IN CONSIDERING THE SUBJECT OF MESSINESS, let’s start with my apartment. I should tell you, in the interest of transparency, that while I was writing this piece I was moved to get rid of the following:
- a dress with unmendable holes
- a rusty loaf pan
- all the yogurt containers I was saving for Tupperware
- three bags of books
- a moldy fermenting project, which I believe was once sauerkraut
- a pair of black wedge heels with a huge hole in the right sole
- electric bills from three apartments ago
This was a full-body experience: I twitched as I walked around the house, remembering things that needed culling or caretaking; disciplining, as the cultural studies scholar Scott Herring might put it, my own material life.
Herring’s The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture is one of three very different recent books that meditate on the unruly accumulation of things. The others are Brian Thill’s Waste, an entry in the Object Lessons series of short monographs on everyday things, and Barry Yourgrau’s Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and Act, a memoir about the long, emotional process of trying to tidy up his apartment. Objects circulate in these books; stuff gets around. Thill describes a plastic bag caught in a tree like a broken kite. It’s outside his apartment window and he sees it every day. It disgusts and bewitches him for weeks, and then one day it’s gone. He calls it a “wispy daemon,” his “trash familiar.” “The trash familiar troubles the line between our endlessly transient waste, blown here and there, and our cold storage,” Thill writes:
The humble trash familiar is one way to see how wastes much larger and more dangerous than itself respect no boundaries; they create their own lines of flight and vectors; they spread their fetor far from home, because in truth they have no home, in the same way that all undesired things lack a home.
It’s tempting to imagine this particular trash familiar escaping the tree outside Thill’s window only to become one of the “plastic bags like an invasion of blowsy desiccated jellyfish” in Yourgrau’s Queens apartment. By the end of Mess, the jellyfish have been pitched down the trash chute: “With a sudden howl, I began snatching up bags — tearing through my immobility, grabbing the billowy flimsy excesses accumulated over years and years,” Yourgrau writes. “Ferociously I stuffed them into larger bags — almost every one of them, save for a few too pretty or too useful (for size, durability), which I put aside. Then I took a photo. Then I shoved them down the trash chute in the hall.” Just as all creatures must die, all objects must become garbage.
Books on mess lend themselves to aphorism. Scholars of hoarding love to quote the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s description of dirt as “matter out of place.” To this Thill adds his own concise definition: “waste is every object, plus time.”
The blurry line between cherished item and disposable garbage preoccupies these authors. That line, everybody agrees, is not natural but cultural. I work as a curator at history museums, collecting things that may, to many, seem trivial and ephemeral; but if no one preserves them, a part of the immersive material life of the past will be lost. The woman who amassed a trove of fast food packaging, much of it from her own meals, over the course of three decades, was probably regarded by her friends and family as a kook. We decided that she was a visionary collector and acquired her stuff, to the dismay of our conservators.
Is care the difference between a collector and a hoarder? Is order? One of the women profiled in Randy Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (2011) claims that she is keeping things for posterity, but she piles them everywhere and lets them deteriorate. (When Yourgrau meets Frost, a psychologist specializing in hoarders, he shows him pictures of his living room. “Probably relatively mild,” says Frost, reassuringly.)
The key question here — one that concerns curators and scholars but also the county health department — is this: what is the correct, healthy relationship of people to their objects? Again, this is culturally, and historically, determined. Plenty of people in the past would have seen the amount of objects that 21st-century Americans possess as aberrant. To us, it seems natural; we can thank consumer capitalism for that. But, if the relentless machinery of our economy drives our urges to accumulate, why do we publicly denounce those who are reluctant to let things go? Why has “hoarder” become a new quasi-clinical term of disdain? Thill’s theory is that shows like Hoarders “reveal that those of us who do the seemingly normal and healthy thing of dumping our mountains of trash into unseen dumpsites are in an equally unsavory position where the question of waste is concerned.” After all, what does it really matter if we store our garbage at home rather than in the landfill?
Of the three books, Herring’s The Hoarders is most concerned with the pathologization of hoarding in our time. Herring proposes a new vocabulary for this conversation, introducing useful terms like “object panic” (the moral consternation we feel about hoarders and their stuff) and “material deviance” (the manifestation of “incorrect” relationships with objects). Herring, a queer studies scholar, is deeply suspicious of the discourses of normality and recovery commonly found on reality TV shows and in the self-help literature on hoarding. He insists “that there is no natural relation to our objects,” and offers histories of several strands of anxieties about material deviance to help us understand how terribly muddled our current thinking is about how we should interact with things.
