Behind the Piles: A Look At Why People Hoard

The new book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things looks at the nature of hoarders, and the reasons why some people hoard. Co-author and professor of psychology Randy Frost describes his work, and explains why changing a hoarder's behavior is difficult.

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PAUL RAEBURN, host:

From NPR, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Paul Raeburn. We're talking this hour about I guess the theme for the hour is odd and unusual things because our next subject is also an odd and unusual thing. We're going to talk about people who collect things, can't stop collecting even though that collecting might be ruining their lives or threatening their lives, ruining their relationships, making their living spaces uninhabitable. We now have cable-channel shows about hoarding and people who try to help them clear the clutter, clear the clutter.

My next guest has studied hoarding for decades and has developed treatments for hoarders, and he has gathered his observations on hoarding in a new book, co-authored with Gail Steketee. It's called "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things."

Joining me now is Randy O. Frost, professor of psychology at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He joins us today from the University of Michigan. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Dr. Frost.

Dr. RANDY O. FROST (Author, "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things"; Professor of Psychology, Smith College): Thank you, Paul. It's nice to be here.

RAEBURN: What are you doing in Michigan?

Dr. FROST: I'm here for an Interdisciplinary Science of Consumption Meeting.

RAEBURN: The science of consumption. We should have you back for another show to talk about that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAEBURN: So tell us a little bit about hoarding. You know, I feel obliged to say that it's interesting, it's fascinating. We tend to chuckle and trade these stories and, you know, isn't this a strange thing, but this is really a tragic thing, too, isn't it?

Dr. FROST: It is a tragic thing, and we're learning more about it as we go along, and surprisingly, it's much more frequent than we ever imagined.

The most recent epidemiological evidence suggests that somewhere between two and five percent of the population suffer from hoarding that is serious enough to cause them problems.

RAEBURN: All right, so we let's let that sit for our statistics for the moment because I want to get to some of these stories. The book was fascinating, I thought. I think you did a very nice job, and you told in the preface the story of the Collyer brothers, the famous story of the Collyer brothers, but with all kinds of details and information that I don't remember ever hearing before.

So we can't take the next hour and a half to tell the story, but why don't you tell us a short version of the story, if you can? I think many people have probably heard of the Collyer brothers but don't quite remember who they were.

Dr. FROST: Right. The Collyer brothers were members of one of the more well-established clans in New York, turn of the century, and their grandfather, for instance, was one of the biggest shipbuilders on the Hudson.

And as they grew up, they the two brothers were both well-educated. They both went to Columbia. One of them, Homer, became an admiralty lawyer, and Langley became an engineer. He studied engineering and was a concert pianist, in fact at one point played at Carnegie Hall.

RAEBURN: And they lived in New York City, is that correct?

Dr. FROST: They lived in New York City in a once-fashionable section of Harlem in a large brownstone which, after the 1920s, they began to fill up with things.

And this hit the newspapers in 1947, when someone reported that one of the Collyer brothers was dead, and the police came to try to verify the account, couldn't get into the house. They ended up breaking down the front door and not being able to get in because it was packed so tightly with wrapped newspapers.

The same thing was true of the basement door, and they finally had to get a fire truck and get use a ladder to get in the second-floor window, where they found the body of Homer.

RAEBURN: They couldn't pull the papers out of the front door and get in that way?

Dr. FROST: No, they tried, and they started a little tunnel, and it just kept going. So they ended up giving up on that strategy. And when they got inside, what they discovered was that every room was full nearly to the ceiling, and there were tunnels throughout the house where Langley moved about.

Now Homer had become disabled. So he was partially paralyzed. So he stayed in one place, and Langley was the one who collected all this stuff and moved around the house through these tunnels. And he became somewhat paranoid of people breaking into the house. So he developed booby traps in the tunnels. And eventually what happened is that one night, he tripped his own booby trap, and some heavy objects fell on him and crushed him and killed him, and because he was taking care of Homer, Homer eventually died.

RAEBURN: Homer - How did Homer die?

