Oct 17

Book Review: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of ThingsStuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost

Stuff fascinates me. Why do we accumulate stuff, what is our relationship to it, and why can our relationship get to the pathological stage? I’m a child of people who are, well, if not hoarders, certainly on the spectrum of that, and I have a touch of it myself. Within the past few years, my pendulum on this spectrum swung the other direction as I had to declutter to an almost minimalist state for a cross-country move. After reading Marie Kondo’s book and getting rid of most of what I owned, my relationship to my stuff changed and it has become a subject I’m fascinated by. This book went to my “to read” shelf the moment I heard about it.

One of the best things about this book is that the author is also the one who did the first-hand research on it. I really respect that. Frost spent time visiting his subjects and did quite a bit of the social work involved in helping them. He shows sympathy for his subjects and it’s clear he genuinely likes most of them personally, even if he’s at times disgusted by their homes (the story about the roach-infested apartment would disgust anyone.)

Frost categorizes the hoarders into different types of people, that is, people who hoard for different reasons. Some of the most tragic cases involved children who hadn’t yet learned to handle any of their disorder, like the girl who cried when she lost mud off her shoe and the girl who compulsively steals things and won’t give them back. This isn’t a self-help book. While Frost gives some insight to how these people feel about their belongings, why it’s so difficult for them to part with things we’d consider trash, there isn’t much help for changing. Change comes only very slowly and has to be instigated by the afflicted person. One insight that he offered was that people don’t really see their own clutter. When asked to draw a map of their house, they’ll ignore rooms that are impassable because of stuff; they literally don’t see it. Sometimes all it takes is looking at a photograph of their own home for people to jolt out of their selective blindness.

This is a very well written book about a problem that everyone knows about and many people suffer from (sometimes second hand) but very few people have ever learned anything about from a valid psychological viewpoint. Frost seems to imply that people are like this because they’re born like this, not that something causes it (though genetics can play a part). I think that when more books are written on this subject, they’ll all contain this title in the bibliography. It’s not a life-changing book, and I don’t have any solid takeaways in terms of my own life, but it’s a good introduction to a subject which fascinates me.

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