Saturday, December 3, 2011

Review: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of ThingsStuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First, I have not seen a full episode of the A&E show "Hoarders," only clips and ads. So if you have seen the show, this book may or may not be what you expect. Unlike most reality TV shows, however, Frost and Steketee do not have to shape a hoarder's life for dramatic effect; they can let the facts speak for themselves. And the facts are engrossing.

The authors are psychologists who conduct research on hoarding, and in "Stuff" they present case studies, composite profiles, and historical instances of hoarders and the effects they and their possessions have had on family, friends, and society. There is the famous story of the Collyer brothers of New York, whose lives are notably the focus of E.L. Doctorow's latest novel, "Homer & Langley." The details of their lives seem to characterize many hoarders profiled elsewhere in the book: financial independence or being well-to-do, symptoms that point to OCD, intense attention to detail, rich inner lives and stories for their possessions, relatives who are themselves hoarders or collectors, limited social lives.

Frost and Steketee are careful to point out that hoarding is not a recent phenomenon in the U.S., as the show "Hoarders" might suggest, nor do hoarders fit within an easily definable personality profile. They can be as young as five years old and as beautiful as a runway model. Some hoarders require extreme interventions that involve social workers and cleaning crews while others, such as the woman whose home was lined with shopping bags of unworn clothing and accessories, can eventually control their hoarding with professional help.

The authors address the state of research on hoarding, its causes, and treatments, as they cover different aspects of hoarders' lives. They often note how very little research has been done on a particular topic, because it is difficult to conduct a study when, for instance, a participant takes close to two hours to answer a 15-minute questionnaire or write paragraphs to a multiple-choice question.

"Stuff" is aimed at a general audience, rather than an academic one, so Frost and Steketee present their case studies and profiles relatively free of awkward phrasing and unfamiliar jargon. This also means that they can share their own experiences and insights of working with and interviewing hoarders and hoarders' relatives. One notable example was one of their undergraduate research assistants who didn't realize her mother's problem had a name. During their interview, she would yell at her mom and throw accusations at her, despite everything she learned in class.

In spite of the current economic downturn, stuff is affordable, credit is still readily available, and one person's junk pile always holds the promise of unclaimed treasures. With "Stuff," Frost and Steketee present complicated, sometimes sympathetic, portraits of people living with a psychological problem that is all too often misunderstood. (4.5 stars)

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