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 19 2009

Project Update

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and tomorrow is the inauguration of our nation’s first president of African origin. These are momentous times for hoarders and non-hoarders alike.

As we continue to make progress on this Hoardhouse project, it is important to give you, our readers, an update on where this effort is headed. We are finalizing the designs for the eventual Hoardhouse website, which we will launch in mid-March. Thus, in two months time, this blog layout will be replaced by a fully loaded multimedia site organized thematically (the hoarders, the clean-up specialists, the social workers, and the experts).

We are always open to suggestions about our material and our mission. As we continue to cover a topic that can be controversial and sensitive for many people, we realize that empathy and understanding are key to doing the best possible reporting. This has been and will remain a process of learning about the psychological and social facets of a highly complex phenomenon.

While we have certainly logged some solid footage thus far, it seems that much of our most meaningful work lies ahead. Also, at this point, while we conduct the rest of our reporting and production, the ultimate feel of our site is still somewhat nascent.

In terms of our most recent reporting, we have decided to shift how our blog reflects what we learn. Some of our posts thus far have included our opinions and speculations about hoarding. We are now interested in blogging more factual material about our goings-on, even if we have become more restrained with how much detail is revealed about the particular hoarders that we meet.

Our coverage of Catherine in New Jersey will continue, although we are concerned about her medical and legal situations.

Each of the three Hoardhouse group members attended three different Clutterers Anonymous (CLA) meetings in Manhattan this past week. We plan on returning to these CLA chapters in the West Village, Union Square, and Times Square. We are cultivating relationships with a number of folks that we’ve met at these meetings. It has been somewhat of a challenge to present ourselves candidly as journalists, when the conventional expectation at any 12-step Anonymous meeting (even if considered an “open” meeting) is that all attendees are part of the “fellowship.”

There is a relatively small minority of CLA attendees who appear reluctant to share their thoughts if they perceive that their full anonymity and confidentiality are threatened by the presence of a journalist or researcher. However, we have found that the vast majority of attendees were comfortable with our journalistic inquiries, as long as we explained our goals. Yet, some hoarders and clutterers (we are still ascertaining the difference between the two terms) fear that we have voyeuristic intentions. We always reiterate that our aim is to be informative, thorough, and transparent.

In sum, our project has been fulfilling and challenging thus far. We will continue to pose the difficult questions about our subject matter. Some of the bigger picture questions that we seek to resolve include: does hoarding deserve its own DSM classification when it is generally comorbid with other disorders? Why did so many people start hoarding in the 1980’s? Do most New Yorkers know at least one hoarder? Could there really be 5 million hoarders in America?

We look forward to engaging with our readers and viewers over the coming months.

Happy Inauguration Day!

Dec 25 2008

Clutter-Free Christmas Tips

Here are some links for the holidays. Happiest of festivities to all of our readers!

Dec 18 2008

Level V Jersey Hoarder

My escapades in hoarding investigation took me to Passaic, New Jersey, on Monday. I met with a chronic hoarder with whom we have been in intermittent contact over the past two months. The meeting proceeded as planned, yet I was concerned throughout that my relationship with our first major hoarder would be jeopardized by my inquiries. Like walking on eggshells, my conversations with Catherine aimed to satisfy my curiosities while remaining consistent with what I viewed as a reasonable level of empathy.

My worst fears as well as my most dashing hopes were confirmed in this watershed interview and exploration of a truly Level V hoarding site. The disgustingly repulsive fundamentals of Catherine’s hoarding were remarkable. I have already happened upon the holy grail of our hoarding investigation, and the sight of it may have been too much to handle. Catherine’s hoarding involves bottles, papers, toys, 8 cats, and furniture. But, far and away the most revolting part of this first hoarding scene experience was the presence of both human and animal excrement all over the hoarding scene.

Kitchen Floor

The kitchen floor, with litter boxes

Catherine claims that her hoarding problem has improved. However, that is hardly believable, given the current state of her residence. It is impossible to enter more than a step-and-a-half through the front door of the residence. At least three feet of stuff cover the foyer and living room floors. It is impossible to enter more than two steps from the kitchen entrance to the residence, as three to four feet of rubbish cover the kitchen and adjacent areas of the first floor. And, this is a mere 5 months after Don Tagatac’s clean-up company removed 5 tons of detritus in 5 days of de-cluttering. Tagatac said that the stuff was about 5 feet high before he tidied Catherine’s residence. Now, the stuff is back up to at least three feet high.

