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Hoarder Finds Himself In His Mess

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Hoarder Finds Himself In His Mess

Hoarder Finds Himself In His Mess

Hoarder Finds Himself In His Mess

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Washington Post writer Michael Rosenwald has a lot of stuff. Piles and piles of stuff. Recently, Rosenwald went on a personal quest to find out why he hoards, which he wrote about in the Washington Post magazine. Rosenwald says he discovered that his piles contain more than junk; they represent an extension of himself.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, basketball fans might know Lucille O'Neal as Shaq's mom, but she wants you to know she is a person in her own right and she has a message for other people, mainly women, who find their own voices stifled under the weight of other people's celebrity or even strong personalities. Her new book is called "Walk Like You Have Somewhere To Go." And she will tell us more about it and her story in just a few minutes.

But first we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine, which we do just about every week to find stories about the way we live now. Today, a story about how some people live in a total mess. And I don't mean some clothes on the floor, some books under the bed. We're talking piles of stuff all over the place the dining room table, the car, to the point where, frankly, people think your place has been ransacked when it hasn't.

It interferes with relationships and it might be something deeper than just being a slob. It's called hoarding. And Mike Rosenwald thought he might be a hoarder. Rosenwald is a writer for the Washington Post and his piece in this week's magazine is about his effort to understand his obsession with keeping piles of stuff.

He's with us now from our studio in Washington. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MICHAEL ROSENWALD (Staff Writer, Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So did you just want to escape from your office, which is still kind of a mess?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSENWALD: Yeah. I often try to escape to various places that my life is not threatened by things toppling over on me.

MARTIN: You write in your piece that this started kind of early. You said that: My parents recall that my teenage room was such a disaster, the pile of clothes and old newspapers so high that our dog Ozzie considered it equivalent to the backyard and used it accordingly. Did you even then think maybe there's a problem here?

Mr. ROSENWALD: Yeah. I mean, my parents would constantly say, none of your other friends' rooms look like this. And they were right. I'd go over to my friend's house and they'd be a little bit messy and a little tension between the parents, but my room was such a disaster, you could hardly walk in it. And if I got up in the middle of the night, I'd trip over things. Or - and really, the dog thought, hey, this was a place where he could do his thing and he did often.

And so, yeah, it was pretty bad and it was just the same way in college. My roommate in college, who turned out to be one of my best friends in life, he only recently told me that he put in for a roommate change after the first week because he just couldn't live with it. And thankfully he learned how to live with it and thankfully he didn't get the roommate change because he ended up being a dear friend. But, yeah, this started pretty early. And in many cases of hoarding it does start in adolescence.

MARTIN: Did you think it was a problem then or did you just think, well, that's just my thing?

Mr. ROSENWALD: I think I probably thought that's my thing. And it actually became part of my personality in the same way that Woody Allen's hypochondria is part of his reality. And it became sort of a joke within the family that, you know, oh, you can't go into his room. Relatives didn't want me to stay with them. All sorts of things. And it just became a part of who I was. And I decided in writing this piece that I wanted to find out if it was something more that, and I did.

MARTIN: Was this kind of you wanting to find out if there was something more than this or perhaps there were other people, for example, your wife who kind of wanted to know if there was something deeper here than just you being a slob?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSENWALD: And if anything I wanted to sort of almost find out if I had a more legitimate defense against my wife because she would we would constantly get in these arguments about this stuff. She would constantly call me lazy, you're a slob, you have to clean up. And, you know, the arguments would never, you know, get serious, you know, to the point, you know, we were going to be on an episode of Cops or something.

But at the same time, they were pretty serious and they did cause stress. And I always sort of thought in the back of my head, well, maybe there is something going on here. And then when the opportunity arose when I was speaking with my editors about this whole thing, they said, well, why don't you look into it and see if there's something there? And so I did. And I was very encouraged at one point to find out that I do have these hoarding tendencies because now I can say to my wife, I'm not just lazy, I've got issues.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You did consult professionals on this who found that there really is a phenomenon, this is something that has been studied recently. You consulted a professor named Randy Frost. He's invited you to one of his classes at Smith College so that he and the other students - in fact, this was motivated by an inquiry by a grad student of his, which I found also fascinating. And you just you wrote about the could you just tell me a little bit about what you wrote about, the feelings that this evokes, your stuff. Is it having stuff around you? Is it just not wanting to give anything away? What is it?

Mr. ROSENWALD: You know, this was an epiphany I had during this class where I went to this seminar on hoarding and there were 12 or 13 students at Smith College and they were really probing me like a psychologist would probe you. And I think one of the students, you know, the subject sort of came up, you know, what would you be without this stuff?

And I then asked that question myself. What would I be without this stuff? And it really sort of occurred to me that I surround myself with all these piles of things, mostly newspapers, magazines, books, because I believe that without those things I'm not who I am, right?

So, if I have, you know, the latest issue of The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and the latest, you know, novel that everybody on NPR is talking about or something, I am that person, rather than just sort of being me. And so, it's not that I'm not interested in all of those things, I absolutely am, but I feel like the more I have of those things, the more I am that person. When in reality, I'd still be that person without all that stuff.

But I'm not sort of really willing to accept that idea fully and because I don't accept the idea fully that I'm not that stuff, I continue to pile that stuff on. And that's how the piles grow.

MARTIN: Well, without giving away the ending of your story, 'cause I want people to read it, so I'm not going to give it away, do you think - now that you've kind of gotten some insights into this, do you think you might be on your way to some kind of resolution that your sainted wife can live with?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSENWALD: I do think I'm on one part on one...

MARTIN: Other than moving into another house next door.

Mr. ROSENWALD: Yeah, right, exactly. I think there's two components for me. One is the acquiring and one is the throwing out. On the acquiring side, I think I've gotten a lot better about that. I think that I don't have to have the same copy of a book just in paperback form that I already have in hardcover. I'm dealing with that. And that's okay.

On the throwing out side, I'm still working on that. I mean, you know, we had blizzards this past winter and I was stuck in London, my wife was stuck in Washington and she called me up and she said, well, as long as you're in London, I am going to be cleaning all of your stuff. And it caused panic, right? And for a lot of people, they would be like, oh, thank God somebody's going to get rid of my stuff. I don't have to deal with it. You know, I can come home, it'll be all clean. But for me that was total panic.

And even right now, if she called into the show right now and said, well, I'm listening to this, but I'm at home, I'm going to throw out all your stuff, I'd get in my car so fast and I would drive as fast as I could home because the thought of that just drives me insane.

MARTIN: You're not kidding.


MARTIN: You're talking, like, a physical reaction.

Mr. ROSENWALD: A physical reaction. Just talking about it causes me to get -like, if somebody was taking my blood pressure right now, it would be up.

MARTIN: So are you guys going to be okay?

Mr. ROSENWALD: We're going to be okay. We're going to be okay because I have learned to sort of confine it to various places. And my wife is used to it and I have other qualities that I hope outweigh this one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I think so. But then I don't have to live with you.

Mr. ROSENWALD: That's true.

MARTIN: Washington Post staff writer Mike Rosenwald is with us in our D.C. studio. If you want to read his piece in its entirety, it's called "Junk Man." It's in this week's Washington Post magazine. We'll have a link online, just visit TELL ME MORE at

Michael Rosenwald, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ROSENWALD: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And get our stuff out of here, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSENWALD: Take it away.

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