Mar 23 2009

Launch!

The new version of hoardhouse.com is now live.

Thanks for your support. Be sure to visit the blog for future coverage and news on this issue.

Please pass this link an message on to your friends, family, colleagues or anybody who might be interested in hoarding, cluttering, and NYC.

Thanks again,

Karn Dhingra, Jackie Kasuya & Ben Piven


Feb 24 2009

Less Than a Month to Go

We’re entering the stretch run and our website is due to our professors in less than a month. After much discussion we’ve finally decided on a layout for the site. We ‘re almost done with our reporting and are putting all the multimedia pieces together for the site.

We visited Washington, D.C. and Baltimore this past weekend  to interview Erin Doland of unclutterer.com and John. Erin was great and very open with us. She talked about the creation of unclutterer.com and her childhood battles with clutter and how she deals with clutter today.

doland

We met John earlier in the school year and took some pictures of his apartment but he recently had his apartment cleaned and organized and was kind enough to invite us back to his place for an in-depth interview. John didn’t want to be on camera so we asked him to discuss items and objects that he particularly cherishes. John loves to go on cruises and is enamored with all things related to the ocean and oceanliners.  The interview was eye-opening and gave us more insight into his character. We hope we can present a nuanced portrait of him in a video that emphasizes his relationship with his belongings.

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On a side note,  Eric Adler of the Kansas City Star  recently wrote a story about hoarders in Kansas City. The headline the paper published was: The hoard festival; Packrats celebrate their collections — until they get in the way of living.

The headline was a little misleading because it read – at least to me -that the story was about a festival that celebrates hoarding. This is not the case . The story is about a few Kansas City area residents that have hoarding and clutter problems. The story gives some decent background information on the condition of hoarding and quotes Dr. Randy Frost, an expert we’re still hoping will speak to hoardhouse.


Feb 12 2009

Delta Burke and Andy Warhol were Plyushkins?

Once known for her confidence and charisma as Suzanne Sugarbaker on Designing Women, Delta Burke made headlines last year after opening up about her battle with compulsive hoarding syndrome.

“At one time I had 27 storage units. I don’t have a big enough house,” she said during an interview with Entertainment Tonight. “My mom had it, it’s my mother’s fault. She saved the diaper I came home from the hospital in.”

How does someone who was once voted “most likely to succeed” in high school become a compulsive hoarder? Well, as Burke mentioned, oftentimes the ailment is hereditary. Eighty-five percent of people who hoard can identify another family member who has the problem, according to the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA, San Diego. Other times, hoarding can be a result of neuropsychiatric disorders like eating disorders and is frequently linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Burke has a history of both disorders.

Adding to the list of celebrity hoarders, Andy Warhol collected over 400,000 objects in the last 15 years of his life, according to Matt Wrbican, an archivist at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Among the many items Warhol accumulated were newspaper clippings, unpaid invoices, pornographic pulp novels, airline tickets, supermarket flyers, and postage stamps.

Wrbican spends his days sorting through the 610 cardboard boxes, known as “time capsules,” that Warhol left behind.

“It would be easy to label the stuff ‘junk,’ but they’re really archives,” said Wrbican during an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.

Wrbican added that when Warhol went on trips he would not only bring home typical souvenirs but also, the porcelain, cutlery and menus he used on Air France Concorde.

As for Warhol’s four-story townhouse on the Upper East Side, his kitchen and bedroom were the only rooms he could walk through. Anything that couldn’t fit in his home was transfered to a nearby storage unit.

Hoarders have also graced the pages of classic novels like Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. One of the characters, Plyushkin, collects and saves everything he comes across – including a cake that is several years old, which he consumes after asking his servants to scrape off the mold.

In Russia, the name “Plyushkin” has become synonymous with people who accumulate useless objects. Those people are said to have “Plyushkin syndrome” or “Plyushkin symptom.”


Feb 5 2009

The Cluttered Lives We Live

This project has forced me to think about clutter in my own life. Clutter extends far beyond our residential spaces, and it is relevant to time management, social life, information intake, and cultural choice.

Cluttered space often remains cluttered because clutterers lack the time management skills to accomplish tasks efficiently and effectively. Spatial and temporal clutter are intertwined. Similar psychological mechanisms are at play.

