Sunday, June 26, 2011

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

I would like to let it be known upfront that I don't watch any gawk-at-the-crazy shows, including the ones about hoarding. I find them degrading and exploitative, and consider those responsible for them to be incredibly unethical.

That said, I have known a few hoarders in my time, and was interested in gaining some insight into why they do that. My grandmother almost certainly qualifies as one; once she buys a new possession and brings it home, there's no getting rid of it. As a child, I remember there being dozens and dozens of unworn shoes in her closet, along with more hats than I can count. That's not even getting into everything she stuffed into her attic, or piled into the extra bedrooms. The crazy thing is that, objectively speaking, she wasn't all that bad. The house was never what I'd consider unsafe, and here lately, once she's filled one house with hats and antique furniture, she goes off and buys another one. So, it could definitely be worse.

I remember it driving my mother nuts (I imagine it still does, but as neither one of us lives in Knoxville anymore, it's less of an issue). My mother is an anti-hoarder, if there is such a thing. Her cleaning sprees are legendary, as is her unabashed hatred of clutter and junk. While she isn't a neat freak by any stretch, she's far more likely to chuck something she may need later than to hang onto it just in case. I'm the same way; once my possessions start to hit a certain critical mass, I go on de-stuffing sprees and get rid of things. I hate knick-knacks and bric-a-brac, and dislike all but the most minimalist of furniture. The only things I tend to hang onto are crafting supplies and yarn (sadly, I plan out projects a lot faster than I can knit) and books. As far as books go, I've been working on only acquiring and keeping the ones I intend on re-reading or using for future references ever since I came to grips with the fact that Books Are Stuff, Too. Another possible example is cooking supplies and gadgets, but those tend to be sort of necessary for the types of cooking I do (I may be the only person I know who uses a pastry blender and a lemon zester more than once a month).

So, needless to say, hoarding is a totally foreign concept to me-- AND it's something I am likely to run into in my future career; as more attention is paid to it, the more likely it is that social workers will continue to be involved in hoarding situations. Frankly, the idea of having that much stuff floating around makes me feel sort of anxious, and I have a difficult time identifying with people who are that fixated on material objects. Stuff has helped me somewhat; the authors do an excellent job discussing the root causes of hoarding as well as effective strategies for dealing with it for both families and professionals. They also provide a number of very revealing case studies that help to both illuminate and humanize the issue. Unfortunately, most of the endings weren't happy ones; hoarding is very resistant to treatment and intervention, and relapses, even among those who are committed to recovery, are very common.

4 out of 5 stars.


  1. Sounds like a really interesting book. My grandmother isn't nearly as bad as yours but she does save absolutely everything, scary sometimes. No buying new hats and shoes for her as she doesn't have much money, but she saves everything she does have.

    Personally I'm like you - I want the least amount of stuff I need... other than books of course :) I move frequently and especially with just moving 1500+ KM away, I definitely realized what I do and don't need!

  2. Moving so frequently (like, six times in the last four years, AND again in less than a month) has really caused me to pare down the amount of stuff I have.