PILES UPON PILES
The Story of Hoarding
I attach meaning to things that don’t need it.
I spotted Irene’s home immediately. Despite its commanding view of the countryside from atop a hill, it was dark and gloomy. Overgrown trees and bushes hid much of the house from the street. The paint was peeling, and the fence needed mending. A car parked in the driveway was packed with papers and clothes. I had brought along my student assistant, Tamara Hartl, and as we walked toward the house, we could see boxes, newspapers, clothes, and an assortment of unidentifiable objects pressed against the windows.
We knocked on the front door but got no answer. We found a side door and knocked. Something stirred inside the house. Behind us, a door to the garage opened, and out stepped Irene, slightly overweight and rumpled, with straight brown hair and a friendly smile. She introduced herself with a nervous laugh and invited us in: “You can’t get in that way. You’ll have to come through the garage.” A sea of boxes, bags, ski poles, tools, everything imaginable—all in a jumble, chest-high—covered the entire length and width of the garage. Along the wall was a narrow pathway to the only door to her house that was not blocked by debris.
The foreboding exterior of the house belied Irene’s personality. She was friendly, bright, and engaging and very curious about our research. Like others we’ve interviewed, she was tormented by her situation and demoralized by her inability to do anything about it. Though happy to see us, she worried that she was wasting our time, since her problems were of “no consequence to anyone but me.”
In Irene I’d found an extraordinarily articulate and insightful subject. I agreed to work with her as she tried to clear her home. In exchange, she agreed to describe everything she felt and thought during the process and not to filter out any reactions, positive or negative.
Irene lived about ninety miles from my college in Northampton, Massachusetts, which meant a long drive for each visit with her (forty-five visits over eighteen months). Each visit lasted about two hours. Tamara accompanied me on most of the trips. On our way to Irene’s home, we’d review what we had learned the week before, and on the way back we’d discuss the visit as Tamara made notes on a laptop. By the last of our sessions with Irene, we had generated a theory for hoarding—a framework for future research and a major breakthrough in understanding the phenomenon.
Some theorists have posited that people with hoarding tendencies form attachments to possessions instead of people. Erich Fromm claimed that a “hoarding orientation” leads to social withdrawal. Hoarders, he suggested, are remote and suspicious, preferring the company of objects to that of people. Indeed, for some people prone to acute social discomfort, possessions can be stable and comfortable companions. Irene, however, defied this categorization. She had a wide circle of friends, some of whom I met in the course of my work with her. They displayed a great deal of affection for her, and she for them. She had a quick wit and a well-developed sense of humor. It was easy to see why people liked her. She laughed readily and was often amused by the ironies of her plight. One day, as she pondered why she had saved a newspaper ad for new tires, she fell into gales of laughter when she noticed the headline: SAVE THIS AD. She was also quick to shed tears when she encountered something sentimental, such as a picture drawn by her son when he was a toddler.
With Irene as a model, the classic definition of hoarding as a socially isolating syndrome appeared to be flawed. One of Irene’s favorite things, she said, was to make connections between people with mutual interests. She would frequently give me the names of people she thought would click with me. She planned to give many of the things she saved to friends and acquaintances for whom they seemed suited. Unfortunately, her gift of seeing these connections was a factor in her keeping virtually everything she acquired.
Irene was intelligent and well educated. She seemed to know something about almost every subject and displayed curiosity and a wide range of interests. She had a story to tell about each possession—most of them remarkably detailed and engaging. For instance, one day she found a piece of paper with a name and phone number on it among the pile of things on her kitchen table and excitedly recounted its history: “This is a young girl I met at a store about a year ago. She’s Hawaiian and had such wonderful stories about Hawaii that I thought Julia [Irene’s daughter] would like to write to her. They are about the same age. She was such an interesting person, I was sure Julia would enjoy getting to know her.”
Her face lit up at the prospect of making this connection.
“But Julia wasn’t interested. I thought about writing her myself, but I never did. Still, I don’t want to get rid of the contact. Julia might change her mind.”
I have met few people who are as interested in the world around them as Irene, though I later learned that this attribute is fairly common in people with hoarding problems. As she talked, I could see the way each of her things was connected to her and how they formed the fabric of her life. The advertisement for the tires led to a story about her car, which led to a story about her daughter wanting to drive, and so on. A piece of the hoarding puzzle seemed to be falling into place. Instead of replacing people with possessions, Irene was using possessions to make connections between people and to the world at large.
As we were soon to learn, the hoarding phenomenon is composed of a number of discrete factors, some well hidden and unexpected. But the most obvious factor was the simple problem of accumulation: from a scrap of paper with an unidentified and long-forgotten phone number on it to a broken vase purchased at a tag sale, Irene had great difficulty getting rid of things. The value she assigned to objects and the reasons she had for saving them were many and varied. Irene’s beliefs about what should be saved seemed isolated from everything going on around her. She was truly baffled that her son and daughter didn’t share her penchant for keeping things. One day, as she went through the mound on her kitchen table, she found instructions for one of her son’s toys. “I’ll put it here in this pile of your stuff, Eric,” she told him when he got home from school. Eric immediately picked up the instructions, walked to the wastebasket, and threw them away. She stopped what she was doing, looking surprised. Eric saw her and responded angrily, “I don’t need it. I know how it works.” She didn’t say anything. A few minutes later, she found a bookmark. “Oh, this has all the book award people on it. Do you want it, Eric? I’ll put it in your pile.”
“No,” he responded before she’d finished her sentence.
“Don’t you even want to look at it?” she asked incredulously.
A few minutes after that, she found an old birthday card someone had sent Eric. She put it on top of the pile of things she was saving for him without saying anything. Almost as if on cue, he walked by, picked it up, and threw it out. Irene stared at him in disbelief. She simply could not comprehend his lack of interest in things she considered full of significance.
The sense of emotional attachment that Irene felt for her possessions has been shared with us over and over by people seeking help with their hoarding problems. These sentiments are real...