to take. So sad.

Athira / Aths said...

I watched one episode from the Hoarders show and that was actually my motivation for reading this book when I did. I was so disgusted by what I saw on the show and so shocked that there were people who couldn't control their hoarding habits that I had to read and understand this problem.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Fascinating. I looked at those black & white pictures of the Collyer brothers' home. That's a lot of things. I understand keeping things for sentimental reasons but to this extent...it was truly impressive, in a shocking, scary way. Thanks for the link.

literaryfeline said...

How interesting! I used to question whether I was a hoarder. The way I bought books . . . In my former house, I had a room that was full of books I had bought or been given over the years. There was hardly enough room to walk in there. There were books piled all over the floor, on the bed, in the closet, anywhere they could possibly be. Imagine if my entire house looked like that! (And that wasn't including the books on the shelves I had throughout other rooms in the house.) When we moved (we got rid of a lot of books), I told myself I would never let it get that bad again, and so far I've held true to that. And I don't think it's entirely due to the invention of e-readers (although they help!). :-) I don't buy books like I once did.

Helen Murdoch said...

Hoarding is both scary and fascinating. I have heard good things about this book

Athira / Aths said...

I was amazed at just how much stuff had accumulated. I have been to houses where one room is a storage room and it is PACKED with stuff. But at least the stuff stayed there and didn't come out to the other rooms.

Athira / Aths said...

Haha! I can imagine not being able to control myself when it comes to books. I don't have too many yet - they are all in shelves with plenty of room for more. I do give away books I don't care for, so that helps somewhat. I am also OCD about books having a place on a shelf. But when/if I have too many books I can see this system not working much, so we'll have to see.

Athira / Aths said...

This book was super fascinating!