Holding on to “Stuff” (literally)

Book review: “Stuff: compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things,” by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee

I borrowed a book about hoarding from the library but it was so wonderful, I didn’t want to return it.

Boxes of books

A few of the 18 boxes of books that left the house — without me!

I thought my family were hoarders until I saw the show of the same nameā€¦ my blood makes me a laughable amateur. I’m not comfortable with this part of my heritage and have been “working on it” for most of my adult life. (I love people more than things). At this point, I’m down to being a “recovering packrat” or perhaps even just a “stuff person.” And aren’t all artists a little abnormally woozy about things — fixated on “things,” able to find value (or potential activity) in nearly any object?

In my case, I have too much stuff, but I’ve gotten rid of a remarkable amount. I like to think I have insight into my affections and only a few areas of weakness, outside of art. I comfort myself that I love to throw things out and I save pictures of, for example, the 18 boxes of books I sold cheap last year. I like to say I’m able to let things go. But don’t go near my collection of Victorian beads and lacework, the books I kept (including a complete run of Nest: A Magazine of Interiors), or the pile of items I’m saving to eBay. I still have a few dozen boxes of art supplies (which I somehow think “don’t count”). I like to think this all shows I’m pretty well suited to helping artists and other collectors appropriately value — and tend to — what they will leave behind.

At any rate, it’s safe to say I grew attached to “Stuff,” the book. Reading “Stuff” was, for me, like a long holiday afternoon with a large group of packrat family members, except that instead of covering up their behavior or being rigid about their habits, they are talking honestly about their feelings and the objects where the feelings manifest; and after the relaxing afternoon, observing these curious people and their surroundings, I am allowed into the crammed-with-books office of two capable and sympathetic academics. Frost and Steketee’s approach is marked by kindness and curiosity. This makes it a refreshing and friendly read, non threatening to my “stuff” tendencies, especially compared to the TV programming on the subject.

Hoarders hold (ha!) a place in our popular culture at this time and we can look at them from many angles: “Hoarders” is sensationalistic; “Storage Wars” and “American Pickers” find markets for what pack rats pack; and a host of other reality shows about home organization, renovation, personal makeovers (“What Not to Wear”), and parenting bring “personal organizer” ethos and practice into every domestic setting you can imagine. Of course, these shows were inevitable, like mushrooms after rain, ten years or so after “Antiques Roadshow” made it to the consumer economy of America.

My personal favorite among the “stuff” shows was the short-lived, “Collection Intervention,” on SyFy, which focused on nerds and their collectibles. While some of these people are nutty, they’re nowhere near as ill as the people on “Hoarders” (who really are undergoing massive and sometimes life-saving interventions) and most of them are in relationships, which we get to see being transformed by appropriate compartmentalization of their “items.” It doesn’t hurt, either, that the objects are not outright junk; while you or I might think it’s insane to collect 60s Flintstone figurines, we can accept that those are a big step up from say, the ten years’ worth of orange peels one subject displayed (with pride) on “Hoarders.” Check out the 5 episodes of “Collection Intervention,” still available OnDemand and online.

It is easy for “Collection Intervention”‘s host (who is an appraiser, NOT a psychiatrist) to be empathic to her subjects, who are young and mostly, productive members of society. These collectors’ stuff is plays both positive and negative roles for them, and they achieve real benefits by “purging” and reordering their stuff. Perhaps that’s why there are no new episodes. It’s either not dramatic enough, or it’s too hard to find sane packrats.

The subjects who hoard in “Stuff” are difficult people — estranged from family, unclean, irrational, demanding, and mostly at the end of the productive part of their lives. Like the subjects of “Hoarders,” some of them are “end stage” hoarders who will either die or go to jail if they don’t change their ways, and they fight — hard — to keep things as they are.

By taking a scientific approach — one of observation, not judgment — Frost and Steketee illuminate these interesting people’s lives and thought processes. We can see, for example, their pattern of trouble making executive decisions and their inappropriate emotional attachments, the stress in their lives, and we hear how much they love their treasures as well as their trash.

In one of the book’s most touching episodes, a woman describes her difficulty throwing out something she admits is useless to her because she imagines it being uncomfortable in the “damp” trash can and then later in the dump. Even after tossing it, she is haunted and returns to her desire to protect this scrap of paper.

It’s examples like these, and the kindness and insight that the authors bring to hoarders’ activities, that make me feel like it’s not so bad to be a “stuff person,” at least when my stuff is out of the way, not obstructing my more useful activities or my relationships. I know that I need to always choose the verb above the noun and that I’ve made progress.

How does this affect artists? Most artists are “stuff people,” and some of them display some of the cognitive marks of these hoarders. Artists are skilled at “finding uses for things,” love to recycle and repurpose items in new contexts, and can see the beauty in almost anything.

Thinking about posterity gives an artist a chance to focus on what’s best and most fulfilling about their work. We might see, for example, that a pile of materials for potential projects is actually in the way; or that we can take nothing, not even our best work, with us.

When I work with artists on their inventories and their plans for their legacy, I try to take their other stuff into account, as well. I like to think, like the authors of “Stuff,” that I can approach what others might see as “crap” as something more, as part of the artist’s process and environment. And I like to think I can value the artist’s priorities at the same time as help them reduce the bulk for whoever will be cleaning things up in the long run. Having cleaned up after four deaths — including two artists — and observing many others — I understand the urge to keep as well as the need to toss. My goal is to balance respect for an artist’s studio with a bit of insight from the point of view of an executor or family member, and knowledge of what really matters. Some things are valuable because an artist made them; others for their potential. And there’s still usually enough to fill a recycling bin a few times.

Unlike personal organizers, I’ll respect your stuff while we organize the finished work and think about the future.

Because in my heart, I’m a “stuff person,” too.

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