One Man’s Treasure

As one season ends and a new one begins, I mark the transition by assessing what to keep and what to discard. I have an archivist’s fascination for ephemera so I have many odd scraps of no value except my own amusement. Those are the things I keep.

Now in the December 15, 2014 New Yorker, I read an article (which I clipped and saved until I got around to writing about it here a month later), which suggests I might have a problem.

“…in 2013 the American Psychiatric Association declared [these] storage habits a diagnostic feature of a mental illness called “hoarding disorder”…[defined as] a persistent difficulty in discarding possessions, regardless of their actual value, to the point where the person’s accumulated goods congest living areas and impede their intended use.”

The APA’s ever-expanding manual of mental disorders has broadened its scope to the extent that almost any behavior can be pathologized. If something is defined as an illness, then cures can be developed and sold. It’s all a matter of degrees. Deviate too far from the ever-tightening social norm, and you will be branded a deviant. Here we have psychiatry being used to covertly attack nonconformity, insinuating that there is something wrong in not being exactly like everyone else.

Are you feeling the fear and guilt, yet? Well, help is on the way. It’s not just the psychiatrists who can make a buck off pathologizing our eccentricities. The Container Store is doing very well, as is the National Association of Professional Organizers. And, in America, we can always make a religion out of any paranoia and line the pockets of armies of self-help gurus, like the pop psychiatry writer, Sandra Felton, who founded Messies Anonymous. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then clutter must be akin to sin and addiction. Repent and reform.

I’d counter that the true sickness lies in our disposable consumerist culture, one where well-meaning children can sweep away the accumulated mementos and aspirations of their elders. Saying, literally and metaphorically, your life is nothing but trash.

Aococella describes doing just that to her mother, “…the clear-outs were hard for her. Soon, she knew, she was going to lose everything she had, because she was going to lose her life. Until that happened, she was making sure that she had plenty of things. And here I came year after year, throwing them away.”

When people lose everything to fire and flood, to war or fleeing war, we feel the tragedy of their loss. The loss is more than the material value of their goods; it’s the years, maybe generations of work and sacrifice, that those things represent. How then should we feel when the next generation disposes of us? Just so much trash.

Acocella ends her article saying that there is a well-established link between hoarding and aging. Hoarding is symptomatic of dementia.

I can’t take her seriously when I look around at younger people taking photos of their lunch and collecting data on every mundane aspect of their lives. How many videotapes, selfies, tweets, and Facebook posts accumulate over a lifetime? Have you gotten through your email yet? The current generation is drowning in digital detritus. Perhaps, someday, their children will come along and press delete.

The New Yorker: Let It Go

The photo is of “Narcissus, after Caravaggio” by Vik Muniz which I saw at MoMA in 2004. It is constructed industrial rubble.
photo: Narcissus by Vik Muniz at MoMA


Jan 14, 2015
David Broer-LeRoux
And yet these same people pigeonholing others as hoarders are likely to possess 7 yrs of tax papers. As you get closer to the end of your life what would bring you more comfort, tax papers or mementos of your life?

Jan 14, 2015
Peter Strempel

In the land of lionised pathological religionism, and Republican fundamentalists sociopathy, perhaps targeting ‘hoarders’ is just deflection from the real issues.

What does the APA say about religious lunatics? probably nothing, eh?

Jan 14, 2015
David Burrows
I am reminded of the song lyric by Joe Jackson:
Everything gives you Cancer
Everything gives you cancer
There’s no cure, there’s no answer
Everything gives you cancer.

Jan 14, 2015
M Sinclair Stevens’s profile photo
M Sinclair Stevens
+David Broer-LeRoux Only seven years?

Jan 15, 2015
Mike Andrews’s profile photo
Mike Andrews
Timing! The GF just ran home screaming after trying to help me dig out. (No. It’s not quite “Hoarders” level. Nothing organic but tons of clutter and paper.) I’m going to call a professional organizer.

I keep saying that what I need help to do is provide the “do it.” Just by being there working on a corner helps massively.

Jan 15, 2015
M Sinclair Stevens
+Mike Andrews I’m interested in hearing more of your story. Can you think of any particular reasons you hang on to things? Do you personally feel that it’s a problem or are you just worried how others will perceive you?

Jan 15, 2015
Mike Andrews
I just talked to an organizer. I’m ready to pay to make a dent. I have many things because I have a lot of interests and can flit from one to another (sound like a diagnosis? I can’t have it.) I keep buying new bargains from Amazon and such. A large problem is that there aren’t given areas for things, like keeping cables in one place and separating video, from computer and such. ETC. I have been buying bins and shelves and cleaning supplies and tools and none of them want to go to work on their own. If you really wanted to talk we could.

Jan 15, 2015
M Sinclair Stevens
+Mike Andrews I have an ascetic idealism but a pack-rat inclinations so I’m always torn between those extremes myself. This is why I found the article which suggested that hoarding is no longer considered symptomatic of other problems but has been redefined as a problem in itself both interesting and troubling. And I’m interested in exploring why people become inundated with stuff and what it means to them and others.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my entire life sorting through things, organizing them, moving them from one pile to another, one box to another and labeling them. I curate, document, and archive.

