Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things


by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee
304 pages | Buy this book

You're invited to an inside look into the cluttered brains of compulsive hoarders. Through profiles of their patients, the authors, both of whom have studied hoarding for years, provide a comprehensive view on the disorder that leaves its sufferers buried in junk—and sometimes literally trapped in their own homes.

What's The Big Deal?

Hoarding is a serious, debilitating, and often misunderstood mental illness. It's also something of a current cultural fascination. What began as a lighthearted look at sloppy abodes on shows like Clean House has turned clinical. TLC canceled Clean Sweep, its combination home- makeover/housecleaning show, and now airs the more ominous-sounding Hoarding: Buried Alive. A&E has Hoarders, in which hoarding experts meet with people who are about to lose their kids, their marriage, and their home, but who still aren't able to clean up their acts. Need more evidence that hoarding is so hot right now? Lindsay Lohan came out as a hoarder on an episode of The Insider.

Buzz Rating: Hum

Thanks to a public fascination with hoarding, the media are sure to jump on Stuff: Time, Salon, and The New York Times have already. But are readers willing to spend time learning about the disease and gaining a more sympathetic understanding for those who suffer from it, or would they rather continue to judge?

One-Breath Author Bio

Frost is a professor of psychology at Smith College; Steketee is a professor and dean of the School of Social Work at Boston University. Both are international experts on hoarding and obessive-compulsive disorder.

Don't Miss These Bits

1. A house full of old junk is not necessarily the result of someone who doesn't care. In the case of hoarders, many of whom suffer from OCD, it's because they care so much that the piles grow. Take Debra, a hoarder who "feared mistakes more than anything." Although she received excellent marks in school, losing even one point on a test "left her feeling worthless and empty." She was afraid to wear new clothes lest she ruin them, so years' worth of school clothes with the tags still on them hung in her basement. "Perfectionism ultimately paralyzed Debra. She realized there was no way she could come close to making her bedroom conform to her standards, so she gave up trying. It was easier to live with the mess than to experience the frustration of failing to create a perfect room" (page 113). Some hoarders buy multiple copies of a single magazine or pair of shoes so they can keep one pristine.

2. Hoarders are trapped by potential. We may just see a pile of old newspapers, but hoarders see possibility. One woman in the book can't walk past a newsstand without spending hundreds of dollars. " 'I say to myself: look at all those newspapers and magazines. Somewhere in the midst of all that there may be a piece of information that could … make me the person I want to be. How can I walk away and let that opportunity pass?' " (page 69). This same woman holds on to scraps of numbers with forgotten telephone numbers because " 'I made an effort to write it down, so clearly it was important to me' " (page 37).

3. There's beauty in all that crap. Frost recalls a patient who proudly presented a plastic bag filled with bottle caps. " 'Aren't they beautiful? Look at the shape and color,' she said . . . She seemed hurt when I didn't share her appreciation" (page 67). Hoarders tend to hyperfocus on the individual beauty and potential utility of an object, which is more significant to them than the collective mess that the accumulation of those objects creates. The beauty and promise of a vase, for instance, is more significant than the giant crack that makes it unusable. It's not an altogether bad approach to the world. One daughter of a hoarder admits her mother's "collecting" made her more appreciative of her surroundings. She described being in the park admiring a tree, noticing "the contrasting hues and textures of the trunk and leaves and thought I am like my mother. She's given me an appreciation of the physical world that I would not have without her" (page 226).

4. There's no quick fix. Hoarders develop a strong sense of attachment to each object, so having concerned family members do an aggressive cleaning won't change things. Hoarders will resent ceding control to the trash collectors. The trauma from having their junk tossed against their will makes "obtaining any future cooperation" from hoarders "slim." In worst-case scenarios, forced cleans have led to suicides. A less extreme risk: people accidentally throw away wedding rings, car titles, and precious family heirlooms that may be layered between boxes of old car parts and stacks of takeout menus. Even if the major cleaning effort goes smoothly and the space looks better, it's only a temporary solution. "The behavior leading to those conditions will not have changed" (page 97), and soon enough the piles will return.

Zeitgeist Check

Aside from the ubiquity of hoarding on TV, obsessive acquisition has finally found real cultural relevance: it's currently at the heart of a storyline in the soap-opera comic strip Mary Worth.

Swipe This Critique

The sympathetic, almost flattering depiction of hoarders is terrifying for anyone who's ever kept a junk drawer. Hoarders hold on to old business cards or recipes because they really do plan to make that cake one day, a pathology that may sound too close for comfort for some readers. And in general the hoarding traits the authors call out—"highly intelligent" (page 15), but "highly perfectionistic" and "trouble processing information quickly enough to make decisions" (page 10)—sound more like your typical Type-A, sloppy roommate than someone with a real problem.

While it's tempting to think of hoarders as freaks—witness an entire television series allowing us to point and stare—Frost and Steketee make clear that the desire to hold onto objects is near universal. It's just that in some people, that desire is amplified to an unhealthy degree. And in a culture that promotes the possession, acquisition, and consumption of "stuff" as a means to happiness and a measurement of success, it's no wonder that some people can't let go of the tangibles that surround them. But although the authors do a good job outlining the history of ownership, they don't really touch the question of what effect our modern consumer culture may have on hoarding tendencies.

Factoid File

Two prominent first ladies—Mary Todd Lincoln, and Imelda Marcos, the widow of the Philippine president—suffered from oniomania, the "pathological and uncontrollable impulse to buy things despite harmful consequences" (page 71). Now called "compulsive buying," it's not classified as its own disorder, but it can be a prominent symptom in hoarders.


Frost and Steketee are academics, not essayists. But the stories they tell are fascinating, which keeps the momentum going despite the professorial tone.

The book offers a good mix of cultural and psychological theories on hoarding, and Frost and Steketee's observations and findings from their careers studying hoarders.

Miscellaneous: It's a great academic overview of the topic, one that's sensitive to its subjects and realistic about the very slow path to recovery many hoarders face. As such, it's not as sexy as you might expect for the zeitgeisty topic. Readers expecting schadenfreude may be disappointed, but there's always reality TV for that.

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