Catherine risks being kicked out of her house by the Passaic County authorities because of the environmental and health violations associated with her hoarding tendencies. The county will soon take her to court and most likely put a lien on her house – unless Catherine manages to cough up the cash for another cleanup like July’s, of which she financed 60%. The county may again be willing to pony up 40% of the clean-up costs, but it is also very probable that Catherine is nearing the end of her quarter-century of extreme hoarding.

Baby Pics

Catherine's baby pictures were almost discarded in the July cleanup

Catherine told me that I was the first human being who was neither family member, cleanup specialists, nor hoarding therapy group member to enter her residence in 25 years. That means that, since I was born, this woman’s life has been characterized by an unimaginable loneliness in her private life. The hoarding and loneliness clearly go hand-in-hand, as one builds on the other. Interpersonal connections are indubitably made much more difficult as the hoarding turns off potential acquaintances and mates.

In essence, I was shocked by the disconnect between Catherine and logic. To a reasonable person, her hoarding mess would involve a series of concrete steps that would lead to a more functional and sanitary lifestyle. But hoarders cannot fully perceive the irrationality of their behavior and how it alienates them from non-hoarders. Perhaps they are capable of forming interpersonal bonds  with their fellow hoarders? This does seem somewhat feasible, but ultimately, serious hoarders create intimate relations with their junk in response to their isolation and disaffection from the rest of the external world. People who live with other human beings cannot accumulate the sorts of messes that exist in one-member households. Housemates cannot and will not generally tolerate extreme hoarding that has reached either Level IV or V – meaning severe impediment to living space and inoperability of most normal residential functions.

Living Room

The cluttered living room

To conclude, Catherine does not have many options left. Therapy may still be on the table, but her depression and ADD problems have long been co-morbid with her hoarding behavior. As she ages, sadly, it becomes less and less likely that she can kick her hoarding addiction. The shame inherent in the disorder prevents her from ever really coming to terms with how the behavior is viewed by non-hoarding public. The legal ramifications of her destructive clutter keep mounting, and it appears increasingly difficult for her to avoid the sanction of Passaic County authorities. I wonder whether living in an adult group home might be the optimal solution for this type of extreme hoarder.

Cleanup guru Tagatac was afraid that Catherine’s behavior had reverted to prior levels of hoarding, but it seems that he was not entirely surprised when I told him how severe the regression was. Barring the exceptional generosity of Passaic County and/or an immediate and total reversal of hoarding tendencies, Catherine is nearing full self-destruction. Hoarding takes a significant toll on society, but ultimately, it is the individual hoarder who suffers the most from the tragically odd behavior.

Video: Catherine’s back stairwell, which leads to her highly cluttered kitchen.

Dec 18 2008

Hoarders at Holiday Parties

Shockingly enough, fellow holiday party goers have been incredibly interested in talking about hoarding. Tis the season to be merry and jolly, but I would never have guessed how fascinated all these Chrismakwanzakah revelers would be in the issue of hoarding. Even more than that, I have managed to make an average of 2.5 solid hoarder contacts at the parties where I have sought to spread the hoarder gospel. And, those contacts just seemed to come my way with little effort hoarding hoarder contacts.

I will discuss a few of the hoarder stories that I happened upon at two particular holiday bashes. At the first, I met a young man from the city whose uncle had been hoarding newspapers in his midtown apartment for many years, until his habit became severe enough that his extended family intervened. Now, the uncle seems to be on less cluttered ground, having met a new girlfriend and continuing to ensure the relative cleanliness of his abode. It seems that many uber-educated New Yorkers are inclined to hoard information in either newspapers or books, but this problem is generally much worse with folks who live alone. There is a marked contrast that exists between hoarders-in-the-making who co-habitate with mates and those whose hoarding has fully materialized when their household consists solely of one person. Anyway, the second major hoarder contact at this particular holiday party on the Upper West Side was a young woman whose middle-aged Pelham mother has become a collector-addict with all sorts of memorabilia and knickknacks. There was little evidence of shame in this behavior for this specific case, but the hoarding tendency seemed indefatigable. One of this mother’s daughters is a practicing psychologist, who has made little to no headway in combating the scourge.

