When Possessed, Rebecca Falkoff’s cultural history of hoarding, came through the letter box, I put it on my desk next to a pile of other books, a tangle of wires left out after an unsuccessful search for a phone charger, a small pocket microscope, a broken reading light, a carrier bag full of travel adapters, a sheaf of loose papers, a selection of penknives, a pair of speakers, the jawbone of a pike, an ancient box of cigars, a blown pigeon egg, a spool of fishing line, several harmonicas, a roll of solder, a broken toy steam engine, the shell of a sea urchin, the tail feather of a ring-necked parakeet, a transparent padlock for practising lockpicking, three empty mugs and a shrivelled apple core.
Falkoff’s book led me to others. I didn’t think I could start writing until I had read a few more histories of hoarding (Stuff by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, Clutter by Jennifer Howard) and books about the way to treat it (The Hoarding Handbook, CBT for Hoarding Disorder). I wanted to understand the allure of decluttering, so I bought The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo and Decluttering at the Speed of Life by Dana White. I sought out novels and short stories that feature hoarders (Gogol’s Dead Souls, in which Stepan Plyushkin ‘fishes’ in his village for worthless things; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Solid Objects’, in which a young man gives up a promising parliamentary career so he can walk around London in search of beautiful shards of pottery) and printed off academic articles in which psychiatrists argued over definitions. For months, the books and papers kept accumulating. I’d shuffle the pile around, read a chapter, underline things, attach a Post-it note. The pile got taller. The pile got dustier.
Pathological hoarding is surprisingly common, affecting between 2 and 6 per cent of people (with equal numbers of women and men), and surprisingly difficult to define. Since diagnosis is based on visual assessment, it can always be contested, which means that hoarding – as Falkoff points out in her fascinating book – is always in part ‘an aesthetic problem’. One solution is the Clutter Image Rating (2008), a diagnostic tool designed by Frost and Steketee to replace vague self-definitions of hoarding with a more objective measure. The CIR consists of images of different interiors – kitchen, bedroom, living room – which are progressively filled with objects. In the first picture of the living room the space is more or less empty. You can make out the floor, the surface of a coffee table under a neat pile of newspapers and the cushions on the sofa. By the fourth image, piles of clothes and electrical items cover most of the floor and all the available seating. By the ninth, the room is barely visible beneath a teetering mountain of objects.
I would place the room in which I’m writing this at level three on the CIR – a ‘standard’ amount of household clutter, according to Frost and Steketee. But like Falkoff, who first became interested in what she calls ‘hoardiculture’ because both her grandmother and her father were compulsive hoarders, I grew up in a house that was somewhere between level five (hoarding that might require some ‘professional assistance’) and level seven (which poses significant safeguarding issues, requiring ‘a collaborative multi-agency approach with the involvement of a wide range of professionals’).
My parents moved into their house in 1978 and my father has been filling it with stuff ever since. On a recent visit, I made a quick survey. There were bales of yellowing newspapers, bushels of name tags from conferences attended long ago, cans of unusual varieties of soft drink picked up on trips abroad, incomplete runs of obscure magazines, leaflets and other ephemera from museums and galleries, books (mostly poetry, 19th-century novels, art catalogues and autobiographies by entrepreneurs), business cards, shoeboxes full of cassette tapes, kites, wind-up toys, packets of incense and out-of-date Christmas crackers, the free DVDs that used to be given away with newspapers, music boxes, a printing press and cases of letterpress type. In cupboards I found supplies of the branded goods – soap, toothpaste, shampoo – that my father worries will soon be discontinued.
Unlike Falkoff’s father, mine isn’t interested in finding treasure among trash. He has never haunted rubbish dumps or car boot sales. But he does have an eye for unusual purchases. When the German coffee chain Tchibo (a bit like a Starbucks with its own version of the middle aisle at Lidl) opened a café in London, he would visit most weeks, bringing home a unicycle, a fold-up sledge, USB-equipped ear picks, flimsy toolkits that were never removed from their packaging.
At its worst, my father’s hoard felt like a living thing. Stuff flowed through the house, threatening to colonise every shelf and cupboard, becoming an indistinguishable mass (perhaps it’s this shift from individualised list to uncountable noun that really defines the hoard). To enter his study you had to stick to narrow ‘goat paths’ (as they’re called in the literature on hoarding) he had laid out between the columns of newspaper. In the hallway by the back door the boxes were stacked four high, so you had to climb over them and wriggle through the gap at the top, like a caver. Plastic carrier bags burst underfoot, spilling out snowdrifts of paper. We’d sometimes find wet patches and small dried turds laid in corners by our incontinent three-legged cat.
