Book review: Stuff

Hoarding specialists Randy Frost and Gail Steketee recently published Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things that explores the psychological world of hoarding. In the book, the components of the hoarding disorder are explained through case studies, and the authors also provide many examples to illustrate where a hoarder’s actions diverge from those of a healthy individual.

The book is written in a positive and conversational tone that shows compassion for the subjects who are described in the case studies. The authors refrain from using judgmental language and shock-and-awe descriptions, which I find very refreshing, and instead focus on accurately portraying the complex world of hoarding.

Since the book was released, the authors have been interviewed quite a bit in the media, and these interviews cover a general sense of the text of the book. I recommend reading the Time article “Hoarding: How Collecting Stuff Can Destroy Your Life” and the transcript of the author’s NPR interview to get a big-picture view of the book’s content.

At Unclutterer, we are very open about our posts not being targeted toward people who are hoarders, but rather toward mentally healthy individuals who struggle with disorganization and want to learn more about simple living. Stuff does an excellent job of defining hoarding and describing the disorder, and I wanted to share some examples from the text with you —

From pg. 21: “The sense of emotional attachment that Irene [a hoarder profiled in chapter 1] felt for her possessions has been shared with us [the authors] over and over by people seeking help with their hoarding problems. These sentiments are really not that different from what most of us feel about keepsakes or souvenirs — the abnormality lies not in the nature of the attachments, but in their intensity and extremely broad scope. I find many articles of interest in the newspaper, but their value to me is reduced when piles of newspapers begin to impinge on my living space and overwhelm my ability to read what I have collected. For Irene, the value of these things seem unaffected by the trouble they caused.”

From pgs. 31-32: “Hoarding appeared to result, at least in part, from deficits in processing information. Making decisions about whether to keep and how to organize objects requires categorization skills, confidence in one’s ability to remember, and sustained attention. To maintain order, one also needs the ability to efficiently assess the value or utility of an object.”

From pg. 101: “Sentimentalizing objects — giving them emotional significance because of their association with important people or events — is not unusual. We all do it — ticket stubs from a favorite concert, pieces of a long ago wedding cake, a scrap of paper with a child’s first drawing. In this respect, what happens in hoarding is not out of the ordinary. The difference for Irene and Debra [two hoarders featured in the book], as for many hoarders, is that intense emotional meaning is attached to so many of their possessions, even otherwise ordinary things, even trash. Their special ability to see uniqueness and value where others don’t may stem from inquisitive and creative minds and contribute to this attachment. The desire to ‘experience everything’ may expand the range of attachments hoarders enjoy.”

From pg. 93: “Hoarding affords many of its sufferers the illusion of control and replaces fear with a feeling of safety.”

From pgs. 147-148: “While some hoarders, such as Ralph [a hoarder profiled in the text], become captivated by the possibilities in things, others are trapped by the fear of wasting them. Both types would save [a] rusty bucket with [a] hole in it, but for different reasons. For Ralph, imagining uses for the rusty bucket brought him joy. Anita, a participant in one of our treatment studies, spent little time thinking about possibilities, but a great deal of time worrying and feeling guilty about waste. For her the bucket would bring pain as she thought about what a wasteful person she would be if she discarded it.”

From pg. 155: “In one of our recent studies of people with hoarding problems, we found … hoarders were unusually sensitive to even small amounts of anxiety.”

From pg. 157: “Anxiety is not the only emotion hoarders seek to avoid. Most people, hoarders and non-hoarders alike, attempt to alleviate or preempt grief and sadness. Anyone who has stayed in a bad relationship or a bad job or has delayed breaking bad news to a friend can understand the urge. The difference with hoarders is a matter of scope: the number of sources for these feelings and the intensity of the feelings themselves, as well as the lengths to which they’ll go to protect themselves, are unusually great.”