Dr. FROST: Of starvation.

RAEBURN: Of starvation, oh, wow. Tragic doesn't even begin to encompass what's going on here.

Dr. FROST: And it took about three weeks for the police and the fire crew who were cleaning the house to actually find Langley's body, and during that time, every day there was a front-page paper about what was going on at the Collyer residence.

RAEBURN: So didn't this become this became a thing, in New York City, at least, of parents telling their children to clean up their room so they didn't become like the Collyer brothers or something.

Dr. FROST: Exactly, and now, even the police departments in their official reports, if they see a residence like this, it's called a Collyer residence.

RAEBURN: Really? So now one of the you mentioned one of them was a piano player. That was Langley?

Dr. FROST: That was Langley.

RAEBURN: And that reminds me of one detail about what was found in the house. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Dr. FROST: Oh yes. There were 14 grand pianos.

RAEBURN: Fourteen grand pianos, unbelievable.

Dr. FROST: And one of them was a gift from the queen of England.

RAEBURN: Really? Well, I guess the queen probably wishes she hadn't made that gift. So again, you know, you can see what I'm doing here, and I'm angry at myself for doing it, which is sort of being fascinated and sort of amused by this, even though two people died here from - died from what? Is it a psychiatric disorder? Is it obsessive-compulsive disorder? What is this thing?

Dr. FROST: Well, this is a very interesting question, especially right now because as we speak, there is consideration for making this a distinct disorder in the new diagnostic code. And in fact, there that has been the recommendation of the people, myself included, who are doing research on this disorder. So it looks like it will be considered a separate disorder if that recommendation is accepted.

RAEBURN: Is that your view, as well?

Dr. FROST: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. Hoarding is a very complex set of behaviors. It's you know, you look at someone's home that's absolutely cluttered, and you think it's just the clutter, but it's really three somewhat distinct problems wrapped up in one.

First, there's a problem with acquisition, that there is more material coming into the home than is the case for most other people. Second, there is a difficulty letting things go. It's almost as if when something enters the home, it becomes part of the person, almost like part of their body, and getting rid of it feels like they're losing something really significant.

But neither of those behaviors are, in and of themselves, pathological. Lots of people collect lots of things and like their stuff.

RAEBURN: You know, I have to say I felt like, you know, a bit reading the book - a bit like the medical student who acquires every illness he or she is reading about while they're studying in medical school. You know, I kept reading things and looking at things there and saying, you know, I do something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FROST: Right.

RAEBURN: Now thankfully in my house, you can still get in the front door, but I tend to you know, I probably shouldn't mention a stack of Playbills in the bottom of a bookcase that go back I don't know how many years, and I don't think I've ever looked at them, but I also have not thrown them out. Am I in deep trouble?

Dr. FROST: Well, no, no. In fact, these behaviors are not all that unusual. The thing that makes it pathological, the thing that really creates the problem, is an inability to keep things organized. And so stuff piles up in the middle of the room, and there are a number of very interesting reasons why that happens.

Irene(ph), for instance, one of the people that we talk quite a bit about...

RAEBURN: Yeah, very interesting story, yeah.

Dr. FROST: If you look in her bedroom, her bedroom is like the rest of the house, which is pretty full, but on her dresser are her clothes, all the way to ceiling, but her dresser drawers are empty.

And what she says is that if I put my clothes in the drawer, I won't be able to see them, and if I can't see them, I'll forget that I have them, and they'll be lost to me.

RAEBURN: You know, I mean, that's one of the things that as I was reading that, you know, I get that. You know what I mean, in a way? I mean, I don't do that, but I sort of understand the reasoning sort of makes sense.

Dr. FROST: Yeah, and one of the things I think that makes this such an intriguing problem is that we can all see a little bit of ourselves in it, and it tells us something about our relationship to possessions and objects and how objects form a part of our world.

RAEBURN: And this is the economics section of the disorder, in a way.

Dr. FROST: Right.

RAEBURN: Now, the tell us a little bit more about Irene because I thought that was a fascinating story and particularly, you know, set it up for us, and then tell us about some of those moments when you observed her trying to get organized.

