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Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things Paperback – January 4, 2011

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Product Description
What possesses someone to save every scrap of paper that's ever come into his home? What compulsions drive a woman like Irene, whose hoarding cost her her marriage? Or Ralph, whose imagined uses for castoff items like leaky old buckets almost lost him his house? Or Jerry and Alvin, wealthy twin bachelors who filled up matching luxury apartments with countless pieces of fine art, not even leaving themselves room to sleep?

Randy Frost and Gail Steketee were the first to study hoarding when they began their work a decade ago; they expected to find a few sufferers but ended up treating hundreds of patients and fielding thousands of calls from the families of others. Now they explore the compulsion through a series of compelling case studies in the vein of Oliver Sacks.With vivid portraits that show us the traits by which you can identify a hoarder--piles on sofas and beds that make the furniture useless, houses that can be navigated only by following small paths called goat trails, vast piles of paper that the hoarders "churn" but never discard, even collections of animals and garbage--Frost and Steketee explain the causes and outline the often ineffective treatments for the disorder.They also illuminate the pull that possessions exert on all of us. Whether we're savers, collectors, or compulsive cleaners, none of us is free of the impulses that drive hoarders to the extremes in which they live.

For the six million sufferers, their relatives and friends, and all the rest of us with complicated relationships to our things, Stuff answers the question of what happens when our stuff starts to own us.

A Q&A with Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, Authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Q: What is hoarding, and how does it differ from collecting?

A: Two behaviors characterize hoarding: acquiring too many possessions and difficulty in getting rid of them when they are no longer useful or needed. When these behaviors lead to the kind of clutter and disorganization that disrupts or threatens a person's health or safety, or they lead to significant distress, then hoarding becomes a disorder. Simply collecting or owning lots of things does not qualify as hoarding.

A major feature of hoarding is the large amount of disorganized clutter that creates chaos in the home. Rooms can no longer be used as they were intended, moving around the house is difficult, exits are blocked, and life inside the home becomes dysfunctional. Collectors typically keep their possessions well organized, and each item differs from other items to form an interesting and often valuable collection. Further, an important purpose of collecting is to display the special items so that others can appreciate them. People who hoard are seldom able to accomplish such goals.

Q: What kinds of things do hoarders typically save?

A: While it may appear that people who hoard save only trash or things of no real value, in fact most people who hoard save almost everything. Often this includes things that were purchased but never removed from their original wrappers. The most frequent items saved are clothes and newspapers. Other commonly hoarded items include containers, junk mail, books, and craft items.

Q: What factors contribute to the development of hoarding?

A: People who hoard often have deficits in the way they process information. For example, they are often highly distractible and show symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These symptoms make is difficult for them to concentrate on a task without being diverted by other things.

Most of us live our lives categorically. We put our possessions into categories and use those organizing systems to store and retrieve them easily. But categorization is difficult for people who hoard. Their lives seem to be organized visually and spatially. The electricity bill might go on the five-foot-high pile of papers in the living room, to keep it in sight as a reminder to pay the bill. Hoarders try to keep life organized by remembering where that bill is located. When they need to find it, they search their memory for the place it was last seen. Instead of relying on a system of categories, where one only has to remember where the entire group of objects is located, each object seems to have its own category. This makes finding things very difficult once a critical mass of possessions has been accumulated.

Q: Do all people who hoard save things for the same reason?

A: No, but there are some general themes. The most frequent motive for hoarding is to avoid wasting things that might have value. Often people who hoard believe that an object may still be usable or of interest or value to someone. Considering whether to discard it leads them to feel guilty about wasting it. "If I save it," reasons the hoarder, "I might not ever need it, but at least I am prepared in case I do."

The second most frequent motive for saving is a fear of losing important information. Many hoarders describe themselves as information junkies who save newspapers, magazines, brochures, and other information-laden papers. They keep stacks of newspapers and magazines so that when they have time, they will be able to read and digest all the useful information they imagine to be there. Each newspaper contains a wealth of opportunities, and discarding it means losing those opportunities. For such people, having the information near at hand seems crucial, whereas knowing that the information also exists on the Internet or in a library does little to help them get rid of their out-of-date papers. Hoarders are often intelligent and curious people for whom the physical presence of information is almost an addiction.

A third motive for saving is that the object has emotional meaning. This takes many forms, including the sentimental association of things with important persons, places, or events, something most people experience as well, just not to the same degree as hoarders. Another frequent form of emotional attachment concerns the incorporation of the item as part of the hoarder's identity--getting rid of it feels like losing part of one's self.

Finally, some people hoard because they appreciate the aesthetic appeal of objects, especially their shape, color, and texture. Many people who hoard describe themselves as artists or craftspeople who save things to further their art. In fact, many are very creative with their hands. Unfortunately, however, having too many supplies gets in the way of living, and the art projects never get done.

