Are We All Becoming Hoarders?

Our consumer culture pushes us to stock up on everything—especially during the holiday season—only to shame us for having too much. But will purging really solve the problem?

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Anyone who subscribes to glossy monthly magazines lives a little bit ahead of the year’s beat. Well before Thanksgiving, the holiday gift guides start to thud down, an annual mockery of the publishing world’s insistence that there’s a dividing wall between editorial and advertising. Since in American magazine-land the pure food porn is shunted off to the November issue, the irresistibly alliterative gift guides stand alone, based on two unshakeable convictions: Stuff must be purchased, and nobody has any idea whom they’re buying for. All the complicated, quirky people in your life are sorted into rigidly sexist and ageist categories, usually further subdivided by price: $25 and under tends to mark an object as a stocking stuffer, meaning you’d better buy five or six, you cheapskate. There’s no question of whether you’re going to gather and wrap all these tokens of the season, only what you’ll buy, when, and how much.

Then, as surely as the tree gets stripped and dumped on the sidewalk, the magazines are ready with an equally rigid January tradition: New Year New You. January is all about decluttering, organizing, or in 2014 terms: Let it go. Don’t call it a diet. Call it a cleanse, a “jumpstart,” a detox, to recalibrate an overloaded system. All that extra stuff you just unwrapped, all the extra pounds rounding out your holiday sweater, it all has to go. Throw it all into landfill, and get your life back. 

The magazines’ whiplashing from gift guides to clean slates is a miniature version of our larger, deeply unbalanced attitude to our stuff. Have we ever loaded so much moral and psychological weight onto the objects we live with?

In 2013, the latest edition of the manual of psychological disorders, DSM-V, classified hoarding as its own particular disorder, rather than, as before, a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This happened in the wake of a growing pile of hoarding shows, cluttering up the cable networks since Hoarders premiered on A&E in 2009 to 2.5 million viewers. TLC doubled down with Hoarding: Buried Alive, while Britain’s The Hoarder Next Door implies that the disorder might be spreading. The experts argued that the causes of hoarding were specific and unique—it might not be compulsion that led to people being buried in piles of treasured trash, but something else: depression, anxiety, age-related neurological decline. Other psychologists were wary, preferring to understand hoarding as a symptom, not a separate disorder. But a symptom of what? 

In a recent New Yorker article, Joan Acocella wrote about an academic book on hoarding that takes its cue, in part, from the Maysles brothers’ documentary Grey Gardens—about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s eccentric and reclusive cousins Big and Little Edie Beale, who were holed up in their decrepit East Hampton estate—to suggest that hoarding might be a kind of rebellion against society, a refusal to conform to standards of appearance and behavior that are decreed by nameless authorities. Perhaps, Acocella said, hoarders ought not to be our monsters but our heroes, “because, unlike us, they don’t obey their parents.” Or, since the decluttering cult celebrates “ruthlessness,” perhaps they are just shameless sentimentalists, women (and men) who love their stuff too much. Maybe they simply refuse to ricochet between the culturally mandated extremes of bingeing and purging, getting half of the consumer equation right but rejecting the other half, the chuck-it-out-and-start-over antithesis of hoarding.

If you want to push an incipient hoarder to despair, you could offer them as a stocking stuffer a little book by a Japanese author, Marie Kondo, called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, an ode to purging that has rapidly gained cult status. Amazon classifies it simultaneously under “Zen philosophy” and “How-to and Home Improvement.” “This book changed my life,” declares a reviewer, one Paulette McDermott, and Amazon chimes in that “59 other readers made a similar statement.” The book’s subtitle is The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing but it’s more simple than that: It’s easy to be tidy if you throw out all your stuff.

The book is short, but not that short. Kondo’s basic method, which she names the “Kon-Mari system” (after herself), is to make you pick up every object in your home, decide if it makes your heart skip a beat, and if not, summarily to throw it out. Not for Kondo, the fetishizing of the California Closet: She’s anti-organization, saying you should let your living space teach you how much stuff you can have. It’s easy to imagine the horror with which she’d regard the American proliferation of “self-storage” units, a convenient way to convert your clutter problem into a monthly expense and forget about it. Fine, you can sort your things into shoeboxes if you really need to. But elaborate shelving systems are a trap.

Although Kondo’s supposedly revolutionary system is deeply rooted in its particular Japanese world, emphasizing a Buddhist-influenced connectivity between human beings and objects (you must thank your old socks for their hard work before you toss them), it’s not so far from the Arts and Crafts guru William Morris‘s dictum to have nothing in your home you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. It sounds so simple. Why is it so hard to stick to?

The trouble with both Morris’s and Marie Kondo’s systems is that it’s not that easy to trust your love for an object, or your belief in its beauty. And it’s often really hard to love other people’s beloved things—when you move in with your partner, you quickly learn the difference between your “stuff” and his or her “shit.” Morris’s phrase seems to admit this, by differentiating between the usefulness we “know” and the beauty we “believe.” Are we willing to persuade the rest of the world of that belief, to trumpet our taste, by displaying that object in our homes? Kondo puts it differently, insisting not on beauty but on emotional connection: she insists that you handle every separate object in your home to test whether it “sparks joy”—which again, sounds simple. But what if nobody shares that joy? If I share my home with other people, and open it up to guests, is my joy in an object bound up in their joy, their judgment? And what if I do love that vase or painting or set of china, but then I click onto Pinterest and see roughly 75 things I love better in the course of a 20-minute browse? Should I bring those objects into my home too?

Useful should be easier. You know this, Morris says—it’s not a question of taste. But nothing’s useful all the time, and hoarders, after all, generally begin as people who want to save things that might, one day, be useful. They only run into problems because the day for four thousand plastic grocery bags and ten years’ worth of Sears catalogues never comes. 

So it might be useful, and it’s maybe beautiful, so we hold onto it and we hide it. Storage allows us to be hoarders in secret, our shame hidden inside our closets or warehoused units. We throw down our credit cards at the Container Store, the organizing equivalent of one of those anonymous sex-toy megastores off the highway, and at the register we’re pushed into picking up a subscription to Real Simple, the Playboy of the secret hoarder. Storage systems not only let us have our cake and eat it, but miraculously gain no weight. We can make our clutter invisible—the domestic equivalent of a size-zero actress who claims to eat whatever she wants. 

It’s no coincidence that the extremes of hoarding and decluttering are so often couched in the same language of binging and purging that shapes women’s unhealthy relationships to food. A confident middle ground seems to be as hard to maintain in our bodies as it is in our homes, even though we all know, theoretically, how to eat a balanced diet. For female celebrities there’s no sliver of peace between “packing on the pounds” and “scary skinny.” Rachel Frederickson, the winner of the 15th season of The Biggest Loser, appeared on television minus 60 percent of her body fat, and was publicly pilloried for it, although all she’d done was push the logic of a competitive weight-loss show to its extreme. Maybe next year we’ll see one of the Hoarders living out of an empty barn, foraging for food and sleeping on dirt. 

Balance is tricky on a narrow beam, and the sensible center, all over our culture, seems to be shrinking beneath us. Did it go the way of our vanishing middle class? Or is it just that confidence and contentment are antithetical to the functioning of a consumer economy, which needs to keep churning us from guilty excess to unsustainable deprivation in order to keep us paying for diet books and professional organizers. Maybe we need to admit that all of us have stuff in our homes, in piles and spilling out of closets, that’s neither beautiful nor useful but just okay—it’s just objects, not judgments. It’s not going to bury us alive, and getting rid of it won’t change our lives.

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