My father has always denied that he’s a hoarder, but that’s what all hoarders say. When I emailed him a picture of the CIR and asked him to rate his study, he said he thought it was probably a level three. When I pointed out the piles of papers in bags and boxes that covered the surface of his desk, he said they were only temporary – he was just sorting through them (they’ve been there since I was a child). If you ask him why he keeps all this stuff his answers vary. He used to say it was for work. Before he retired he was a radio journalist: each pile of paper represented an idea for a programme. That doesn’t explain the toys and other ephemera, much of which he knew would never be useful, at least in any narrow definition of that term. He has never attempted to ride the unicycle, or to use the fold-up sledge. He has never watched any of the free DVDs (he doesn’t own a DVD player). He rarely listens to the cassette tapes. He doesn’t consult the thousands of business cards he has carefully organised into the folders that line the shelves of my old bedroom. But he says they have meaning, these objects. It’s not that he thinks they might be valuable, or even useful. He just likes having them around.
Maybe he has a point. You could argue that the hoarder’s tragedy is his inability to convince society that the objects he treasures have value. The line between ‘having a lot of stuff’ and ‘being a hoarder’ is porous, dependent to a large extent on social norms. It’s also one that psychiatrists have only recently started policing. Hoarding behaviour used to be thought of as an offshoot of OCD, but in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, ‘hoarding disorder’ was given its own entry. DSM-5 defines it as the ‘persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value’, which prompts the question, who gets to do the valuing? My father certainly thinks that the objects he collects are worth something, if only to him. The NHS website offers more practical advice: someone could be suffering from hoarding disorder, it says, if their clutter ‘interferes with everyday living’ (tick) or if it ‘is causing significant distress or negatively affecting the quality of life of the person or their family – for example, they become upset if someone tries to clear the clutter and their relationship suffers’ (double tick). But getting upset if someone tries to clean up your stuff doesn’t sound all that unusual. And I’m definitely not a hoarder.
Psychiatrists are divided over why people hoard. Some have suggested that it might be the result of material deprivation in early life – if you grew up without much stuff then it makes sense that you’d want to surround yourself with things as an adult. But studies have shown that hoarders are no more likely to have grown up in poverty than the rest of the population. More intriguingly, a higher proportion of hoarders report having had strained relationships with their parents, especially their fathers. There seems to be an inherited component to the behaviour: half of all hoarders have a close relative who also hoards. There’s also some evidence of a neurological basis. The brains of hoarders show differences in their cingulate cortex and insulas from those of non-hoarders and OCD sufferers, and brain injuries seem to be able to trigger hoarding behaviour. In 1848, an explosion drove a tamping rod through the brain of Phineas Gage, a railway worker in Vermont. He survived the accident, but was said by his doctor to have developed ‘a great fondness for pets and souvenirs’ that was ‘only exceeded by his attachment to his tamping iron, which was his constant companion during the remainder of his life’.
Hoarding is a modern malady. The excessive accumulation of objects was once considered a moral failure or a species of sin, but it was still thought to be fundamentally rational: in a world without much stuff, shouldn’t you claim as much of it for yourself as you could? The Old English word hordian has connotations of secrecy but not of madness or obsession. This began to change, at least in the developed world, during the industrial revolution, when cheaply produced goods became more readily available, their value detached from their utility, making it possible to amass things in a manner that appeared pathological.
The first recognition of something like hoarding disorder was bibliomania, a fashionable disease in the 18th and 19th centuries. As cheap printing made books more widely available they became objects to accrue, often irrespective of their contents. In ‘The Book Collector’ (1841), the French writer and librarian Charles Nodier distinguished between ‘bibliophiles’, who know ‘how to select books’, and ‘bibliomaniacs’, who ‘hoard and amass them’. The bibliophile, he wrote, ‘puts a book in its right place on the shelf, after having explored it with all the resources of sense and imagination; the bibliomaniac stacks his books in piles without ever looking at them.’ Nodier’s exemplary bibliomaniac was Antoine-Marie-Henri Boulard, a lawyer who gave up his practice to walk around Paris every day buying books, eventually amassing 600,000 volumes. Nodier described a visit to his home: ‘The gigantic stacks, their uncertain equilibrium shaken by the tapping of M. Boulard’s cane,’ swayed ‘threateningly on their bases, the summits vibrating like the pinnacles of a Gothic cathedral at the sound of the bells or the impact of a storm’. When Mme Boulard suggested he might read a few of his books before buying any more, Falkoff writes, he ‘became sullen and crotchety and began buying books on credit and hiding his purchases from his wife’. He eventually agreed to curtail his habit and fell into a depression, so his wife asked a bookseller to stand underneath Boulard’s window calling out advertisements for his wares, the sound of which cured him of his ennui.