Spatial clutter arises from the failure to discard stuff from one’s personal sphere. Clutterers cannot decide when they have accumulated too much. There is a pathological issue in executing simple decisions about what to discard and what not to discard. Many clutterers are also fundamentally unrealistic about how much can be accomplished in a given time frame – with decluttering activities or otherwise.

Thus, time clutter and space clutter are intimately related. Inability to regulate one’s spatial life is inextricably linked to an inability to cope successfully with time constraints. Though there is not always a correlation between the two, many spatial clutterers also have a cluttered schedules.

But there are also time clutterers who do not suffer from cluttered space. Many meticulously neat people have intensely chaotic schedules. I have begun to contemplate my own time management and whether my schedule is too cluttered. Perhaps I do best with a cluttered schedule. Or perhaps I, too, should schedule less cluttered days.

During a Clutterers Anonymous (CLA) meeting on January 15th, I committed explicitly to thinking more about the relationship between spatial clutter (to which CLA is dedicated) and other sorts of clutter (namely, temporal and social).

A third type of clutter is social clutter, which is often be linked to temporal clutter. My life is often socially cluttered – whether due to technology such as Facebook or an excessively extroverted personality.

Is there a limit to one’s Rolodex, cellphone contact list, or Facebook friends? Is 1000 enough? What’s the line between a social butterfly and a social clutterer?

Next is information clutter. Columbia Journalism Review’s November/December 2008 issue dealt with information overload. Are we bombarded with too much knowledge? How much time do we spend uncluttering our gmail? Do you routinely lose files on your desktop and hard drive?

In this age of infinite information, it is difficult to maintain satisfactory levels of order in these realms. Technology should increase the speed and the order of our lives, but it also contributes to tremendous clutter problems. As with physical space, informational clutter does not become a problem until you simply cannot find what you’re looking for. Or, when you simply run out of space to store stuff.

But, information clutter does not stop there. Idea clutter in the classroom is forever nagging. Especially for journalists, word clutter and other written expressions of disorganization can be disastrous. Informational clutter is seemingly endless…

The fifth and final type of clutter in this entry is cultural clutter. Does this afflict me? I constantly find myself partaking in a rapidly growing number of cultural traditions. Is there a limit to the digestible variety of cuisines, fashions, religions, holidays, and languages?  Is splintered cultural allegiance detrimental to personal growth?

What may be burdensome clutter to some may be positive for others. For example, cultural clutter  might be more accurately labeled “cosmopolitan,” “diverse,” or “eclectic.” Similarly,  a social clutterer might be called popular. Are information clutterers not intellectual and informed? Time clutterers are often high efficient people. After all, when you need something done quickly, give it to a busy person.

Back to spatial clutter. There is often a very fine line between a collector and a clutterer.

In sum, let’s consider five potentially cluttered realms: space, time, friendship, information, and culture.

A little bit of minimalism does the body (and the mind) good.


Feb 3 2009

Thoughts

Work has picked up on our website and at school as of late. The team has been surprised by the amount of access we’ve been able to get from people with this illness and experts on this issue. The situation wasn’t  looking so good a few weeks ago. I was banned from a de-clutter support group because of concerns about liabilities and was kicked out of a Clutterers Anonymous meeting but Frederick , an attendee at that meeting was kind enough to give me his phone number and returned my  call the same night. He invited us to his apartment to let us interview him on camera and take pictures the next day. Frederick’s an artist and used to work in fashion design. We are currently working on a video that will feature him talking about his condition.

Last week Ben and I ventured out to Long Island to interview Dr. Fugen Neziroglu of the Bio-Behavioral Institute. Dr. Neziroglu was very gracious and answered all of our questions. She commented on some of the pictures of hoarding sites we’ve been able to document.  And an interview with Dr. Randy Frost of Smith College is in the works. He’s considered one of the foremost experts on this topic.

We’ve also been kicking around a few interesting concepts for the site and welcome any comments and ideas from our readers.

The project has also gotten some attention on the internet. We continue to receive emails from people all over the country and the world. And Unclutterer, one of the more widely read blogs on the topic of clutter has discovered our site.

