Updated: Aug 29
A few months ago, I was packing for my fifth move since 2008. I emptied every closet, box, and drawer. With every move, I’d shed belongings— a full twelve boxes of books in move number four— so why, I wondered, am I still knee-deep in useless things?
The answer was that, in true academic fashion, I’d redefined “useless.” Turns out “keep,” “store,” and “toss” are unstable categories: I classified our household belongings entirely differently after reading the New York Times article on Marie Kondo, a home organization expert with a devoted global following.
Kondo has a best-selling book and a robust media presence, but her most famous piece of advice could be summed up in a tweet: Touch every item you own; if something doesn’t “spark joy,” discard it. I applied this method to my packing process, and a lot of things I’d been storing went out the door. (I also made a few personal archival discoveries— see below).
My “Just Say No” buttons from elementary school. Joy!
The process got me thinking about Americans’ warped relationship with material possessions, an entanglement that has grown more dysfunctional over the past several decades. Even as the middle class flounders, easy credit, cheap foreign labor, and larger home sizes have made it easier than ever for the average American to acquire far more possessions than he needs or can use. Since excessive, compulsive consumption factors into most definitions of addiction, it’s unsurprising that Americans’ increasingly acquisitive habits have led to cultural anxieties about purchasing (and hoarding) behavior.
Those anxieties play out in shows like Hoarders and Hoarding, and in the growing list of how-to books that promise to “teach you how to make peace with the things in your life” and “help your loved one manage clutter, hoarding, and compulsive acquiring.” Scroll down an Amazon search for “hoarding,” and eventually you’ll even unearth a fantastic new academic book on the topic, Scott Herring’s The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2014).
In addition to shows on A&E, hoarders (or at least their brains) also appear on the screens of fMRI machines. They’re enumerated in epidemiological studies (by one count, Herring notes, the number of hoarders in the US equals the combined populations of Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Maine, Kentucky, and Montana). And they’re officially classified in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), which defines hoarding disorder (HD for short) as “the acquisition of, and failure to discard, possessions which appear to be useless or of limited value.”
David F. Tolin, PhD; Michael C. Stevens, PhD; Anna L. Villavicencio, PhD; Melissa M. Norberg, PhD; Vince D. Calhoun, PhD; Randy O. Frost, PhD; Gail Steketee, PhD; Scott L. Rauch, MD; Godfrey D. Pearlson, MD, “Neural Mechanisms of Decision Making in Hoarding Disorder” JAMA Psychiatry 69, no. 8 (2012): 832-841.
In an argument both hoarders and alcohol and drugs historians may find gratifying, Herring shows how the disorder has been culturally constructed by medical practitioners and researchers, the media, and the helping professions since the emergence of Collyer Brothers syndrome in the late 1930s. “There is no natural relationship to our objects,” Herring maintains. He analyzes the various ways the disorderly accumulation of stuff was made unnatural in 1940s Harlem, Andy Warhol’s archive, and Grey Gardens, the dilapidated New York mansion famously inhabited by Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin.
Herring also gives us the backstory of Messies Anonymous, an organization founded by evangelical Christian and professional organizer Sandra Felton in 1981. According to Herring, Felton’s program promises “material recovery,” combining the format of Alcoholics Anonymous with earlier “Christian ideals of scientific housekeeping.” Some of Felton’s ideas eventually found their way into the contemporary scientific literature. Herring credits Fenton with inspiring the Clutter-Hoarding Scale, a diagnostic tool he describes as a “Kinsey Scale for object perversion.”
Clutter-Hoarding Scale (Institute for Challenging Disorganization, 2011)
Unlike Marie Kondo, who urges her acolytes to look inward to determine which objects belong in their lives, proponents of the Clutter-Hoarding Scale use outward domestic disorder as a proxy for psychological illness. In any case–thanks to Herring– I can’t help thinking the true “cure” for clutter isn’t really counseling: it’s the tasteful presentation of a middle-class life.