Of Shoes And Ships And Sealing Wax And Hoarding Stuff And Things

December 8, 2009

My dad was a hoarder. When he died, they had to cut through the outside wall of his house to remove his remains. There simply wasn’t room for the coroner to get him through the packed hallway, the corridors lined with stuff. They cut a hole in the wall and pulled out the contents of the room. Including my dad.

Someone thought to board the wall with a piece of plywood, afterward.

The coroner said to me, if you don’t have to go there, you maybe shouldn’t. Someone else said, see if the insurance company will hire cleaners. Someone else said to me, if you go, you have to remember, this is not who he is.

I went. I was afraid, but I went.

My mom came with me. When we got there and went inside, she cried. I stood in his kitchen and looked at the boxes and the books and the electronics and the crocheted wall hangings and the computers – the dozens of computers – and the tools and the CD cases and I ran my fingers over a stack of disemboweled laptops and I thought, oh, Dad.

I might have actually spoken the words aloud. I can’t recall. Oh, Dad, I thought. You had nothing to be ashamed of.

He didn’t. He doesn’t.

***

My dad wasn’t always a hoarder. I probably wouldn’t even call him that, were it not for the ubiquity of the term, a ubiquity reinforced, in large part, by the television show ‘Hoarders.’ He was a pack-rat, an eccentric, a recluse, a collector, an artist, a dreamer, a devoted recycler and a fanatic tinkerer. In the sunny years of our suburban bliss, before mental illness and infidelity and divorce shattered what seemed a domestic dreamworld, his collecting was contained to basements and attics and sheds, his tinkering and inventing activities that occurred in his den or workshop or some other such sacred space. When the dreamworld fell to pieces, he shed the costume of suburban professional and grew out his hair and devoted himself to the things that he loved: collecting, making, building, inventing, thinking, worrying, dreaming. And he became a hoarder.

Dreamers don’t necessarily accumulate lots of stuff. Collectors do. So do tinkerers, builders, inventors and, sometimes, worriers. My dad was all of these. My dad accumulated a lot of stuff.Musei_Wormiani_Historia

And so his home became like an overstuffed wunderkammer, a vinyl-sided cabinet of curiosities (2 bed/1 bath) filled to the ceiling with treasures and would-be treasures and could-be treasures (once the wiring was fixed/the batteries changed/the hard drive replaced/the surface polished/etc) and papers and photos and all the ephemera of a life spent dreaming and imagining and writing and building and fixing and keeping, always keeping. It wasn’t particularly dirty; his treasures, especially the electronic ones, the computers and the media players and the robot – yes, the robot – needed to be kept dust-free, and so the effect was more storage locker than junkyard. But it was crowded, so crowded, and I could see why the coroner and the friends that came that night to usher him, finally, out of his home, might say, you know, that – all that – was not your dad.

But it was. It was. My dad was deep piles of stuff: he was a wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities filled to bursting, dusty around the edges, the core hard to reach, impenetrable depths but so much fascinating stuff spread across the surface that you could spend a rewarding eternity just exploring his superficialities. And as I stood in his space that first day – in his Fortress of Solitude, his lifeworld – I felt utterly at peace with who he was and how he lived and all around me I saw treasure, the rich treasure of him and the material world that he created for himself and I whispered a silent prayer that he hear me when I said, oh, Dad, there was nothing to be ashamed of.

****

So, yeah, the show, ‘Hoarders:’ I sometimes see people talking about it on Twitter and Facebook and wherever and the tenor of the discussion is always the same: oh, my god, can you believe that? Oh, god, ew. Oh, GOD: a dead cat! Feces! Oh, my god! Ew! EW! And, sometimes: I totally have the urge now to clean my house, oh my god.

(how can people live like that?)

(thank god they’re getting help.)

(oh, god, ew. EW.)

I have not said these things. But I have thought them.

The cases that are featured on the show are, to a one, extreme. Someone’s cat is crushed under debris. Someone’s home is littered with human feces. Someone’s goats are chewing through the walls to pilfer through the mess and abscond with litter. Everyone is sad, pathetic, shamed. Their families weep. How can they live like this? They’re sick. They’re sick. They’re dying from their stuff.

