Girls Gone Reading's Reviews > Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Stuff by Randy O. Frost
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Jun 22, 10

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Stuff is first and foremost about hoarders-people who keep so much stuff in their homes that it negatively affects their lives- but it is also about all of us. Stuff forces its readers to look at themselves and wonder: why do I have all this stuff?

I agreed to read Stuff because hoarding fascinates me, and my family has had some experience with it. My husband’s grandfather kept a very cluttered house, eventually filling an entire pole barn full of items from yard sales and the trash. Going through his items after his death was excruciating, and it was difficult to understand why he kept a broken rake, toy cars with only two wheels, and Tiffany lamps all together.

According to the book, my husband’s family is not alone. In fact, SIX MILLION Americans suffer from hoarding, and only recently are doctors beginning to understand its complications. It is a bizarre combination of nature and nuture-both genes and family conditions have been identified as factors. I had the misconception that most hoarders were elderly, and that the Great Depression had led to their condition. Frost and Steketee quickly addressed this false logic by explaining that in their research most hoarders have never experienced a period of extreme need or want.

Instead, they argue, most of them had a childhood of extreme disconnect/isolation from their parents. Their “recent research indicates that an absence of warmth, acceptance, and support characterizes the early family life of many hoarders, perhaps leading them to form strong emotional attachments to possessions.” Therefore, as children they learned to become attached to objects rather than people.

Still, I was amazed to learn that there are a variety of reasons why hoarders keep these items.

* utility: Everything has a use, and the hoarder believes that they will use the broken rake later to fix another one.
* opportunity: That piece of newspaper is an opportunity to be smarter, go on a trip, understand something greater, etc.
* fear of error: The hoarder can’t decide if this item is important or not, so he/she just keeps it.
* perfection: In an attempt to perfect a collection, he/she keeps all of the magazines published in 1999 together.

Millions more are affected by hoarding when you factor in their families, their caregivers, and their neighbors. At one point Dr. Frost participates in a house-wide cleanout in NYC. After speaking with a representative from the cleaning company he learns that a house-wide cleaning can cost upwards of $50,000 and that this particular company averages four such cleanings a day!

Ironically most of these cleanings are paid for by the city as a result of legal issues/social work, and they don’t end the hoarding because they don’t address the reason behind the issue. In fact, these house-wide cleanouts usually make the issue worse. The authors are concerned that hoarding is on the rise-with 11 million Americans owning storage space around the country-something that did not exist forty years ago.

Consistently in the book I was puzzled by the question: what is the difference between clutter and a hoard? What distigushes a collector from a hoarder? Apparently I am not the only one with these questions, and the authors argued that “(p)erhaps the best way to make the distinction between hoarding and normal collecting is to determine whether the behavior creates a problem for the family.” Still vague huh? Well Dr. Frost developed a Clutter Image Rating to help diagnose potential hoarders. Patients look at the pictures and determine which one looks like their house. Doctors are then in the difficult position of deciding if children in the home are endangered. If so, they legally have to report the hoarding issue which usually results in legal action and the patient not returning to therapy.

I really enjoyed this book because it was a combination of stories and scientific data. It also made me constantly aware of the items that we choose to keep in our home, our cars, and our lives. I still have not come to an answer about all of my stuff, but I do know that my fridge is cleaner after the chapter about food hoarding!
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