About the Hoarders



My first job out of college was with a pathology organization; I assembled manuscripts about all the different ways to die. Most were about blood diseases and cancers, of little interest to me or anyone else without the professional training to understand them. A handful, though, were forensic pathology manuscripts, which is to say about all the vivid and fascinating ways the outside world can kill you. (Did you know that you can be gassed by the discharge from an inboard boat motor if you swim too long too close to it?)

On my first day, I paged through the forensic pathology series to acquaint myself with the work. The one I can never unremember was about autoerotic asphyxiation, and was meant to assist pathologists in telling the difference between someone who's inadvertently offed him or herself in the heat of passion and someone who's been murdered, or at least been accidentally killed by a partner.

The subject in question had not merely suffocated himself with a belt; had not merely done so while looking at child pornography; the subject was also a pathological hoarder. The crime scene was ankle deep in pizza boxes, bags of chips, and other junk food junk. An ashtray next to the computer was inches deep in cigarette butts, and a corner of the monitor was charred and melted, indicating that this was a normal state of affairs, and that the pile of butts had caught fire and torched the computer. I'd never seen that level of squalor before—not the result of poverty or disaster, but from mental illness.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that Mary Schmich is right about hoarding being one of the saddest things you can imagine.

One note about Schmich's column, though: "Hoarding is fashionably freakish these days.... E.L. Doctorow's latest novel, Homer & Langley, is based on the real life of two wealthy hoarding brothers." That would be the Collyer brothers, who, contrary to being part of a new phenomenon, have been fictionalized since their bodies were still warm, beginning with a Law & Order-style (RIP) ripped-from-the-headlines Boston Blackie radio mystery. Their story was the first I ever read about hoarding, thanks to Franz Lidz (familiar, hopefully, to those of you who grew up on Sports Illustrated), who's written about the meaning of the Collyer brothers' story. It must resonate; there's a Manhattan park, on the site of their former brownstone, named after them.

Update: To be more explicit: I don't think interest in hoarding is a fad; I think it's an ongoing fascination that taps into anxieties about space and trash, especially for urban dwellers. I live in too small an apartment, and periodically it reaches what appears to be a primal hoarding state. After a couple days I get mentally and physically agitated and go on a cleaning spree. I can't imagine what it's like to have the opposite reaction.

Side note: It's funny, I was sure it was Ron Rosenbaum who'd written the definitive account of the Collyer brothers, but it turns out I was confusing Lidz's book with Rosenbaum's story "Dead Ringers," about twin gynecology stars who also died under horrid conditions in a New York apartment, and whose tale inspired David Cronenberg's movie of the same name. Got my literary journalism about New York sibling tragedies that tap into deep-seated anxieties confused.

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