Two years ago, I saw a Roundabout Theatre's play, The Dazzle, by Richard Greenberg. It was about two eccentric brothers who collect and accumulate stuff, which they stash in their apartment, and they are eventually crushed to death in the avalanche of their precious debris. The set designer took pains to bring on the stage bundles of newspapers and magazines, musical instruments, tools, implements, furnishings and knickknack and piled them up to precarious heights. I had a seat in the second row and the effect was overpowering. Quite horrifying it was, in fact, and it made me think. It made me think that in ten years my house might look like that.
I am a pack rat though not quite to that extent . . . as yet.
The play was based on the two real life reclusive brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, who lived in a brownstone in East Harlem. Homer was a lawyer, Langley a concert pianist of some talent at one time. In mid-30s Homer went blind and Langley set himself up as the caretaker; and they lived in seclusion until their bodies were discovered in 1947 under some 180 tons of debris that they had collected and filled their townhouse ceiling high, and they became New York's urban lore.
Clinical psychologists call the hoarding behavior like the Collyers' disposophobia, one variety of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Another is skin picking and still another is trichotillomania or obsessive pulling out of hair. So, I did some surfing on-line to learn about the subject, wondering if I qualify for this particular psychological disorder. But, obviously, I'm not the one to answer the question. Insane people are known to be unaware of their insanity, or else they are not quite insane. I have known some who confessed to their pack rat habit; I have not seen their habitats, however, and know no way of assessing how light or serious my condition is. I am assured at any rate that I can still move about in my house, including my study which is the most overcrowded area with piles of papers, folders, xeroxed articles, clippings, offprints, journals, cartons of notes, and, of course, books all over, some reaching knee high.
I have once visited the office of a fellow professor in another college. It was a generous office, the size of three standard bedrooms with an enormous desk in one half of the room. I was elated; it was packed with stuff that, aside from his own, there was no chair free of stuff to sit on and hardly any space on the floor to walk without disturbing some of the piles. I was elated because it made my overcrowded office on campus, less than a quarter of his space, rather spacious. I had two chairs left free for seating at all times.
Newspapers are said to be the most prevalent material of obsessive hoarding. I keep them for the same standard reason given by disposophobics; I want to have them to go back to since there are articles I have had time only to scan or have not had time to read at all. A good habit is certainly to throw out any paper that is more than a day old whether you've read it or not. Just to be lenient, we might say papers that are more than a week old should be dumped. I have piles in the kitchen going back months -- years, in fact -- though I keep only certain sections of the paper. A measure of my sanity is that since my attendance at The Dazzle, I stopped one of the two daily newspapers and then a year later the weekday delivery of the New York Times. I now have Sunday Times only and the accumulation has been visibly slower; I am considering stopping it, too. I keep magazines going back ages; I maintain the standard reason that they will be valuable one day. I have reduced magazine subscriptions in the last two years; I also cut back the subscription to scholarly journals although these are not normally thrown out even by exceptionally sane professors. So, they continue to accumulate. Junk mail piles up on the dining table and side chairs. When the tabletop gets crowded I dispose lately of most of them; I used to keep them in a carton nearby. Publishers' catalogues of scholarly books can be useful, and some are beautifully printed. They are difficult to part. My collection of CDs and videocassettes and, more recently, of DVDs are spilling into the living room as are coffee table books on art for which I could easily use two dozen coffee tables though they won't fit in the room. Letters and cards from friends and acquaintances and copies of the letters I wrote are kept in stacks of boxes. Books are all over the house, every room -- upstairs, downstairs, basement and attic and stairs -- but they are a scholar's tools of trade and I don't count them as hoarding, although I have been realizing that not being able find a title easily is a clear indication that I have more books than I can manage with any ease. The private library has passed the point where a hired librarian is called for.
Beyond printed matters, the wardrobe is a problem. I don't get rid of old clothes and by fortune or misfortune I can still slip into a dress or coat decades old. I claim that style comes back. Camel coats came back a few years ago after a long hiatus and I started wearing one that I bought in Rome thirty odd years ago. It looks fashionable except to those who are alert to the outdated cut. All my closets are packed tight; and I have cartons to hold skirts and tops. Then, there are sweaters and shoes and bags. I am also reluctant to part with anything I had bought throughout my life even whey they are no longer useful because they are the visible traces of my personal biography and serve as vessels that hold fragments of my life. Throwing out any of them is like wrenching away a piece of my past.
I keep shopping bags galore, plastic bags that I re-use generously, and cartons of all sizes, as well as packing material of all kinds, just in case I might need them when I move although I have no plan, intention, reason, or desire to move anywhere in the near or not-so-near future from the house which is now totally mine. I started to open the cartons flat to haul to the recycling center, a sign that I am well on my way to recovery if it is true that I suffer from this obsessive compulsive disorder.
When I was first diagnosed with osteoporosis, I was required to eat yogurt everyday. I kept the empties; they were exciting because they accumulated quickly, one a day, thirty every month. There is something intriguing about multiples that is lodged deep in my collecting habit since my childhood. I stacked the cups into tall columns. The transparent lids, I thought, might be made into a large see-through relief. With much pangs of parting, I disposed of these cups and lids after a few years. I have boxes of little canisters that rolls of 35mm films came in, aluminum at one time, plastic later; they piled up quickly, too, since I used to photograph a lot for slides to use in teaching. So, I also have plastic containers in which slides came in when I picked them up at photography shops. At one time I also kept empty quart-size milk cartons which I used to plant seedlings in. I collect stamps and keep museum buttons, too; but they are small and don't devour space. Dishes and utensils that I don't use anymore should be rid of but haven't been as yet.
Disposophobia is defined as the fear of getting rid of stuff. There are people who not only hoard, refusing to throw out anything, but also collect at discount stores, garage sales, junkyard, and even dumpsters and fill the house with their acquisitions, their precious junk. The Collyers did that. This should be considered as a separate, more dangerous, level of disorder from the normal, or rather more strictly disposophobic, hoarding.
A part of my pack rat habit is rooted in my aversion to waste and squander, the history of which goes to the wartime shortage of goods of my childhood. It pains me to throw out something unless it is totally useless. Anything that can be re-used I would re-use. But the refusal to throw out personal belongings is a part of my immigrant condition. Without a network of relatives in accessible distance, personal effects provide me something like a surrogate family. Without an aunt to ask some detail about my past, I have to dig into old letters to find a hint to my query. Old dresses are semiotic indices that trigger memories of various happenings about which there is no one to ask. Possessions are my own heirloom, and regardless of their value in themselves they are as precious to me as my memories; and my attachment to them is more spiritual than material and it is genuine and profound. Clinical studies suggest that compulsive hoarders are often old, lonely people living in isolation; and that makes sense. On the other hand, I know old, lonely people who don't hoard.
So, a pack rat I am. But I don't think I am a case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Of course, I knew all along that I was not. I am only dearly attached to stuff from my life. Newspapers, magazines and cartons will soon go. An avalanche of junk will not happen in this house.
T. Kaori Kitao, 07.04.04