Q: Why can't people who hoard control their urges to acquire and save things?

A: Understanding this requires knowing what happens at the moment the person decides to acquire or save something. At the time of acquisition, people who hoard often experience a sort of high or euphoric sensation during which their thoughts center on how wonderful it would be to own the object in front of them. These thoughts are so pleasant that they dominate thinking, crowding out information that might curb the urge to acquire. For instance, hoarders may forget that they don't have the money or the room for the item, or that they already have three or four of the same item.

When faced with the prospect of discarding, hoarders have different thoughts from other people. All their thoughts center on what they will lose (for example, opportunity, information, identity) or how bad they will feel (distress, guilt), while none of the thoughts focus on the benefits of discarding. Saving the item, or putting off the decision, allows them to escape this unpleasant experience. In this way people become conditioned to hoard.

Q: How much truth is there to the common assumption that hoarding is a response to deprivation?

A: Although some people attribute their hoarding to having lived through a period of extreme deprivation, our research has failed to find a link between material deprivation early in life and later hoarding behavior. We do suspect there is a connection between hoarding and traumatic experiences, or chaotic or disruptive living situations, earlier in life.

Q: Hoarding has been considered to be a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but there are some crucial differences, aren’t there?

A: Yes. Only about 20 percent of people with hoarding problems report any significant OCD symptoms, like checking or cleaning rituals. There are other crucial differences. In OCD, obsessions are experienced as intrusive and unwanted, and the symptoms are always accompanied by distress. But in hoarding, owning things often produces pleasant feelings of safety and comfort, and acquiring can even produce euphoric feelings. In fact, the distress we see in hoarding comes from the byproduct of the acquiring and saving--the clutter--or from thinking about discarding things. There also appear to be differences in the brains of people with hoarding problems compared to those who suffer from OCD. For these reasons, many scientists who study hoarding have recommended that it be classified as a distinct disorder separate from OCD.

Q: Is it true that depression is a common affliction among hoarders?

A: In our research we find that over 50 percent of people with hoarding problems are clinically depressed. However, the depression does not seem to cause the hoarding, although it might be a result of hoarding, especially when the clutter interferes with people's ability to function and they feel embarrassed and ashamed.

(Randy O. Frost photo © Judith Roberge)
(Gail Steketee photo © Kalman Zabarsky, BU Photography)

Clutter Image Rating Photos used by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, Authors of Stuff
(Click on images to enlarge and learn more)

In our work on hoarding, we've found that people have very different ideas about what it means to have a cluttered home. For some, a small pile of things in the corner of an otherwise well-ordered room constitutes serious clutter. For others, only when the narrow pathways make it hard to get through a room does the clutter register. To make sure we get an accurate sense of a clutter problem, we created a series of pictures of rooms in various stages of clutter--from completely clutter-free to very severely cluttered. People can just pick out the picture in each sequence that comes closest to the clutter in their own living room. This requires some degree of judgment because no two homes look exactly alike, and clutter can be higher in some parts of the room than in others. Still, this rating system works pretty well as a measure of clutter. In general, clutter that reaches the level of picture #4 or higher impinges enough on people's lives that we would encourage them to get help for their hoarding problem.
Randy Frost & Gail Steketee (photos © Oxford University Press)

1. No evidence of a hoarding problem. 2. Beginnings of a problem with clutter. A subclinical hoarding problem. 3. A mild hoarding problem if the room looks this way most of the time. 4. A moderate hoarding problem

5. A serious hoarding problem. 6. A very serious hoarding problem. 7. A severe hoarding problem with substantial impairment. 8. A very severe hoarding problem. 9. Extreme hoarding.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Amassing stuff is normal in our materialistic culture, but for millions it reaches unhealthy levels, according to the authors of this eye-opening study of the causes of hoarding, its meaning for the hoarder, and its impact on their families. Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College, and Steketee, dean of the social work school at Brown, gather much anecdotal material from conversations with extreme hoarders and find that for such people, intense emotional meaning is attached to so many of their possessions… even trash. For some, this meaning inheres in animals: one interviewee has 200 cats. The effects of hoarding on the hoarder's spouse, parents, and children can be severe, the authors find. Frost and Steketee write with real sympathy and appreciation for hoarders, and their research indicates an absence of warmth, acceptance, and support during many hoarders' early years. They even speculate that a hoarder's attention to the details of objects may indicate a special form of creativity and appreciation for the aesthetics of everyday things. This succinct, illuminating book will prove helpful to hoarders, their families, and mental health professionals who work with them. (Apr. 20)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (January 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547422555
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547422558
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (229 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #69,332 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Stuff is first and foremost about hoarders-people who keep so much stuff in their homes that it negatively affects their lives- but it is also about all of us. Stuff forces its readers to look at themselves and wonder: why do I have all this stuff?