Dr. FROST: Irene was a delightful person to work with. She was a wonderful conversationalist. She was very bright, very engaging, very interested in the world around her. She had a wide circle of friends. But she had a problem with things, with possessions.

And finally, her husband said look, you have to clean the house up, or I'm leaving, and she couldn't do it. So he ended up leaving.

RAEBURN: He left.

Dr. FROST: And that's when she called me, and she was desperate because now she's afraid that she's going to lose custody of her children. And so I spent many, many months with Irene working with her on this problem, and we made this arrangement that I would help her however I could if...

RAEBURN: So now she had, in addition to the clothes stacked up rather than being in the dresser, what were some of the key elements of her situation there when you went to see her?

Dr. FROST: She saved lots and lots of different kinds of things: papers, clothes, magazines, pieces of broken broken pieces of games, boxes, containers. It I can give you an idea of some of the stuff she saved, give you a flavor of what it's like because she was sort of the prototypical person with this problem. One day I was working with her to try to clear up some of the papers in her TV room. And she came across an ATM envelope that was about five years old. And there was no money in it, but she had written on the back how she spent the money that came in it. It was nothing unusual. Grocery store, drug store, a few other items. She put the envelope in the recycle box and began to cry. And what she said was that I feel like I'm losing that day in my life - because she could remember that day. She could remember all those things. And she felt like she was losing it. And then she said, and if I lose too much, if I throw away too much, there'll be nothing left of me.

So for her, many of these possessions were extensions of herself. And it felt to her like she was losing her life or a piece of her life by throwing these things away.

RAEBURN: And that's part of where the disorder lies...

Dr. FROST: And that...

RAEBURN: ...the inability to keep a proper relationship with things?

Dr. FROST: Exactly. Well, it's an exaggeration of what we all feel. We all have this sort of magical attachment where objects have a value that goes well beyond any physical characteristic that they have. They connect us to the world, and that was Irene's big thing. These objects connected her to the world around her and to her history and to her past.

But it even went beyond that. She had she'd saved objects for instrumental reasons too. Around the outside of her refrigerator, the space between her refrigerator and the cupboard was packed full of the tubes from the inside of toilet paper rolls. And what she said was that these would make great art projects, that she was saving them for her son's art teacher. But she had never met her son's art teacher and she had no idea whether he wanted these things. But the idea that these things could be used in that way was enough to give them value.

RAEBURN: It's so interesting that, just as you say, that these are extensions of things we normally do but they've gone to the point where they're ruining this person's life in a sense.

Let me stop for just a moment, see if we can take a caller here, bring somebody in. I think I have Michael in Fayette, Alabama. Are you there, Michael?

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, sir.

RAEBURN: Go ahead.

MICHAEL: Thanks big time for accepting my phone call because...

RAEBURN: You're welcome big time. Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: My situation is unique, but I hope with at least one of the underlying questions I can speak for other collectors and other hoarders. I'm...

RAEBURN: Are you - you're a collector?

MICHAEL: Well, I wonder if there is difference between a collector who has mental illnesses, that's the first one, and if we know our underlying motive, like he said with - I've forgotten that lady's - what - that wonderful lady's name. She thought of ATM envelopes and so forth as an extension of her personality. If we knew the underlying motive, I wonder if that can help us get rid of these problems or if more therapy - I mean, professional help is needed.

I'm not a hoarder. I'm a serious collector of antiques. But first of all, these things can look like junk to other people because these are six - three categories of roadside, automotive and petroleum-based advertising memorabilia and three categories of entertainment and...

RAEBURN: Okay. Let me just - let me stop you there, if that's all right, because I want to make sure that Randy Frost has time to answer. Thanks for calling, Michael. Go ahead.

Dr. FROST: Well, there are a couple of things embedded in what Michael was saying. The first question is, does it help to know the underlying cause? Well, it's difficult for us to really understand what the underlying cause is. The reasons people give for saving things, they're certainly related to why they save them. But we're not entirely sure that that's the whole cause, that that's the whole feature. Now, we do have to understand that. And in the treatment we've developed we go through a series of questions and...