The show aims to shock, to appall. It works to provoke our horror, our fear, by parading the people it features as freaks, and then reassures us with that very freakishness. There but for the grace of Clorox and a well-organized closet go you, it warns, before quickly whispering, ah, don’t worry, these people are sick, they’re freaks, this is totally different from your laundry room, ssshhh…

And we all sit back, reassured, and go back to tweeting – oh MY GOD, did you see the DEAD CAT #hoarders #omfg – while we wonder idly whether hoarding is genetic or contagious and didn’t Aunt Beatrice have a whole lot of stuff? and, ugh, I really do need to call the cleaning lady, like, soon.

I watch, and listen, and read, and am ashamed. For myself. For my dad.

The cat-crushers do have a problem, of course. So does anyone whose feces accumulates on their kitchen floor, or anyone who, like the infamous Collyer brothers, gets squashed by a mountain of old newspapers. But raising awareness of hoarding as a mental illness (which is problematic to begin with, because the hoarding is likely to be a symptom of some other mental illness – my dad was clinically depressed – and not simply an illness in itself) by presenting the most extreme cases – as spectacle, to shock and horrify – is no more effective than raising awareness of post-partum depression by creating a reality show called DEPRESSED MOMS and featuring only women who are struggling with psychosis and failing and shouting things about INTRUSIVE THOUGHTS. You know, the sick moms, the moms who have had their kids taken away, the moms who freak us the f*ck out, even those of us still taking meds.

Shock doesn’t create awareness. It just shocks.

And it shames.

***

I don’t think that there should be any shame in mess. Nor in mental illness. To the extent that we are repulsed by disorder – literal or figurative – we are, I think, repulsed by that which we do not understand, that which we cannot make sense of, that which challenges the eye and mind. Neatness, tidiness, is easy: gaze upon a manicured lawn, a minimalist room, where there is nothing to disrupt or offend one’s line of sight, and there is nothing to think about, nothing to provoke the imagination. As one writer pointed out in a New York Times article a few years ago, “mess tells a story: you can learn a lot about people from their detritus, whereas neat — well, neat is a closed book. Neat has no narrative and no personality (as any cover of Real Simple magazine will demonstrate).” So it goes with spaces, so it goes with minds and personalities and character: as the old office poster used to say, a clean desk is a sign of a sick mind. Although, perhaps, not sick: rather, just, less interesting.

This overstates things, obviously: we wouldn’t wish that all the world were mentally ill, just so we could all be more interesting. And to equate mental illness with interestingness is, arguably, to romanticize it, and I freely admit to wanting to romanticize my dad’s story, to make him the hero, to turn his mental illness, such as it was, into a compelling narrative, one that captures just how wonderful and fascinating he really was. But why not; why shouldn’t I do this? Why shouldn’t I look for the beauty in the complicated wiring of his brain, the mysteries of his personality, the clutter of his material world? Why shouldn’t we all do that? Why do we insist upon categorizing everything that is messy and different and strange as bad, as wrong, as disordered? We can acknowledge the dead cat and the piles of feces as problematic while still acknowledging that messiness – in our homes and in our minds and in our hearts – exists along a spectrum, an interesting spectrum, one that does not run from ‘healthy’ to ‘sick’ but from ‘blank’ to ‘overfull.’

***

Wall-E was a hoarder. He totally was.

***

My dad was, I used to joke, the patron saint of lost electronic causes. He couldn’t bear to see a computer – or a video recorder or a VCR or an 8-track or a CD player or an old Atari gaming system – cast aside as junk. Everything old could be made (as good as) new again; revived, reinvented, renewed. He was, in this, Heideggerian: our appropriate relationship to technology was, for him, one that engaged material things, one that put us, literally, into meaningful, active relationship with things. Casting things aside, disposing of things, living a life that viewed the material world as ephemeral, disposable, transitory, rejectable was to deny relationship with things, to insist upon a lifeworld based on mastery over things, a lifeworld based on putting-things-to-service and then casting-them-aside. The sterile, tidy world of the person who ‘minimalizes’ would be, for him, one that denied our essential dependence upon things, much as if one were to decide against the emotional clutter of long-term committed relationships because of the essential complicatedness, the necessary messiness and crowdedness that comes with plus-ones and -twos and -threes (or more). Yes, one could keep one’s emotional life tidier by minimizing relationships and treating these as disposable where possible or necessary, but it would be, obviously, emptier.

So with things. So with things. We might object that embracing things, surrounding ourselves with things, loving things is the very root of our environmental problems, the overburdening of our planet. But  who is the better steward of the earth: the person who keeps and treasures and tinkers with things, who refuses to throw things away because so many things have value, or the person who treats ‘things’ as disposable, who regards the broken, the busted, the tarnished, the torn as junk? Why do we always need to sweep everything clean? Why must everything always be shiny and new?

