Book review: Stuff

authors Gail Steketee, Randy Frost and "Stuff", plus a level-4 cluttered space I have a long and complex history of interactions with stuff.

Long enough that it's hard to pinpoint where the more fraught interactions started, although there are artifacts that suggest certain "hot" times: a bright yellow filing cabinet I requested (and received) for my thirteenth birthday; a dedicated "quotes and lists" journal I created during my junior year of college, after a particularly difficult summer.

Complex enough that just thinking about it brings up a variety of disturbing feelings: shame, guilt, confusion, anxiety. My anxiety is bubbling to the surface right now, as I type this, even after a full year of actively sorting through, thinking about, and releasing stuff. My heart is beating faster. I'm warm, a little dizzy, and feel as though it's harder to breathe. I feel "fuzzed out", dissociated, instead of present and fully integrated, like a part of me that didn't want to deal just ran off somewhere else, and now I have to coax it back.

According to Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, co-authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, and preeminent scholars of hoarding as a behavioral disorder, my symptoms are fairly common. While I'm not a hoarder, or at least, compared to the hoarders I've known and the ones I've been (obsessively) watching on A&E's gripping show, Hoarders, I have significant attachment issues around stuff, and exhibit many of the behaviors and much of the wiring present among compulsive hoarders: perfectionism, distractibility, depression, difficulty making decisions, and, hallelujah for at least one happy trait, a highly creative personality.

Stuff does a superb job of explaining why it is we get attached to things, and why some of us become pathologically attached to things. The authors use a series of case studies to illustrate the various ways the disorder manifests: there are the "opportunity addicts," who see potential in everything; there are people who use their stuff as visual reminders, who use it to make them feel safe, or valued, or in control. The stories are fascinating and often heartbreaking. But while they describe life at the extreme end of the acquiring spectrum, they're also fairly illuminating about the general valuation of objects over experiences, even relationships, that are part of a consumer-driven economy and the culture of materialism it fosters.

In other words, while Stuff is of particular interest to someone who is a hoarder, loves a hoarder or is just interested in learning all about hoarding, it's also a mandatory read for anyone interested understanding more about the fallout from living in this age of unprecedented access to both goods and information. It's gripping from beginning to end, and haunting thereafter.

xxx c

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Photos, clockwise from top left: Steketee; Frost; book cover; a level-4 (out of a possible 9) cluttered space.