I agreed to read Stuff because hoarding fascinates me, and my family has had some experience with it. My husband's grandfather kept a very cluttered house, eventually filling an entire pole barn full of items from yard sales and the trash. Going through his items after his death was excruciating, and it was difficult to understand why he kept a broken rake, toy cars with only two wheels, and Tiffany lamps all together.

According to the book, my husband's family is not alone. In fact, SIX MILLION Americans suffer from hoarding, and only recently are doctors beginning to understand its complications. It is a bizarre combination of nature and nuture-both genes and family conditions have been identified as factors. I had the misconception that most hoarders were elderly, and that the Great Depression had led to their condition. Frost and Steketee quickly addressed this false logic by explaining that in their research most hoarders have never experienced a period of extreme need or want.

Instead, they argue, most of them had a childhood of extreme disconnect/isolation from their parents. Their "recent research indicates that an absence of warmth, acceptance, and support characterizes the early family life of many hoarders, perhaps leading them to form strong emotional attachments to possessions." Therefore, as children they learned to become attached to objects rather than people.

Still, I was amazed to learn that there are a variety of reasons why hoarders keep these items.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Homer and Langley Collyer (circa 1940's New York City and immoralitized in Marcia Davenport's book "My Brother's Keeper" in 1954) are probably the most recognized hoarders in American history. They are not alone. An estimated 2 to 5 percent (6 to 15 million) Americans are considered "hoarders".

Hoarding goes far beyond the display of German Beer steins your father has in the family room. But what tips the scales from innocent collecting into "pack rat" behavior and then further into full blown psycho-pathologic hoarding?

Illustrated through personal accounts and case studies this non-fiction book is a vivid, interesting account even for the non-clinican. Who are hoarders? What are the common demoninators, the genetic/family influence? What does all those tons of useless, unsanitary "stuff" mean to them? What is the impact of hoarding on the family members? Can the hoarding cycle be broken? These questions and more are addressed by the authors. This book could have easily been dry or overly clinical. It was neither. I could not put it down (does that make me OCD?) You will see your co-workers, friends and even yourself within its pages. If you ever needed an incentive to clean out the basement or garage this book will provide it.

If you are a fan of the two current television shows documenting hoarding behavior you will find this book even more interesting. It goes beyond what is shown on the small screen and delves into the true being of a hoarder. The book is a great source of information to friends and family of hoarders.

Fascinating Read!

Updated 4/23/10: The May 3rd edition of "People" Magazine reviewed this book and gave it 4 out of 4 stars and was their "People Pick" of books for the week. Whether you are a "People" person or not, this book deserves the attention.
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Format: Hardcover
I just finished my copy a couple of days ago. I am a moderate to severe hoarder myself. The book is great for at least two audiences. Those of us trying to figure out why we hoard, I could identify with various aspects discussed in the book. Perhaps the audience that would benefit even more from this book would be those who are friends or relatives of hoarders who are trying to understand the behavior. The many aspects and forms of hoarding are discussed in a non-judging way and with a level of compassion that is missing in most of the now popular haording television shows. While many of those shows seem to go for the shock value of the severe hoarder this book shows compassion and looks at the many differing reasons people fall into the trap of hoarding. The road out from hoarding as Dr. Frost points out is a difficult one and this book is not intended to be used as a gide to dig out but instead is the best if not the first book that instead concentrates on giving the hoarder a human face that perhaps more people can find compassion for.

The book would also be a good source for a therapist starting to work with hoarding clients. Through the insight given in the people the therapist most likely would be better prepared to find some of the core reasons why an indivual hoards and that understanding of course is a key step in any long term gains.
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Format: Hardcover
I come from a family with lots of what I would call near-hoarders. My mother hasn't crossed the line into being a true hoarder, but she certainly has traits of one, and I know I might also. This book may really help us not cross over into realms of hoarders. It is very well written---a perfect mix of stories of those who hoard and of insight into their minds and what might have caused them to start hoarding things. One trait I see in myself is a tendency to think of objects as having feelings---I realize I do this a bit without even meaning to, and I also tend to keep things that are associated with memories---things people have given me, even if I don't want them or have no use for them any longer. Both are traits many hoarders have. I felt like the authors had peeked into my mind when they talked about how many hoarders simply don't see the clutter in their house, and are amazed when they see actual photos of their rooms---they simply don't see the junk that is around. My house is messy, but not anywhere to the extent of a true hoarder, but I certainly don't see the mess until somehow I am forced to. I saw my mother in the trait many hoarders ironically also have---they are very concerned about germs and about order. She doesn't like anyone touching or rearranging her things, and often covers piles with rugs or towels to keep them from being disturbed, as if that makes them invisible. All this makes us both sound rather wacky, and I don't think we really are, and this book shows well that many hoarders aren't either---they are often pleasant, personable people who just have a problem with THINGS. I would encourage anyone with an interest in hoarding or concerns about their own family or themselves to read this wonderful book.
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