Sunday, October 3, 2010


Stuff by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee had me on the verge of a panic attack for 290 pages.  Their examination of hoarding as a growing psychiatric disorder in the United States was a balance of legitimate scholarly study and fascinating anecdotal evidence of what may cause hoarding - PTSD; OCD; a cold, withholding parent; perfectionism; genetic predisposition; or physiological damage to the brain.  There is no clear answer, but the study alone brings hope to those who hoard and the people affected by their hoarding.

Irene, one of the first participants in their study was especially fascinating.  The authors sift through her life the was she herself tries to sift through the piles of papers, mail, newspapers, and other detritus entombing her in her own home.  Her childhood is examined, especially her relationship with her withholding father.  Additional clues to her hoarding lie in how she coped with a childhood move that left her lonely and unmoored.  Another layer is revealed when examining her college years and her inability to finish her senior thesis because the information and possibilities of her research completely overwhelmed her natural perfectionism.  Her skill and pleasure in finding and organizing information took an ominous turn during her career as a librarian.  Irene could organize and weed library materials, but nothing was ever thrown away.  Instead, she brought everything home with her, excited by the sheer possibilities of each scrap of paper.  Even divorce and the possibility of her children being taken away did not stop her hoarding.  The authors describe Irene the person and provide fascinating insight into the creation and everyday existence of Irene the hoarder.  Reading about her attempt to come to grips with her hoarding provides an understanding of both Irene and the disorder.

The authors are able to bring this same insight into each case they highlight in Stuff.  The people on the other side of the “goat trails”, paths of papers and trash created in order to move around their homes, are more than hoarders, more than their “stuff”.  Frost and Steketee do an excellent job helping readers understand what “stuff” represents for hoarders, but also for society.  Their writing style is accessible and the narrative arc created in the book ensures an interest in both the idea of hoarding and the people studied from beginning to end.

We are inundated with messages of consumption everyday and I think readers will find the individual stories compelling and horrifying. It offers a chance to think about “stuff” in a new way.  Hoarding is not about materialism; it’s about how people connect to inanimate objects and the degrees of these connections.  As an extension of that idea, Stuff will challenge readers to think about mental illness, exploring how someone can use inanimate objects as a way to cope, with larger mental health issues.

Supplementary information:

The Joy and Pain of Things by Randy O. Frost on the Huffington Post

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