As long as a collection doesn’t present an actual health risk (like refuse which attracts vermin), what harm does it do? If we enjoy it, enjoy it. Are we really more virtuous for “taming clutter”?

However, you write as if your things have gotten the better of you, as if you are battling for control. Sometimes I feel that way.

As I said at the beginning of the post, any change of season presents an opportunity for me to step back and assess. So, currently, I am in the process of a “spring cleaning” kind of purge. I find it difficult to work if my room or desk is cluttered. However, I also recognize that straightening up (or feeling the need to) is often actually a form of procrastination, an excuse for avoiding productive, creative work by keeping busy.

Jan 15, 2015
Peter Strempel

Last night I was thinking about Adam Curtis’s documentary series The Century of the Self when I was struck by two thoughts that might have been sparked by your post.

The first is about a progressive narrowing of the common conception of what is ‘normality’, and the second is about ‘enforcing’ a consumerism based on disposables that need to be constantly replaced.

If we can think of normality as a mathematical abstraction – a bell curve – then the normal is the top of the curve, where most of what is being measured is concentrated, with successive standard deviations flattening out the beginning and end of the curve. As the term ‘deviation’ implies, deviance lies at some distance from the peak of the curve. A distance that becomes deviance only when we determine the ‘width’ of the highest part of the curve we are prepared to call a normal range. Everything outside that range then becomes deviance.

But this is a mathematical abstraction. It does not provide any qualitative evidence at all. If such a curve started at someone never buying a TV, rose to a peak of people buying and keeping a TV for five years, and dropped to a low of people keeping a TV forever, what is it that says people who don’t buy TVs, or never replace them, are somehow deviant?

That brings me to my second point. If psychiatrists/psychologists start to broaden the range and type of ‘disorders’ that may require treatment, we should ask ourselves first who is served by such inflation of putative ‘mental illness’. Clearly the shrinks themselves benefit from having more symptoms to treat, and therefore a greater chance at inflating their incomes.

However, unless their ambit claims are backed by legislation mandating such treatment, it’s just caveat emptor, like regression therapy, ongoing analysis to provide a forum for freestyle rambles about various neuroses, or the appalling trend to find legal excuses for sociopathic crimes.

Shrinks don’t operate in isolation from their societies. I mean that they are less likely to practice methods that would criminalise them, and more likely to practice methods that dovetail into socially acceptable ideas.

Ideas like consumption, consumerism, and the related idea of driving a continuous consumption by designing products to fail or break, marketing the idea of the need for newer, better replacements (regardless of whether they are in fact better), and the idea of social deviance or unacceptability in people who don’t have that new toy or can of drink to throw away (I am strangely reminded of Dennis Leary’s ‘Asshole’ here:

In that light the very idea of hoarding as a new category of deviance makes me wonder whether this isn’t a bit of a pathology in itself: to demand adherence to a throw-away culture of consumption as a sign of normality, and to seek public opprobrium for people who don’t meet that ideological test of ‘normality’. A ‘normality’ that I think is increasingly an inversion of the bell curve, squeezed out to one side rather than reflecting a standard distribution.

I have read about cases, and even seen a couple myself, of families living in houses almost impassable internally for piles of papers, clothes, junk, and littered with animal faeces, urine, and decomposing food scraps. This is not what I regard as a suitable environment for children, even if we may concede that adults should not be forced to live in some way that does not harm others (your example of attracting vermin comes to mind). But these are actually extreme cases, and therefore at the extremely flat end of that bell curve.

The problem in defining ‘hoarding’ as a psychiatric condition rather than seeing it as a symptom of some other, more general condition, is that it will inevitably suffer bracket creep, meaning what starts out as being applied only to extremes will tend towards being abused by being extended to progressively less extreme cases. The money to be made by doing so is the driver or engine for that kind of abuse.

I’m not an American libertarian, but I am tempted to think that if the ‘authorities’ came for me because every square inch of wallspace in my home was covered in bookshelves, filled with books and journals (rather than tasteless consumer knick-knacks), I might take up arms and imitate James Cagney: ‘Come and get me coppah!’

Jan 15, 2015
M Sinclair Stevens
+Peter Strempel As usual, you manage to put into words exactly all the points I was trying to make. I knew I hadn’t quite succeeded but I’m glad that I managed to say enough to spark some of the same reaction in you so that you could digest it better than I did and articulate the points more clearly to others.

1. I am horrified the constant narrowing of the boundaries of social norms and the labeling of anything that falls outside these boundaries as deviance (with a negative connotation), as a pathology that must be cured. I do not believe that human beings should all be exactly the same, as machines are, or that difference is a deformity.

2. I do believe that psychiatrists pathologize benign behaviors so that they can sell a “cure”. That cure is often conveniently their services, or their cronies the drug companies. But, whole industries (like Messies Anonymous which has its roots in Evangelical Christianity and self-help books, and even companies like the Container Store) benefit by creating a demand for a cure by relabeling certain behaviors as “problem behaviors.”

3. I also believe that creating strong boundaries between “us and other” (“us” being normal and “other ” being abnormal or deviant) is a form of social control, a social imperialism used to marginalize any person or group of people not in the majority. Some people get the “seal of approval” and the others are put under watch. Otherness becomes synonymous with suspiciousness and untrustworthiness.

[I’ll come back to this….I’m dashing out the door and am unable to finish.]