We have problems with garbage because we are constantly throwing things away and replacing them. Maybe if we all did a little more keeping, a little more junk-treasuring, a little more hoarding, we’d be better off.

As I said, Wall-E was a hoarder.

***

It took me – and my mom, and, later, my husband – a little over a month to go through my dad’s stuff and clear away what needed to be cleared away, and even then we only got about halfway through. We’re going back over Christmas to – we hope – finish the job. I’m dreading it. I’m dreading doing it, and I’m dreading finishing it. Because doing this work does mean sweeping things clean, gathering up the mess of his lifeworld and throwing it away or packing it away and with every item that gets tossed or trashed or discarded there’s a tug at my heart, a resistance, a reluctance to let go. (I could tell you, perhaps, about climbing into the dumpster that I’d arranged to have parked outside his home, to facilitate cleaning… climbing into the dumpster in the heat of August and sobbing, sobbingsobbingsobbing, while I looked for his false teeth. I just couldn’t bear that any part of him be discarded like junk. I’ve had to struggle to resist regarding all of his material things as extensions of him. It is difficult to talk about. I’m trying to talk about it now.)

And this is what this is all about, isn’t it, not wanting to let go? I don’t want to let go of his things because I don’t want to let go of him; he didn’t want to let go of his things, I think, for similar reasons. There’s no shame in that. There’s no shame in admitting that there is comfort in stuff, in the things that participate in defining us and the people that we love, and that that comfort exerts a powerful pull. That releasing oneself from the embrace of that comfort (me, in his bedroom, after it had been scrubbed clean, surrounded by his shelves of books and paper and photos of wife and children and grandchildren and cough drops and pens and magnifying glasses and a few dead butterfly specimens, looking at the stuff he looked at before he went to sleep every night, hugged by his spirit) (him, before death, surrounded by the artifacts of his past, the building blocks of his future, his amusements, his dreams, looking at these before he went to sleep every night, hugged by his memories) is hard, so hard. He had to let go, of course; you can’t take it with you. I have to let go, too, because his lifeworld, his things, are just that, his, and he’s gone now and I have a life and a lifeworld and my own illness-or-not-illness and my own deep piles of stuff.

Of which I am not ashamed. I refuse to be ashamed.

And I refuse to ever again watch Hoarders.

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    { 154 comments }

    sweetsalty kate December 11, 2009 at 9:51 am

    I watched Hoarders the other night for the first time and in true car wreck fashion, couldn’t turn away for that one episode. I won’t watch it again, but not for any ethical or moral reason. I’m just not much into TV.

    I will say that as distasteful as it felt to me, I don’t think the show has any staying power beyond that one hour. Television doesn’t have enough credibility in my world to inflict any lasting damage upon any particular group of people.

    It’s an equal opportunity medium – it slanders and sensationalizes everything and everyone it touches. Consider how television has capitalized on everything from brides to marriages to overweight people to pageant coaches to celebrities to drug addicts. No one is spared. Every possible category of person – no matter how superficial or how profound or how chemical the roots of their problem – is caricatured as the farthest possible end of their category’s spectrum.

    Hoarders prompted from me a big fat meh, and confirmation that TV really is the lamest, most predictable form of entertainment out there. That’s why I can’t take it seriously enough even to condemn it for its low blows.
    .-= sweetsalty kate´s last blog ..scrooge is the new green, part two: the good grinch =-.

    Seeohel December 11, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    This was perfect. Just perfect. My family and I went through the same thing cleaning out my grandparents house.

    Just as their lives were tied to the things they cherished; things created by them, by children and grandchildren, things they’d grown and pulled from their gardens with their own two hands, my memories of them are tied to things, their smell left on things, their appreciation for things and pictures and knick-knacks from all over the world.

    We inherited a cabinet of things from them that they’d collected in their travels. That cabinet is on display in my parents house, and we’re still adding to it with our own little things.

    There are so many things we don’t need; things we value that we really shouldn’t. But there is never any shame in defining one’s life by the stuff they’ve accumulated along the way. It’s all part of the story; one that you tell so beautifully here.
    .-= Seeohel´s last blog ..Cody :: {W}rite of Passage Writing Well Challenge #1: Character =-.

    Jude December 11, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    There’s something in your post that bothers me. You say you loved and respected your father. You appeared to be shocked when you went into his house after his death and saw the accumulation of clutter.

