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Buried Under Stuff: When Hoarding Becomes Pathological

Barbara Bensoussan

We all find ourselves, to some extent, under a constant deluge of the items we accumulate in daily life. Try sorting through your child’s notebooks and projects at the end of the school year. Even our email accounts are stuffed with photos and documents. But most of us manage to maintain equilibrium in our personal material worlds; we bring things in, but we throw out as well. Others, simply never throw out anything. Pathological hoarding is believeded to affect as many as 6 million people in the U.S.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


It’s indisputable that today we own many more material goods than people did several generations ago, and the houses we put them into, at least in the suburbs, are substantially larger. But hoarding goes way beyond crowding the basement with too many bottles of detergent.

The profile of a hoarder is someone who collects pile upon pile of clothing, newspapers, and gadgets, as well as boxes, containers, and bags full of junk. These items simply pile up in heaps in the middle of rooms, covering all available furniture until the living space becomes impossible to navigate except via narrow “goat paths” between the piles. As the junk (and often filth) accumulate, hoarders stop inviting people to their homes (although some continue to socialize out of the house). Spouses often abandon ship in disgust, young children may be removed by city agencies, and grown children often cease visiting.

Ilsa,* an acquaintance of my family, is a classic hoarder. A Holocaust survivor now in her early eighties, she spent most of her adult life living in a dark house crammed with possessions, unable to throw anything out. Since her husband was niftar, the situation has only gotten worse, and she has become a recluse.

“She won’t even let in a repairman to fix the air conditioning,” sighs a friend of the family. “She’s too embarrassed to let anyone see the house, but she refuses to do anything to change.”

Another extreme example is related by Tyler Gore, who wrote about his family’s dysfunctional hoarding in a prize-winning essay entitled “Stuff.” Gore gives a graphic description of cleaning out his father’s house after he became too sick to live there:

“Like archaeologists at a dig, we had to clear away the top layers of garbage before getting to the actual things embedded near the floor. We wore masks and rubber gloves to scoop up the cardboard boxes, food scraps, dirty dishes, rumpled magazines, used tissues and paper towels, destroyed clothing and fast-food packaging, and crammed it all into Hefty bag upon Hefty bag.”

A year later, the house was still not empty.

Many (although not all) hoarders amass possessions by buying compulsively. This inevitably wreaks financial havoc, as their credit cards max out. Many of them find their utilities cut off, when they are unable to locate monthly bills amid the strata of papers. A typical case is Irene, one of the cases described in Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee. When the authors to tried to persuade Irene to throw away an old New York Times, she bargained: “Let me just give it a shake to make sure there is nothing important here.” When she did, out fell an ATM envelope containing $100 in cash.

“My mother could never bring herself to throw anything out,” says Malka G.,* a mother and grandmother from Boro Park. “She’d keep soda bottles and cans massed in her kitchen and garage. Each time she was hospitalized —many times as her health began to fail — she made sure to keep the hospital bracelets. She had a whole drawer of them. She would religiously hold on to the hospital menu cards as well. She had piles and piles of old papers, boxes of clothing so worn no tzedakah organization would ever take them. You couldn’t find the couch, the closets were overflowing, and the basement was completely impassable.”

Similarly, Sari S.* had an aunt who never managed to throw out the games, toys, and papers she had accumulated over a lifetime of teaching.

“Everything had some sort of sentimental value for her,” Sari says. “My kids would be thrilled when she’d pull out some fifty-year-old game for them. But she’d never let them take the games home — she couldn’t bear to part with them. You couldn’t see the bed in her room under all the piles of stuff. We’d say to her, ‘Doda, think about your kids! At the end of 120 years, what do you think will happen to all this stuff?’ But she couldn’t think about that. It was much too upsetting for her.”


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