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Mess as Muse

Household chaos inspired him to write—and to recover

It started, like many a literary adventure, with a knock on the door. Barry Yourgrau ’70’s longtime girlfriend was locked out of her apartment, so she stopped by the small Queens one-bedroom he uses as a writing studio.

He wouldn’t let her in, but through the barely opened doorway she caught a glimpse of Yourgrau’s secret: There was stuff everywhere—old newspapers and magazines, books inherited from his father, postcards and other travel souvenirs, defunct laptops, “tumbleweeds” of plastic grocery bags—all covered in varying levels of dust and grime. Shocked, she gave him an ultimatum: Fix it. 

His attempt to comply—and to figure out how things got so bad in the first place—is documented in Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act, an intertwined comic memoir and wide-ranging study of severe clutter published by W. W. Norton last summer, greeted by rave notices in The New York Times, USA Today, and elsewhere.

To write the book, Yourgrau—an author of surrealist short fiction and children’s stories—became an expert on hoarding. He talked with leading researchers of the phenomenon (including psychiatrist Sanjaya Saxena ’85), met with decluttering professionals, and scoured psychology literature for insights into humans’ attachment to their belongings.

It’s more common than you might think: Some 6 million or more Americans meet the clinical criteria for hoarding disorder, and many more struggle with extreme clutter. 

“When I do readings, people come up to me with tears in their eyes,” says Yourgrau. “And that makes me feel good—not that they’re suffering, but that I’ve helped give the subject a little more legitimacy, something a little more dignified than the reality-show gawking.”

Yourgrau traces his own “susceptibility to the power of objects” in part to the instability of an itinerant childhood. By the time he and his twin, Tug ’70, arrived at Swarthmore in 1966, they had already lived in South Africa (where they were born), Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Colorado, following their academic father from professorship to professorship.

This sense of impermanence didn’t abate at Swarthmore. Politics, he recalls today—primarily anger over the Vietnam War and anxiety over the draft—made the campus something of a “disorienting whirlwind.”

It was amid this whirlwind that Yourgrau started writing fiction and helped found the Swarthmore Review, a journal of experimental literature. Eventually, he found his way to his preferred form: extremely short stories, most of them two pages or less, laced heavily with surreal imagery.

In one story, a son removes his napping father’s head and wears it as a hat. In another, a man’s friends steal his tongue from his mouth and hide it. (Yourgrau’s fiction was one of the reasons his girlfriend was so shocked to discover his hoarding problem. His stories, she observed, were so relentlessly economical, so trimmed down.)

This fall, two of Yourgrau’s fiction collections—Haunted Traveller and Wearing Dad’s Head—return to print from Skyhorse/Arcade, aided by the attention earned by Mess. Looking back over his oeuvre, he’s noticed some striking thematic resonances with his memoir. 

In one story, “My Ship,” the first-person narrator stashes a gloomy trinket in a storage facility cluttered with items he can’t let go. In another, “Bags,” the narrator hides from police in his childhood bedroom with his stolen loot—more than 200 grocery bags.

“I tend to fixate on things one at a time,” says Yourgrau. “In my fiction, that gave me my style. But in my studio, it got me in a little trouble.”