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.
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.