From pgs. 214-215: “At this point, geneticists are betting that hoarding has at least some significant genetic cause, but exactly what is inherited is not clear. One possibility is that hoarders inherit deficits or different ways of processing information. Perhaps they inherit an intense perceptual sensitivity to visual details, such as the shapes and colors of Irene’s bottle caps. These visual details (overlooked by the rest of us) give objects special meaning and value to them. Or perhaps they inherit a tendency for the brain to store and retrieve memories differently. If visual cues (i.e., objects) are necessary for hoarders’ retrieval of memories, then getting rid of those cues is the same as losing their memories. Whatever is inherited, it is likely that some kind of emotional vulnerability must accompany this tendency in order for full-blown hoarding to develop.”

If you are interested in learning more about hoarding, I greatly recommend picking up Stuff.

9 Comments for “Book review: Stuff”

  1. posted by Shalin on

    Great, great stuff! I thought the NPR interview was especially interesting.

  2. posted by Shandy on

    Interesting to think that hoarding might have a genetic component, but I think it might be wrapped up in other things. Both of my parents have hoarding tendencies and, of their three children, only my sister, who is also bipolar, has similar tendencies. My other sister and I are both passionate unclutterers who find how they live totally incomprehensible. Interesting stuff.

  3. posted by chacha1 on

    I need to get this book for my friend.

  4. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Shandy — The book spends an entire chapter toward the end of the book explaining why some siblings might have hoarding tendencies and others don’t. Also, it talks about it in other locations throughout the book, but refers to these emotional vulnerabilities as “traumas.” I found it really interesting. You might personally benefit a great deal from reading the book.

  5. posted by April F. on

    Fascinating – thanks for sharing this, Erin. I have never had to live with a serious hoarder, but it troubles me to see people referring to hoarders as “selfish” because they “choose” to hoard. My sense is that hoarders do not choose it any more than a short person chooses to be short or a tall person chooses to be tall. This book seems to be insightful without making moral judgments, as you said.

  6. posted by Shel on

    I saved this to make sure I could read it, thinking it might help me understand better and sympathize more. It didn’t.

    I grew up in a home that had sections where things were piled everywhere and other rooms that were presentable and not affected. My childhood was spent, like many others I’m sure, living by the rules of hoarding and expected to keep the stress level down by not messing with this or that pile, or keeping it in my room when company came, and then, eventually, permanently. Once circumstances changed, it went full-blown. Having lived with, and forced to live *like*, a hoarder, is just unreal.

    Even so, I grew up with true hoarding behaviors, attaching unrealistic value to my possessions, never parting with them, happily lugging them from place to place because it was what I was taught was the right way to be. Our first home had some neat rooms, and guess what? Others were already piled! Then, a few military moves into our sixth, I just stopped and thought, why am I doing this? We never unpack these boxes! To my hoarder rationalizations of “I’ll use this someday” and “but we can sell it” my husband said something that made a whole lot of sense: what if someone said they’d come in and purge this “stuff” if we paid them? Wouldn’t it be worth the “lost value amount” if we could use our house instead of stepping around boxes and piles of papers? It was then that I began to slowly part with my childhood belongings, box by box, keeping a few that would be symbolic and meaningful. We made purges every time we moved, and while we still have too many boxes in the garage, our home is comfortable now. It does help to have to touch everything you own every few years! =)

    We all have times when we cannot see past our own pain to the others who need us to be present, but I have extreme difficulty accepting the level of ongoing self-involvement it takes to be a hoarder as something a person just can’t help.

  7. posted by Miss Margaret Picky on

    That’s funny, I also reviewed this book just this past weekend!


    I enjoyed it but hoarding is really not very well understood so the book doesn’t have all the answers even though the authors have so much experience with hoarders.

    My personal opinion is that there may be different causes for different types of hoarding, for instance, hoarding animals vs. hoarding food.

  8. posted by Parting with sentimental clutter « Hindgrindr on

    […] the first few chapters of the book Stuff, which I reviewed on Monday, the authors talk in detail about sentimental clutter. We all struggle with this kind of clutter, […]

  9. posted by Maria S on

    This is a great book. I bought it to help my husband but I found significant ‘attachments’ in my life, too. I’ve been able to detach to SEVERAL boxes of my JUNK and my husband is reading the book – although begrudgingly…

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