RAEBURN: Let me stop you right there. I want to take a chance here to remind everybody I'm Paul Raeburn. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

And I paused there because I just was hoping we could move to treatment right now. So go ahead.

Dr. FROST: Okay. In treatment, one of the things that we do is we get people to identify some of these reasons, some of these underlying reasons why they save things. And most of the time these reasons have to do with their utility, their sentimental value, or even their intrinsic value. And then we get them to generate experiments to test out how important these reasons are for them. So we might ask someone to try to throw something away and keep track of how often they miss that object during the week.

For instance, with Irene, one of the experiments we did was she had art history books from college, 30 years earlier. And she put one in the cell box and started to cry. And she said I feel like - I just feel like I'm gonna die. And so we talked about it a little bit. She decided she would agree to continue with the experiment. And then 10 minutes later I said, okay, you know, now how do you feel? And she said, you know, it doesn't bother me so much. I haven't looked at that book in 30 years. But she had not allowed herself to sort of experience that feeling of loss that was in her case only temporary.

RAEBURN: Now, you - when you're treating her and spending time with her talking about these things, you're taking a kind of a - I assume you're taking kind of a neutral therapeutic sort of stand. So she's crying. How do you respond to that when she puts something in there and falls apart?

Dr. FROST: Absolutely. Absolutely. Part of the problem in doing the treatment is people have to experience a little bit of that emotion in order to break through it. And you can see with her experience, she had not thrown that book away because every time she thought about it she got this horrible feeling of grief.

But in truth, had she pushed through and gotten rid of it anyway, that grief would have - she would have seen it as sort of a pseudo experience, pseudo emotion. It's really not that important to her, and it didn't have any major effect on her life afterwards.

RAEBURN: Now, we're coming up on a break here, but very briefly, there's some cable shows that look at some of these things. Are these a bad idea? Are these being disrespectful to these people or are these okay?

Dr. FROST: Well, that's a good question. I think they're sort of double-edged swords. On the one hand, they do point out the fact that this is a real disorder, that this is something these people don't have much control over. And it sort of challenges the stereotype that many people have that these people are just lazy or just messy. But it's really more than that. It's a real, full-fledged disorder.

On the other hand, the idea that you can bring in a cleaning crew for a weekend and really do a lot to solve the problem is a little bit unrealistic. And that aspect of it maybe doesn't convey the kind of information that should be conveyed.

RAEBURN: Okay. We've got more to say. We have a little station break now, but everybody please stick around and we'll be talking about hoarding very soon.

(Soundbite of music)

RAEBURN: From NPR, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Paul Raeburn.

We're talking to Randy Frost, co-author of "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding And The Meaning Of Things." So before we let you go, Dr. Frost, what - where can people turn for help for this? And you've told us how common it is now, so I'm assuming you can't treat them all.

Dr. FROST: Right. Well, the best - the best resource is the International OCD Foundation. They've just opened a hoarding center on their website. And the website address is ocfoundation.org.

RAEBURN: Okay. So even though this isn't - we don't think this is a kind of obsessive compulsive disorder, that's where the help is located on the Web at the moment?

Dr. FROST: That's right.

RAEBURN: Okay. And what, you know, what will they find there? Are they going to - will they need to be referred to a therapist like yourself or...

Dr. FROST: Well, they'll - what they'll find is a lot of information about hoarding. We're still in the process of building the website but it contains the most accurate and up-to-date information about hoarding as well as resources - therapist finder, a search so you can find a therapist nearby.

RAEBURN: Are there many others like you who have, you know, made a specialty of this and understand it?

Dr. FROST: There's a growing number. There - it's still somewhat limited, but there are a growing number of people who know how to treat this. And there are more all the time because it's gotten a lot more attention in the last two or three years.

RAEBURN: And one of the things on some of these cable shows, occasionally the person who comes in to quote-unquote "treat" the patient is a planning organizer, a sort of apartment cleanup person. Can those kind of people be helpful?

