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Other People’s Stuff

Marjorie Kondrack

MOST OF US HAVE TOO much stuff, and we’re apt to joke about it. But clutter, if allowed to spiral out of control, can turn into hoarding.

Hoarders are people who acquire an excessive number of items, some with little or no value, and yet they continue to add to their chaotic overflow. Unable to manage the clutter but unwilling to let any of it go, they become upset and anxious when others offer to help clear it up. The result is debilitating clutter.

It’s estimated that there are some 19 million people in the U.S. who are hoarders. The majority are age 55 and up. It’s hard to arrive at an accurate figure, however, because hoarders are secretive about their habits, usually live alone and don’t invite people into their homes.

The exact cause of hoarding is unknown. While hoarding can be triggered by a traumatic event, not everyone who experiences trauma becomes a hoarder. Family history can also be a factor. Initially, it was thought to be connected to OCD—obsessive-compulsive disorder. But recent studies reveal that it may be a disorder all its own, and possibly linked to a form of dementia.

I think that, as we age, we experience loss in many ways—diminished hearing, eyesight, loss of teeth, hair, mobility, cognitive abilities and so on. Maybe we react by trying to hold on to as much as we can for as long as we can.

Throughout history, there have been extreme hoarders. Perhaps the two most infamous examples are the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, of New York City. Born into a wealthy family, they were graduates of Columbia University. Homer was a lawyer, while Langley studied engineering and was a concert pianist. They lived in a four-story brownstone mansion in Manhattan. But they devolved into hermits and slowly withdrew from society, presumably because of family eccentricities.

Their collection of unbridled junk threatened to engulf the mansion, leading the Collyers to improvise what are known as goat paths—narrow aisles and tunnels—by which they navigated through the mountains of stuff. The brothers had a grim life and came to a gruesome end.

Langley became trapped in a goat path, buried under ceiling-high piles of papers, books, debris and garbage. Deprived of Langley’s help, his disabled brother Homer died of starvation surrounded by boxes and newspapers piled to the ceiling. Among the 120 tons of junk authorities removed from their home was the chassis of a Model T Ford, a horse’s jaw bone, an old X-ray machine, massive stacks of newspapers and several pianos.

Another pair of hoarders were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis—Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, known as Big Edie and Little Edie. The Beales were part of the elite upper class. But as circumstances caused their financial resources to decline, they became recluses in a 28-room dilapidated manse known as Grey Gardens in East Hampton, on New York’s Long Island.

The property was overrun with feral cats, raccoons, overgrown bushes and tangles of vines. The ramshackle house was filled with piles of empty cat food cans, animal and human waste, and assorted debris. The health authorities declared it unfit for human habitation, and they were preparing to evict the Beales.

The major newspapers and tabloids had a field day—sensationalizing the story because of the Beales’ direct link to Jacqueline Onassis. Shortly after, the Beale family paid to clean up the property, bringing it up to required standards, and provided the mother and daughter with a small stipend.

The Beales were happier hoarders—a more cheerful duo than the Collyers. Big Edie was a singer and Little Edie was a former glamorous socialite who also had theatrical leanings. A 1975 documentary called Grey Gardens, depicting the Beales and their way of life, met with success.

This was followed by an HBO television movie in 2009, also called Grey Gardens, starring Drew Barrymore as Little Edie and Jessica Lange as Big Edie. I preferred the documentary. The movie version was glamorized and sanitized, in usual Hollywood fashion, which made it a little more palatable.

There have been reality TV shows about hoarders and books galore on the subject of de-cluttering. Some contain tests for you to rate yourself on the hoarder scale. Do we all have a little of the hoarder in us? If you have a lot of stuff, but don’t yet see any noticeable signs of goat paths, maybe you still have your stuff under control.

Marjorie Kondrack loves music, dancing and the arts, and is a former amateur ice dancer accredited by the United States Figure Skating Association. In retirement, she worked for eight years as a tax preparer for the IRS’s VITA and TCE programs. Check out Marjorie’s earlier articles.

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