At another holiday party, I was taken aback by the phenomenal interest in hoarding conversation that was displayed upon my introduction of the topic. Initially, when I entered the hipster holiday bash in Williamsburg, there was a rather awkward silence. But, as I broached the hoarding subject, people began telling highly animated stories about their artist comrades whose hoarding of plastics, metals, paints, and all sorts of marginally salvageable materials gave me new insight into the ways that hoarding is part-and-parcel a form of aesthetic expression. Our project team had discussed in some depth how a hoarder’s space is analogous  to an artist’s canvas, in the way that belongings and accoutrements are splattered, peppered, plopped down, and organized in a way that is often entirely indecipherable to laypersons or people unfamiliar with that unique way of compartmentalizing objects within a space.

Perhaps the hoarder’s aesthetic sense is rarely appreciable by the non-hoarding masses, but this parallel is undeniable. Hoarders clearly project their worldview and attachment to their immediate external space via their cluttering tendencies, in the same way that artists render their work a function of their vision. It is unclear whether hoarders harbor a hypothesis about their hoarding task, in the same way that artists would generally have some sort of philosophy about why and how they create beauty. Hoarders probably cannot generally be said to create beauty in an intrinsically recognizable or logical way. Regardless, the manifestations of the hoarding instinct does reflect some level of commonality with the artistic sensibility.

Anyhow, on to the actual examples of hoarding that were discussed at the Williamsburg party. I met four folks who had concrete tales of hoarding that involved either themselves or close relatives/friends. One Chicago native currently resides in the East Village and obsessively rummages through the trash for CPUs. She has compulsively searched for other goods in waste receptacles in the past. At this point, she collects the computer hearts in order to fashion art out of them and display the finished products in galleries. It is unknown whether her level of hoarding would qualify any more than Level I on the hoarding scale, but it seems that her aesthetic instincts could very well spiral into more severe hoarding behavior. Moreover, she uses epistemological theories by Heidegger to explain her relationship with space and personal items. It may not be uncommon to have an advanced postmodern sort of explanation for hoarding behavior.

The next hoarder tale that was evoked involved a young Brooklynite’s godparents who reside in Sykesville, Maryland. These godparents have been antique dealers for decades, but their home has long been a hoarding nightmare, most likely hovering somewhere around Level IV. Their stove was long ago rendered inoperable by the dead animals that lurked therein. Serious maintenance problems arose from the heavy antiques that filled the residence. Vast portions of the house have been inaccessible for years, and the hoarding by this couple seems not to have faded at all. Hoarding most certainly worsens with age, as people become less and less able to become emotionally and physically ready to discard the innumerable contents of their dwellings. The behavior becomes more and more entrenched as the years go by. Hoarders seem to lose the decisiveness that comes with the ability to throw things out on a daily basis. “Normal” folks make scores of decisions every day pertaining to how much stuff will be discarded from their personal spheres, but hoarders are paralyzed in this process of excluding objects that seem like they could potentially be valuable or useful in the long term.

The third hoarding story from the Williamsburg holiday party was not quite a genuine hoarding tale, but a diabetic fellow named Danny mentioned his penchant for hoarding medicines and insulin that could be useful in the event of a disaster. I responded to him that such careful planning for the worst was most likely not hoarding and that this was a reasonable way to prepare for possible eventualities. He replied that there were nonetheless other types of collectibles that he saved somewhat compulsively, but I retorted that collecting one or two types of memorabilia or cultural items is not hoarding until it impedes one’s living space. Everyone in our acquisitive society enjoys collecting something, and it is not unusual to assume that this must qualify as hoarding. However, actual hoarding only occurs in 1-2% of the American population. This means that the vast majority of people are acquainted with at least one hoarder. It also means that many non-hoarders fear becoming a hoarder, or they are self-conscious/guilty about some  acquisitive tendency that could spiral out of control.


Taco Bell hot sauce packets, courtesy of Flickr user: su-lin

Taco Bell hot sauce packets, courtesy of Flickr user: su-lin

The fourth hoarder story from last Sunday’s Willyburg party was of a young Japanese art history student in Berkeley who hoarders a diverse range of objects: Taco Bell hot sauce packets, blond wigs, Queen Elizabeth memorabilia, vintage summer dresses, and much more! This woman is also very motivated by a theoretical explanation for her sociocultural bent and how it manifests in her treatment of objects and extreme attachment to a plethora of inanimate things.


In sum, a surprising quantity of regular folks have elaborate tales of hoarding, involving friends, relatives, and themselves. The journey is getting crazier and more cluttered…