    If you loved him, where were you during the years he was accumulating his stuff and plunging into depression? What I hear in your post is a lonely man, a tinkerer, with a daughter that was absent until it was too late. I truly feel sorry for him.

    Her Bad Mother December 11, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    I wasn’t shocked. As I said in response to a comment above (and as I tried to express) I was overtaken by the feeling that it was not that bad. As he himself feared. My husband and I were permitted entry once during the eight years or so that Dad lived in that location, but no-one else. We visited and stayed nearby and Dad came to us. He didn’t want us to see. I regularly insisted that it would not matter to me. It mattered to him.

    One post can’t tell a whole story. To assume that I simply wasn’t there is a HUGE assumption. This post was not about the years that we spent together, it was about me coping with his death. My dad and I were tremendously close. TREMENDOUSLY close. I can’t (nor need I) summarize every aspect of it here, but our closeness persisted despite his anxieties about his living space.

    But, hey, thanks for the gut punch.

    Becca December 11, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    have you even bothered to read any of Catherines other posts? it’s so obvious that she loved her father dearly. no one who reads her blog on a regular basis could doubt that.

    Nora December 11, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Why would you write something like this?

    I realize that in blogging, she opens herself up to the world, criticisms and praise alike, and all that bullshit. But baring A PART of one’s soul online does not give others the right to say things that decent human beings simply do not say to one another. Would you ever, EVER question a friend’s loyalty to her deceased loved ones to her face? I’ll venture a guess – NO. What the hell gives you any right to do it here?

    I’m really appalled and disgusted with this comment. Really.

    Kizz December 14, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Someone who would write such a thing clearly has never been close to a hoarder. Even many of my closest friends I know think badly of me because I’m not saving my mother. To me, I’m saving my relationship with my mother by not forcing a (useless) “cure” on her. To my friends (and hers!) I don’t seem to care or I’m as sick as she is. Jude is one of many who has not a single clue what interacting with people we love who hoard is like.

    sisterofahoarder December 29, 2009 at 8:14 am

    Well, I’ve been living with my sister’s hoarding for over 30 years, and I’m still trying to save her. She’s not just a tinkerer, or someone interested in electronics… She’s got a huge problem. Does it mean I don’t respect her hoarding? Oh yeah, you bet I do. She’s tantrummed on me more times than I know what to do anymore. She’s made sure that every one around her is unhappy as she is… Does that mean I am still not trying. Don’t get me wrong… I totally appreciate this post, if for nothing to get my own frustration out about how hard and trying it is to have a hoarder in one’s life… Yet I’m still trying! That’s why I’m a proponent of the show Hoarders. At least it’s brought to the public eye. At least it’s no longer a “dirty little secret.” At least it opens a dialogue with my sister…

    Alison December 11, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Just a coward. Does a hit and run. To stir up the pile? For attention?

    Not worth your time, Catherine.
    .-= Alison´s last blog ..Why I’ll never be fashionable at Christmas =-.

    Suebob December 11, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    The way you dig beneath the surface and express your thoughts so beautifully and humanly takes my breath away, Catherine.

    I lived with a hoarder for a bit. The thing that shocked me was the depth of his emotional attachment to his things (he hoarded paper – newspapers, magazines, brochures, business cards, notes). Things that seemed utterly insignificant to me caused him real distress and sadness if they were tossed out (and believe me, I tossed a lot of stuff out). It was profoundly disturbing to him to be relieved of any of the paper that I saw as a mess and a burden.
    .-= Suebob´s last blog ..Best Blog Challenge =-.

    Laura December 12, 2009 at 6:32 am

    Just found your blog, What a beautiful post. I saw Hoarders on Oprah and could hardly watch that, so I have not turned on the actual show. I really do not think they are helping there issues.

    Hollywood Farm December 12, 2009 at 10:37 am

    All I have to say is, what an excellent sign of good parenting on your dad’s part. You brought me to tears. You are a wonderful daughter!

    pixielation December 13, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    What a moving bit of writing. Great understanding, love and compassion.

    And it’s true, those shows are designed for primetime tv, to shock and generate viewers, but not necessarily to create better understanding or empathy.
    .-= pixielation´s last blog ..happiness is a beach =-.

    nicole December 13, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    I think you do a wonderful service to your father’s spirit each time you write about him. I can only imagine how cathartic it is for you…at least I hope it is.

    As for Hoarders, I’ve never seen the show. Stuff like that just doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather watch American Idol where people are rushing to make their dreams come true-then to watch someone in the bowls of despair.