We’re humbled and honored by our readers’ encouraging words of support and will continue to report on this issue in a thorough and transparent manner.


Feb 3 2009

The Freecycle Alternative

Freecycle is a global, grassroots movement that aims to reduce the gargantuan waste problem facing our planet. One of our readers, a member of the NYC chapter of Freecycle, sent us an e-mail proposing the Freecycle alternative to the problem of hoarding things (stuff generally, junk specifically).

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Here’s what this freecycler Brian wrote: “My wife and I make use of [Freecycle] to reduce our unwanted but still usable stuff.  The flip side is that people can get lots of stuff for free.  I see three or four people posting ‘Wanted’ requests almost every day. I’m curious to hear about any stories you’ve come across that have used freecycle or similar tools to acquire stuff.”

The notion of using Freecycle to gain more stuff might be an attractive one for hoarders looking to expand their stuff holdings. But, it seems that many hoarders would benefit from using Freecycle to downsize and declutter their residences. At heart, Freecycle is a means of exchanging items that would not necessarily be viewed as marketable in most mainstream marketplaces. It most definitely keeps stuff out of landfills by finding new owners for anything from cribs and blankets to treadmills and cross trainers.

In assessing what sort of impact the 6.3-million member international Freecycle movment has had on our collective attitudes towards stuff, perhaps it helps to think about where the preserved stuff would otherwise be located. Just like the material preserved, salvaged, and hoarded by compulsive clutterers, the Freecycled stuff is kept out of the dominion of trash. Like hoarders, freecyclers prevent stuff from being eternally committed to the massive containers, fields, and craters chock full of what we typically call “waste.”

Many Freecyclers (and some hoarders too) view themselves as conserving the environment and lessening our global trash menace. Freeganism (often associated with dumpster-diving) is a related movement that seeks to promote anti-consumerist values and the repudiation of socioeconomic disparities. Perhaps Freegans are anti-thetical to hoarders, since they aim to reduce our collective addiction to material possessions and only use what they absolutely need. Emphasis on sheer utility is not seen in hoarders, who often keep goods of minimal use or exchange value. Freecycle emphasizes functionality, while hoarders often fail to appraise an object’s actual capacity to be harnessed beyond the personal and sentimental realms.


Jan 26 2009

Boxes of Baltimore

John’s apartment in North Baltimore was photographed by hoardhouse in late December. However, by mid-February, most of the mess is likely to be gone. We will try to document the one-bedroom apartment as it progresses through these stages of decluttering.


Jan 25 2009

Clutter on 28th Street

Here are some photographs of hoarding at Frederick’s residence. We will likely be returning to his place to document how the scene has changed since the clean-up and fumigation of his studio.


Jan 13 2009

Hoarders All Over the Globe?

Charles's Baltimore apartment. Level III Baltimore apartment.

The international community of hoarders is constituted disproportionately by Americans and other western folks. Additionally, 1st World countries with less effective social safety nets are far more inclined to produce a more extremely acquisitive brand of citizen. It is in the societies which over-emphasize material possessions and capital accumulation that clutter becomes most problematic and pathological. Thus, from initial attempts at gauging the hoarder proportion in countries like Sweden and Netherlands, it seems that many fewer citizens of those places have heard about hoarding. This is probably a result of the fact that hoarding is simply less common in societies that have more engaging mental health care and social counseling programs for all citizens. But, to be clear, much of these observations are speculative and certainly do not stem from any complex statistical survey of hoarding around the world.

As with many other psychosocial problems, the libertarian U.S. seems more likely that Western European nations to allow hoarders free reign to practice their odd craft without interference from government officials or health care workers. Many Europeans whom I have met seem rather surprised at my tales of American hoarding because they see such extremely deviant psychological cases as shocking. This derives not from the mere psychological deviance but from the fact that the appropriate public and private sector safety nets simply are not effective in addressing so many hoarding situations. The ‘live and let live’ creed reinforces a ruggedly individualistic social order accompanied by weak social protections in the U.S.

Beyond the welfare states in which hoarding seems less likely to fester, 3rd world societies perhaps contain much less compulsive clutter. In discussing the topic with lots of contacts in the subcontinent, I have not managed to discover any examples of hoarding in India. Perhaps the problem has not much been popularized or perhaps it takes on other forms. But, either way, hoarding is not recognized the same way there. It is very unlikely that anywhere close to 1-2% of the population suffers from the condition – as in the U.S.

