“Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,” by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, opens with the story of the Collyer brothers, two well-known hoarders who lived (and died) in a New York City apartment in the 1940s. Their story is compelling and, honestly, sad. After neighbors reported a dead body in the Collyer mansion — who turned out to be Homer — it took police three weeks to find the other brother, Langley, who had also died, crushed by a pile of newspapers not 10 feet from Homer.
It is these stories that pull you into “Stuff,” the stories of real people who struggle with the very real problem of hoarding. Although the book dips into a clinical tone at times (mostly references to past chapters and anecdotes), the many people interviewed for the authors’ research had widely varying experiences to share.
Because of their hoarding, they have lost friendships, relationships with spouses or children, their homes, their finances, and most often, control over their lives. While some of the explanations for their behavior get repetitive, the writing always pulls you back in when it returns to the hoarder’s voice.
One word of caution: If you tend to self-diagnose or have even a mild case of hypochondria, proceed lightly. There were more than a few times in reading that I stopped to worry, “This woman hoards because she doesn’t like to waste things. I don’t like to waste things. I reuse plastic bags sometimes.” And also, “This woman is defined as a hoarder because she buys so many things for the joy of ownership, not to use them. She has more books / newspapers than she can read. I have a lot of books too. In fact, I keep buying them even though I haven’t read all the ones I own. I am accumulating too fast. I’m a hoarder!”
So, you know, if you have a predisposition to anxiety, maybe stay away.
On the other hand, for people who hoard or have family members or friends who struggle with it, this book provides plenty of insight into why that might be — and how to help.
As a side note, the Amazon.com page for the book has an interesting Q&A with the authors, not to mention a series of photos showing the different stages of hoarding, both of which I found interesting.