Dr. FROST: A professional organizer can sometimes be helpful. There's a special subgroup of people who are professional organizers who specialize in working with what they call the chronically disorganized. And they can be quite helpful. They can't quite offer the treatment that a therapist can, but they can be helpful in the organizational aspect, which is quite important for the treatment of hoarding because it - this inability to organize things is a crucial piece.

RAEBURN: Like sort of the practical level and then the sort of deeper therapeutic level are both important.

Dr. FROST: Exactly.

RAEBURN: Well, thanks very much for taking the time to talk about this. I recommend to listeners your book, "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding And The Meaning Of Things." That's by our guest, Randy O. Frost, professor of psychology at Smith College. Thanks again for taking the time.

Dr. FROST: Thanks for having me, Paul. Enjoyed it.

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Hoarding: When Too Much 'Stuff' Causes Grief

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Too much stuff: This animated photo-illustration dramatizes the way hoarders accumulate possessions, piling them in spaces intended for other activities.

For the past decade, psychologists Randy Frost and Gail Steketee have studied hoarders: people who compulsively acquire a lot of stuff, and then have difficulty discarding the objects they obtain.

In their book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, the two researchers detail how compulsive behaviors drive sufferers to pile objects throughout their homes. Illustrating the phenomenon through several case studies, Frost and Steketee identify the key traits that identify a hoarder, detailing the underlying causes and explaining how to minimize the effects of the emotionally exhausting disorder.

In an interview on Fresh Air, the researchers tell contributor Dave Davies that hoarders often don't realize the extent of their problems — even when confronted with photographs of the chaos in their cluttered houses.

"There's a phenomenon we refer to as 'clutter blindness,' " Steketee explains. "And when we take pictures and show [hoarders] the pictures later, they often have the impression of shock. It's like somebody else's home that they're looking at in the photograph, because to them that's not what it looks like when they walk in the house."

Frost and Steketee are also the co-authors of Buried in Treasure: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding and the workbook Compulsive Hoarding and Acquiring: Treatments That Work.


Interview Highlights

On whether hoarders consciously notice their circumstances

Randy Frost: "Interestingly, when I showed up at [one particular client's] house, what she said to me was, 'When you're here, I'm aware of clutter, and it makes me feel awful. I get depressed; I look at myself as a horrible person. When you leave, I don't notice it anymore.' That is what a number of people have told us."

Gail Steketee: "And as you can imagine, they rarely invite anyone there. They're very ashamed."

On when collecting becomes pathology

Steketee: "[It's] when it crosses the line from ... collecting things to the point where there's distress — either to the person who has the problem or [for] those around them. And [when there is an] impairment — when they can't do the things that they [would otherwise] do in their ordinary lives, when they can't socialize or have people into the house or work effectively, when they can't spend time with their children and on and on."

Frost: "One of the questions we get all the time from people is, 'What's the difference between someone who has a hoarding problem and someone who is a collector?' What we've noticed is a couple of major differences between the two. First of all, when people collect things, they typically organize them in a pretty systematic fashion — and that doesn't happen in hoarding. The other thing is, when people collect things, they typically want to display them to other people. ... Hoarders want to keep things hidden because of the shame they have."

On traits common among hoarders

Frost: "These beliefs seem to be associated with some peculiar information-processing problems. That is, there are some problems with attention and sometimes a hyperfocus, problems with categorization — the ability to organize things. People who hoard tend to live their lives visually and spatially instead of categorically like the rest of us do."

On treatment options

Steketee: "One of the first things we start off with doing is trying to figure out how motivated they are to get over the problem. Because when they're with us, they feel embarrassed — but in their own home, they're not at all sure they want to get rid of anything. Part of that is trying to figure out [what] values they have for the future and what goals they have based on those values, and that can help us sort of set the stage — when they want to back out or they're afraid to get rid of something, we can double back to those goals."

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
By Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee
Hardcover, 304 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $27
Read An Excerpt

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