A more tragic story is that of the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, who lived in a brownstone in New York in the 1940s. The ‘hermits of Harlem’ were known in the neighbourhood as obsessive and indiscriminate collectors of junk, and their house was a local landmark for the clutter that surrounded it. In 1947, the brothers went missing, and after a few months the police entered their house to look for them. They soon found the body of Homer, who was blind, ‘nestled [in] an alcove amid piles of debris’. He had died of starvation. After three weeks of searching, they came on the ‘decomposing, rat-gnawed corpse of Langley’. He had died while taking food to his brother, having set off one of the many boobytraps he had constructed to protect his hoard. Along with the bodies of the brothers, 120 tonnes of stuff were removed from the house, including ‘an intricate potato peeler, a beaded lampshade, a toy airplane, a drugstore cologne display, a jar containing a two-headed human foetus preserved in formaldehyde’ and fourteen pianos.
It’s no wonder psychoanalysts have found hoarders so fascinating: making order out of disorder is the hoarder’s problem and the analyst’s process. Freud had more than three thousand sculptures covering his desk and shelves. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, he describes the way the ‘shortage of space in my study has often forced me to handle a number of pottery and stone antiquities (of which I have a small collection) in the most uncomfortable positions, so that onlookers have expressed anxiety that I should knock something down and break it.’ The psychoanalytic method has a lot in common with the hoarder’s. ‘All psychoanalyses are about mess and meaning, and the links between them,’ Adam Phillips writes in ‘Clutter: A Case History’. ‘If our lives have a tendency to get cluttered, apparently by themselves but usually by ourselves, most accounts of psychoanalysis have an inclination to sort things out.’
Phillips’s point is that the way we view a hoard depends on the stories we tell about it. A hoard that has been curated can become a collection; a collection that has been labelled becomes an archive (just as a collector is merely a hoarder who has space for his stuff). This is one of the reasons Michael Landy’s Break Down (2001), the artwork in which he systematically destroyed all his possessions – including his passport, his birth certificate and his father’s sheepskin coat – in a shop window on Oxford Street, was so provocative. It felt not just like an act of destruction, but a form of self-annihilation.
The most striking feature of the hoard is the labour required to service it. It demands to be handled, shuffled, arranged, rejigged. My father has always been proud of his ability to find things (books, passports, important documents) in the piles – ‘You see, straight to it!’ he says. ‘I told you, I have a system.’ For as long as I can remember, though, he has also been engaged in the never-ending project of tidying up. A recurring memory from childhood has him sitting at the kitchen table (his own study being too full to enter), working methodically through cardboard boxes of papers, scrutinising each sheet in turn before placing it on one of two piles: stay or go. By the time he’d finished sorting through a box, there might be three or four sheets in the go pile. The rest was subsumed back into the hoard.
Some years ago, when my grandmother was nearing the end of her life, it was decided that she would come and live with us. My father began to clear his study to accommodate her. He boxed up everything he could bear to part with and drove it to a self-storage facility on City Road. There he loaded the boxes into a storage unit, signed the papers, and left. Over the next decade he received occasional letters from the storage company informing him that his boxes had been moved, but he never felt the urge to visit them. When, years later, he realised he’d spent tens of thousands of pounds storing stuff he hadn’t once looked at, he sheepishly moved it all back home.
‘Hoarding is unique,’ Falkoff writes, ‘because its diagnosis requires the existence of a material entity external to the patient’s psychic reality.’ Not only that: the hoard is unique because it’s both a symptom and a manifestation of the psyche that created it. When I was younger, I was embarrassed by my father’s hoard. Now I’m sort of proud of it. It speaks of his eccentricity, the range and idiosyncrasy of his interests, his admirable indifference to cleaning. It’s fecund and generative, if slightly overwhelming, like a work of art, or a stormy sea. In my father’s hoarding I now see a commitment, not to utility or beauty, but to memory, and meanings.
Listen to Jon Day discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.
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