    As for mess, I agree we’ve all got it-in some form or another.

    Kiki December 16, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I don’t know if you’re still reading comments for this post, but I wanted to thank you for it. My father died almost three years ago and he was also a hoarder, although he had my mother to keep the house somewhat in check and a hundred acres of land on which to hide the rest. My sister dealt with the bulk of his accumulations, as I had a 6 month old at the time and couldn’t help as much, but when I was able to go up and help out it was with a combination of tears at his passing and anger that he would have left so much behind for others to clean up. This was not, for him, a sign of mental illness, more a personality trait of thrift mixed with excessive messiness that he had his whole life. But even when I was pitching mounds of crap out of the 6 old cars he kept around “for parts,” sometimes I’d come across an item that was just so much MY DAD that I would have to laugh. I read your post and thought to myself, why did I have to be so angry at him for this? I know that my anger at his stuff was mostly just me being supremely pissed off at the universe that he had died. But I wish I could have stopped for a minute to realize, as you did, that here was part of the puzzle that was my father and that could tell me quite a lot about him if only I paid attention and listened. That it wasn’t a burden, but a privilege, to be able to delve into his world that had been left unfinished. Things that he left behind precisely because his death was so sudden, he didn’t have time to clean up for it. I think I managed little glimpses of that world which I now hold on to.

    My mother recently sent me a picture she found in one of his piles of stuff. It was something I drew maybe when I was 8 or so, most likely after a fight with my sister. On one side of the paper was a drawing of a flower, with “Kiki is a flower” written underneath. On the other side was a drawing of a pig, with “[Kiki's sister] is a pig” underneath. Something I wrote in huffy anger and probably would have thrown away myself, he kept because… he thought it was cute? It epitomized me at the time? I don’t know, but I’m damn glad he kept it. It was an amazing thing to see after decades.

    Dad, I salute you. In your detritus I found pieces of you I didn’t know existed, and pieces of me that I had forgotten. Thanks for saving both for me to see.

    Rita December 18, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Catherine:

    Your post is a beautiful tribute to your father. Your words are sad and yet comforting all the same. I lost my father 18 years ago and I can remember those first few months when I read what you are going through.

    I am truly amazed at your ability to express your feelings in such a magical way.

    My thoughts and prayers are with you as you deal with your fresh grief.

    Have hope. You WILL get to the other side of this.
    .-= Rita´s last blog ..You Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog =-.

    kittenpie December 19, 2009 at 10:50 am
    whollyjeanne December 21, 2009 at 10:36 am

    even after reading this amazing post 3 times, i know i haven’t fully absorbed it yet. and i just had to stop reading the comments because the frustration proved too big and too easy a distraction from the essence of your post.

    this is big – for so many reasons and on so many levels, this. is. big. but all i can articulate right now is what ran through me repeatedly as i read your words: my sister-in-law is 51 years old and, for reasons we will never know, functions at the level of say an 8 year old. her taste in fashion is juvenile. dolls are her #1 cherished possessions. the only female child in a family of engineers and doctors, she can’t solve the simplest math problem or read the simplest story. she likes tablets and pencils, though, and one day when i was cleaning out her bulging, overfilled drawers, i took the time to read her tablets and to my great surprise and joy, i discovered that she was keeping journals.

    she keeps journals.

    there is more to this woman than meets the eye, and so, i believe, it is with everyone. we make far too many judgments about people, sometimes without even realizing (at least i have to hope that is the case) what we are doing. we peg them, label them, judge and thus limit them because, in part, it’s so much easier that way. and sometimes, i fear, we do it because it is a shortcut to feeling better about and elevating ourselves.

    okay, i’m obviously getting mired down here, so i’ll just say this: thank you for being brave enough, willing enough to share.

    thank you.

    sisterofahoarder December 29, 2009 at 8:24 am

    I’ve read every single post here. I do think it’s an excellent post. However, and I dare to throw out the bone… Don’t you ever wonder, just once… don’t you ever wonder what might your life had been like had you not grown up with a hoarder in your life? Did you keep it a secret? Were you ashamed? I’m asking because even though I knew my sister was a hoarder from early on (even if I didn’t know the term hoarder), I WAS ashamed. I WAS embarrassed. I DIDN’T understand. Yes, I loved my sister. Yes, I wanted her to be happy. At the same time, I wanted her to grow up and smell the coffee. Without the show Hoarders, these posts might never have been. Thank you for posting, and sorry to have been controversial. But my sister has caused our family and especially me A LOT of pain.

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