Stuff by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Authors: Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Type of Book: Psychology

Why Did I Read This Book: I admit it. I watch Hoarders. I also read the TWoP thread about the show. When this book came out, people in the thread mentioned the book. Later, a woman whose blog I read also recommended the book.

Availability: Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (boo, hiss) in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I am sickly fascinated by hoarding. I have more cats than the average person would think is normal and let us not even discuss my book collection, but at the end of it all, I am pretty finicky. I have a boat load of books but little other items of decoration. And I own two Dyson vacuum cleaners because I just can’t abide cat hair everywhere. Sometimes I think I find hoarding fascinating because it helps me feel better about the areas of my life that are a bit messy, but I also must admit that the whole train-wreck element of some of the homes tickles the tabloid part of my brain.

And yet even though I find hoarding of infinite intellectual and visceral interest, this book was bland for me. I think that there are some issues for me that I don’t really want to understand. Serial killers, for instance. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s interesting to know how people become serial killers through abuse and brain injury and such, but I mostly want to know how many bodies were recovered from the basement. It’s not a good personality trait but we all have our failings in life. I suspect the same thing is at work with hoarding. I just want to know how many tons of garbage were loaded onto dump trucks. I also know how intractable the mental condition behind hoarding can be. In a way, understanding hoarding and how it relates to OCD is almost useless because in the end, it is so hard to treat.

Still, parts of this book held some interest. Of most interest to me was the chapter about Pamela, who fell victim to a guru-like psychiatrist who manipulated her patients into caring for abandoned cats. She eventually ended up in a 16-room house with hundreds of cats, none of which were ever desexed because the doctor felt it unnatural, and the group of believers would go so far as to “rescue” animals who would otherwise have been spayed or neutered. Before long the situation was completely out of control, yet it continued on for years. Pamela ended up in the doctor’s home, caring for cats 21 hours a day. She finally fled when she was in her early 50s, ending up homeless for a while. But even after she clawed her way out, so to speak, she still fought the urge to collect cats. Most hoarders of animals describe animals as possessing a “pure” love, an unconditional love that was denied them in chaotic, abusive childhoods.

It was illuminating to understand some of the thinking or cognitive issues behind hoarding. One man saw limitless potential in every item he hoarded. A bucket with too many holes to hold water could hold something else. A piece of an ancient set of Venetian blinds needed to be kept on the off chance that he one day found someone who might need that slat.

One woman’s example explained the organization issues that some hoarders face. She saw things in terms of the space they occupied, instead of where they should go. Irene kept things in piles because in her mind, if she put them away, she would not remember them. A newspaper clipping, a phone number, her electricity bill – they all went into the same pile on the floor and she blamed a faulty memory when she was unable to find what she needed. She never seemed to understand that no memory was good enough to keep track of things in piles. She didn’t use drawers for the same reason – how could she know what was in the drawers if she put clothes away? Best to keep them out where she could see them. Irene also had issues with decision making, as she often could not assign just one meaning to an item. How could she put things away when some items had more than one meaning or emotional definition. A sweater could be as potent a reminder of a specific memory as a photograph or a diary entry, and therefore the sweater was not just clothing, but a mental place holder for certain events.

This book covers a lot of ground, discussing some hoarders who live in what seems to us like filth yet fear contamination when people touch their things. People who use items and animals to replace people. The perfectionism that makes positive action impossible. The desire to make sure nothing is ever wasted (the woman who saved her maxi-pads thinking she would one day wash them and reuse them was horrifying). The ability to see unspeakable beauty in bottle caps and piles of garbage.

But overall, I think the reason this book didn’t hit me well is because I left it feeling frustrated. Reading Frost’s accounts of dealing with hoarders was hellish. I felt like whacking someone on the head as I read his struggles to get just one cognitively impaired person to throw out one slip of paper with a phone number on it, only to have the patient go and retrieve the piece of paper from the trash. The successes were few and hard-won and I think I am callous enough that I crave the quick, visual fix that the television presentations of this condition offer. Yeah, those house-emptying examples don’t really solve much, but then again, aside from the examples of people intervening with children who suffer from hoarding tendencies, the psychological approach doesn’t work much either.

But my need for a quick clean-up, a definitive though likely temporary cure, is hardly the fault of the authors. I suspect people who like reading books that have case studies of patients with certain conditions, those who find hoarding interesting, or those who are dealing with hoarding will appreciate the looks this book gives into how it is that people end up in a home packed with garbage, unable to function, yet unable to change without lots of psychology and the threat of a city-operated backhoe.