About that “we”: Who is being talked about here? Who is required to reform their relationship with objects, and who isn’t? Herring addresses this question briefly in his chapter about the Collyer brothers, the old-money scions who became recluses in their Harlem brownstone and, in 1947, were literally killed by their own stuff: Langley Collyer was crushed under bales of newspapers, and his blind, invalid brother Homer subsequently starved to death. (In Mess, Yourgrau is ghoulishly delighted by his own resemblance to Langley Collyer.)
The Collyer brothers anchor Herring’s genealogy of hoarding as social disorder. For contemporary commentators, he argues, the Collyers’ choice to stay in Harlem as it became an African-American neighborhood was as pathological as their 14 grand pianos covered with trash. “The fusion of [the Collyers’] botched curiosa with the storied tales of Harlem’s disorganization haunts one piece of hoarding’s development as a pathological identity in modern America,” Herring writes. They are cautionary exemplars of the collecting impulse gone awry: curators of a wunderkammer turned into freakish dime-museum curiosities; the eccentric rich become the pathological poor.
Pathological collecting shades easily into what Herring calls “twisted housekeeping.” He traces one variety of object panic to the Home Economics movement and its promotion of “scientific housekeeping” in the early 20th century. In Herring’s (slightly oversimplified) narrative, homemakers who refused to rationalize their housekeeping with new products and techniques were labeled deviant. This aspect of Herring’s book is especially timely, since the ideal of “good housekeeping” has recently returned, judging by the way me and my friends, educated women in our 30s, have been passing around Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. We’ve been dutifully folding our underwear into rectangles while agreeing that Kondo is totally wrong about how to manage your bookshelves. (She doesn’t believe in rereading.) Early in The Hoarders, Herring describes an episode of a hoarding TV show where a woman is reluctant to throw away a rotting pumpkin. “It was a very nice pumpkin when it was fresh,” she says, “it was a beauty when it was alive. I enjoyed you while you were here. Thank you. Good-bye.” This is exactly the Kondo method: she advises you to keep only the things that “spark joy,” and to thank the others for their service to you and let them go. But if a rotten pumpkin sparks joy, why not keep it? Who’s to say you have to say goodbye?
For Barry Yourgrau, on the other hand, reforming one’s bad housekeeping practices is a hero’s journey. It is only after an ultimatum from his partner Cosima (a fanciful pseudonym; she is actually the writer Anya von Bremzen) that Yourgrau turns his messy apartment into a capital-P Project. He requires this level of distancing to even approach the wounding family memories hiding in his cardboard boxes. Though Yourgrau is reluctant to identify as a “hoarder” — he’s a “clutterer,” maybe — it is extremely refreshing to hear directly from someone with a “deviant material life” about what his objects mean to him. The objects that fill his home carry grief, fear, and depression, but also joy and celebration. We learn about Yourgrau’s writing career and travels with Cosima, but we hear most of all about his family, especially his autocratic father, whose very initials written on a cardboard box can cause fear and trembling. Such visceral reactions to emotionally charged objects are familiar, to this reader at least: when I last moved, I found a box on which I had written a note to myself: “Dear Suzanne, Do not open this box. Love, Suzanne.” (I threw it away without opening.)
Yourgrau, Herring, and Thill present three very different perspectives on the meaning of things, treasure, and trash. Yourgrau, the memoirist, interviews psychologists, professional organizers, and other experts, but he always keeps his own emotional relationship to objects at the center. Herring, the scholar, traces the tangled histories of “hoarding” as a disease, and ends by insisting that it is not our place to judge what other people choose to do with their things. Let mold grow, newspapers pile up, difference flourish! Let a thousand weeds bloom! Thill, the critic, is most interested not in things that outlast love and care but in things that were never loved in the first place. It is these objects, he argues somewhat depressingly, that will be humanity’s real legacy. Spoiler alert: “No human artifact ever conceived, and in all likelihood no human, whatever that will come to mean, will last even remotely as long as our nuclear waste.”
Rather than a reason to despair, we might see this as an invitation to be less hard on our own hoards, treasures, and trash piles. It can be a comfort to think that our messiness is ephemeral, that all is vanity and all will pass away: holey shoes and museum collections, plastic bags and rotting pumpkins, scholarly monographs and memoirs alike. What a joy to think that we, as individuals, have not done lasting damage to the world! But of course, collectively, we have: we’re all complicit in the garbage-making machinery of the post-industrial world. The nuclear waste and the styrofoam is also ours. While we’re here, then, let’s concentrate less on the garbage we store in our houses and more on the garbage we store in the earth and sea. Some trash is eternal.
Suzanne Fischer is a historian and writer living in Oakland.