The question that behooves asking is whether poorer, less developed societies are as prone as the U.S. to the same type of misdirected urges to accumulate junk and non-junk alike. The same goes for eating disorders and a number of other psychosocial disorders that occur with much more frequency in the urban, industrialized West. Deviant use of space and of stuff is less of a possibility in countries where there is much less space and stuff is afforded per capita. Is it wrong to assume that folks in underdeveloped countries have neither the time nor the sensibilities to engage in compulsive clutter?

There is a fellow Columbia Graduate School of Journalism student who had originally intended to do a print masters project on hoarding. She hails from Lebanon, where she said hoarding is not terribly common. However, she said that the one hoarder who she’d met in Beirut was completely unashamed of her behavior, in contradistinction to many American hoarders whose shame has no bounds.

Another international difference that I have heard about was involved the story of a Dutch family that had appeared on a popular TV show called Clean House. According to the person who told me about the episode, the father was such a hoarder that the rest of the family was forced to sleep together in one bedroom. This sort of situation seems fairly uncommon amongst American hoarders. The vast majority of hoarding cases that we have come across domestically are older folks who live alone. While I have heard about some American hoarder-couples who contribute equally to their household’s clutter, this Dutch example seems to confirm that there are some differences between American hoarding and hoarding abroad.

While the United States appears to be far more of a hoarder nation than most others, it remains difficult to determine whether hoarding simply takes on different forms in other societies. Are there more advanced forms of hoarding in highly evolved societies? Is there increased growth in clutterers who hoard information rather than physical possessions? Could this reality alter the established norms of hoarding? Moreover, do less developed societies simply have many more people who hoard food, water, and medicine rather than goods that are considered worthless or extraneous? These questions and more will be among the issues addressed in this blog during the coming weeks and months.


Jan 9 2009

Hoarding In The New Year

We’ve all returned from our winter break and are ready to get back to work on this important project. Coincidentally, hoarding is making the headlines. The Sun is reporting two hoarding deaths occurred in the same week across the pond in the United Kingdom.

The tabloid reports Gordon Stewart, 74, may have died of dehydration when he became disoriented and got lost in an elaborate maze of tunnels he had dug out of boxes and random debris he had hoarded for years. Like many hoarders, the story notes that officials believe Stewart had no living relatives. From the few pictures The Sun posted on its website it looks like Stewart was an extreme Level 5 hoarder. 

 

Photo Credit: The Sun

Photo Credit: The Sun

 

Photo Credit: The Sun

Photo Credit: The Sun

 

Photo Credit: The Sun

Photo Credit: The Sun

 

 

 

 

Two things stuck out for me from this story. First, Gordon Stewart is a man. From our research we’ve found this affliction is more common among Caucasian widowed or single women. Second, his neighbors alerted the police only when they hadn’t seen him come outside for a few days. It’s an interesting contrast to Catherine’s case because her neighbors have alerted health and county officials who have threatened to take her house away if she doesn’t clean up at least two rooms. I wonder why Gordon Stewart’s neighbors and local British authorities put up with the trash and debris outside his house while Catherine’s neighbors and county officials insist on her getting parts of her house cleaned ASAP? 

The second story reports that Joan Cunnane, 77, was buried alive “under 3ft of ornaments, clothes in suitcases and electrical goods, still in their untouched packaging”, she had hoarded for 16 years.

Joan was a borderline level four/five hoarder. She is more typical of hoarding cases because she was white and never married. 

 

Photo Credit: The Sun and Cavendish Press

Photo Credit: The Sun and Cavendish Press

 

 

Joan had the same problem that Catherine has with her car. The hoarding spread to her car with only room to seat the driver. The story also highlights the effect this disorder has on the physical safety of people living and interacting in a hoarding situation. Joan’s best friend, Roy Moran told The Sun about the danger he faced when he’d visit with her. 

“There were thousands of videos. When I walked in they fell down. It was a death-trap.” 

Photo Credit: The Sun and Cavendish Press

Photo Credit: The Sun and Cavendish Press.