WHEN BARRY YOURGRAU’S longtime girlfriend gives him an ultimatum — clean up or we’re finished — he is forced to confront his forever-mushrooming mess and, by extension, himself. Thus begins “The Project,” as Yourgrau calls it, to declutter his apartment, which in turn became Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act. Part personal excavation, part object lesson, Yourgrau elevates sorting through his “curated” “wunderkabinett” to a high art; his memoir, it turns out, is a portrait of a clutterbug as a middle-aged man.
Yourgrau, a writer and performer, is peripatetic both in life and on the page. Updates about the Project are woven with recollections of a nomadic childhood that started in South Africa and ended in the United States; for the author, these early years are defined by a strong attachment to his toys and more. The book covers his daddy issues, his boundary issues, and his twin issues; his visits with his therapist and with hoarding experts; the connection between clutter and OCD, anxiety, depression, trauma; and, drawing from Freud, the hoarder’s need for a nurturing bosom. All this might get a little heavy, were it not told from the perspective of a charming, kooky collector with a wry sense of humor — all qualities that make Yourgrau’s struggle all the more poignant.
And whatever the reasons for his clutterbug tendencies (there are many), Yourgrau is finally ready to reckon with the outcome: an apartment stuffed to the gills and a deep sense of dread about dealing with it. Untangling how his past issues inform his present mess takes a village: we follow Yourgrau to a meeting of Clutterers Anonymous and on a high-octane “clutter busting” mission into the heart of a stranger’s hoard that requires wearing a respiratory mask and traversing “goat paths” between stacks of newspapers and junk. He draws on the history of hoarders, including the infamous Collyer brothers, and on just how we came to prize “a place for everything” as a hallowed goal of domestic life. All of this is threaded with sensual descriptions of exotic meals in foreign countries; it makes sense that Yourgrau’s girlfriend, a food critic, would also crave the itinerant life. When not living in Queens, together they travel the world.
The resulting juxtaposition is striking: Yourgrau is a man who has a hard time staying put and a harder time letting go. Out in the world he is open to adventure and unpredictability — and yet he won’t allow his girlfriend, or nearly anyone else, to enter his home — his private cavern — where his treasures (many of which he acquires on his travels) are buried beneath stuff and more stuff. Essential to the Project’s ethos is self-revelation; for Yourgrau, objects function as both a trigger and a balm for the wound of memory. They allow him to maintain possession over the past without having to unpack it. Therefore, to toss an old sweater or a rotting can of preserves without first tracing their origin stories is akin to pulling out weeds without unearthing the roots; it is to deprive the objects of their connection and his past of its meaning.
It makes sense then that numerous pages devoted to a painful breakup with an ex-girlfriend shortly after his mother died are in service of getting rid of a decades-old cardigan once presented to him by said ex. Letting go isn’t just a matter of deciding to toss or keep. It’s a slipping down the rabbit hole of memory — a visceral and forced confrontation with the emotions that each item carries. And it’s in moments like this one with the sweater that Mess really shines:
Grimly, savagely, I sliced into the cardigan where a sleeve joined the body. My pink scissors made a squelching crunch through cotton-acrylic blend. Squelch crunch. I jerked clear the sleeve by the last red threads. I went for the other sleeve. Squelch crunch. I was butchering a cardigan. I hacked up through one side of the sleeveless body, then [the] other. I was the Sweeney Todd of paisley. I grabbed up the floppy blood-red remains and bundled them into two plastic grocery bags and crammed them down the chute in the hall.
I came back inside, breathing heavily. A touch wildly. What did I feel? A rush of liberation! Amazing what throwing out something felt like. And yes, sadness, a pang of that, too.
Making the reader privy to this process — to his sorrow and his shame — neutralizes, and humanizes, the miasma of his mess. For instance, in the abstract, holding onto random shopping bags seems odd and compulsive. But when Yourgrau explains the impetus for keeping a particular shopping bag from Le Meurice, a five-star Parisian hotel, he creates meaning:
It was a winsome signifier that I had access to another sort of life than this one behind my unwashed windows. Someone else, I suppose, might have considered it just a bathetic irony, a lite version of a homeless person sporting a Caesar’s Palace cap (a cap, in fact, I owned). But that someone probably wasn’t a poet of clutter at all. They wouldn’t understand how just the right little object — be it trivial, disposable — can work on heart and memory like a line from a song.
In this way, Yourgrau isn’t just letting go — he’s giving: the reader receives the stories he’d been hoarding to himself.
Which doesn’t mean it’s an effortless catharsis. Each act of decluttering is an event (as when Yourgrau defines the time it takes him to clear off the dusty display shelves in his dining areas “one hour perched on years of inertia”), and the decluttering process comes with rituals. When Yourgrau gets rid of something meaningful (an old bowl filled with memories that he must break in half before tossing), he first snaps a photo and then ruins the object so that no one else can use it. It’s a telling quirk, the sort of specificity that adds a dimension to hoarding in a way that reality television squalor and filth porn cannot: readers come to know Yourgrau’s stuff from the inside as intimately as the author himself. With page after page, the collection takes on anthropomorphic qualities, or those of a curated installation. In this way, he personalizes a problem that many have a hard time understanding. There’s an internal order to the external mess, and Yourgrau doesn’t shy away from shining light into its dankest and dustiest corners.
American culture has an uneasy relationship with abundance, and this book is a part of larger trend. The prosperity and security symbolized by bulk-sized goods and conspicuous consumption is also symptomatic of excess and overindulgence. It is no surprise that in the last year or so, letting go has become the new black. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Japanese organization expert Marie Kondo has turned purging closets and folding socks instead of rolling them (so the socks can “relax”) into a kind of code for “I’m free from the shackles of my possessions.” It has made self-interrogation with questions like “Do these jeans spark joy?” part of our vernacular (both techniques are shared in her book). Yet ironically, clutterbugs and clean freaks operate from the same understanding: objects trigger emotions, and these emotions create a particular atmosphere and sense of security. For Yourgrau, the reason for his connection to things is clear: “I possess a sensitivity — or hypersensitivity — to objects, their resonance, their powers as bearers of memory and igniters of mood (the smile of things as well as the tears).”
But why do we judge one relationship with stuff as good and the other as bad? Why all this sanctimony around the cult of order? Many of us have too much stuff. Many of us feel it’s unnecessary. But even and especially when objects trigger the feelings we try to avoid — longing and grief —we want to hold onto them. Keeping the entire emotional range of one’s life on hand provides a certain comfort. It is, as Yourgrau hints, evidence of a life lived, of a self that exists in the world. In the age of minimalist design and decluttering obsessives, perhaps there’s a sort of freedom, and even a rebelliousness, in holding onto crap.
That is not to say Yourgrau doesn’t feel lighter and freer post-Project — he does. But Mess is neither a self-help manual nor a story of redemption; in fact, Yourgrau makes a point of saying he is not “cured” of cluttering. He continues to have a penchant for souvenirs and mementos. What’s changed, though, is his ability to understand and accept himself so that “the atmosphere of mess and disorder no longer smothers [his] life.” For Yourgrau, objects will always be portals; all the fun is in figuring out which ones to keep slipping through and which he can do without.
Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, at the Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere.