Hoarding Instincts

On trying to control what we can’t live without

The last time I went home to see my parents, my mom had pulled out a stack of old VHS tapes and left them on the dining room table for me to look at. She wanted to get rid of them, and at some point, probably when I was in college and we still had a functioning VCR, I had asked her to save them. A few of them were in the manufacturer’s packaging, cardboard sleeves or the puffy plastic cases that Disney movies used to come in. The rest were once-blank tapes that my paternal grandfather had purchased in bulk and used to record movies and shows from TV, or to make copies of rented video tapes, which you could do if you hooked up two VCRs to the same TV. This was technically illegal, but my grandfather did it anyway. He would then label each tape painstakingly, in his neat and jaunty script, including details like the names of the leading actors, the runtime, the date of recording, and often a little tagline of his own devising. The label on Monty Python and the Holy Grail (mislabeled as Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail — for years, I thought that was its name), copied on 1-24-87, has the annotation “Wacky English Comedy.” One label says “HAPPY BIRTHDAY ELISA – NOV. 2, 1987 (1 ½ HRS).” Under An American Tail, he wrote, “Mouse Finds Freedom in America.”

When my grandparents were alive, there was a room in their house with a wall packed floor to ceiling with VHS storage cabinets, full of rows and rows of these tapes, as though he taped almost everything he watched. The opposite wall held the guts of a model train set. My grandfather, who loved trains — when we were kids, my brother Adam and I called him “Choo-Choo Granddaddy” to distinguish him from our maternal grandfather — had set up an elaborate model landscape in the living room, with little fake trees and a water tower and a half loop of track that emerged from a hole he had made in the wall, so the train could come in from that dark back room when he turned the contraption on. Of course this delighted us; I don’t think it delighted my grandmother. They had a small and crowded house, with stuff piled everywhere. They always had junk food, boxes of Twinkies and Hostess cupcakes, tins of Planters potato sticks and Cheez Balls. Often there was a Whitman’s Sampler box sitting around, repurposed to hold letters or pens or something — I remember once being shocked when I lifted the lid to find chocolates still inside.

If we believe we like something, we like it, for as long as we believe it

The extent of the stuff didn’t really impress me until my grandmother died, in 1996, six years after my grandfather, and we had to clean out their house. It was summer, and my dad’s younger brother and sister and their kids all gathered in the house along with us for a week to sort through it all. There were piles and piles of stuff with almost no monetary value; they’d never had much money. Most of it didn’t even have much sentimental value. I took some clothes from my grandmother’s closet, stuff she hadn’t worn in many years that was vintage by then; I still have, and wear, some of it. We took some of the tapes and probably a spare VCR. My grandmother had a lot of wind chimes in her garden; we must have taken a couple of those. I don’t think any of the furniture was worth keeping — it had become a house full of junk.

For years after that summer, my mother would be seized with sudden urges to clean out some old closet or cabinet or bookshelf. She’d always say, during these cleaning sprees, “I don’t want you and Adam to have to clear all this out after we die.” My father, like his father, has a tendency to hang on to things of no value, even to himself. The bookshelves in my parents’ den have rows of old car magazines from the ’80s. I’m sure he hasn’t touched them, much less reread them, since he got them. My mother has nooks like this too — there’s a storage room in their garage with shelves full of fancy yarn, which has been gathering dust for decades. She used to weave when I was little, sweaters and shawls she would sometimes sell in local shops and galleries, but she stopped many years ago when her arthritis got too bad. There’s still a giant wooden loom in the corner of their den. It’s now a very large curio — it may have some value to someone, should we ever try to sell it; it may be expensive, unwieldy junk.

All my grandparents lived through the Great Depression, and while none of them were hoarders in a pathological sense, living through poverty and scarcity certainly affected their habits and aesthetics, which tended toward the maximal and cumulative. My maternal grandmother had a storage space behind her house that was probably originally a garage, which she called “the building.” The building was where she kept all her Christmas decorations and ornaments and wrapping paper, and other seasonal stuff not in use, like silk flower arrangements. There were boxes and crates of old toys and craft supplies, a dressmaker’s dummy. For most of her life she sewed and quilted; when she had a stroke late in life and lost the use of her right hand, she learned to paint with her left. There was a chest freezer out there that was usually full of baked goods, Bundt cakes and quick breads wrapped in foil and then sealed in Ziploc bags.

I don’t remember ever being bored at her house. There was always so much stuff to look at. She had hung on to my mother’s old Barbie dolls, the original two, a blond and a brunette, released in 1959. There was a bunch of toy furniture too — a little wardrobe full of Barbie clothes, and a kitchenette set, including cookware and a tiny can of peas. She liked to collect things, like music boxes and figurines. These collections had the illusion of value, and my mother tried to sell some of the stuff on eBay after she died, but it was barely worth the logistical work of cataloging and corresponding with buyers and shipping it out. A lot of her stuff is now at my parents’ house; my mom inherited pieces of furniture that mostly exist to contain this stuff, stuff like stacks of china and punch bowls with a dozen matching cups, stuff that retains an ineffable scent of the past, as if the air around them hasn’t moved in fifty years.

There’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding, I suppose. I once met a woman with a collection of over 500 dolls — the more impressive the collection, the more it starts to look like a pathology. When Andy Warhol died, his estate sale revealed boxes and boxes of collections in his six-story townhouse, which basically served as a massive storage space. Some of it was wildly valuable: “1,659 pieces of Russel Wright pottery, 267 watches, 72 Navajo blankets and rugs, 61 lots of early 19th-Century American furniture, 37 Art Deco cigarette cases, 33 works by Man Ray, 18 by Marcel Duchamp, 12 Rauschenbergs,” according to a Los Angeles Times piece published just before the sale, in 1988. But not all of it was valuable. “An observer for Newsweek derided the event as ‘the biggest garage sale ever’ and experienced shock at Warhol’s vast jumble of objets d’art, particularly the ‘lower-priced collectibles,’” Scott Herring writes in his 2014 book The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture. “Jewelry, she proclaimed with dismay, ‘was found in cookie tins; a Picasso was stuck in a closet.’”

The word hoarding usually evokes “maladaptive or compulsive hoarding,” as one psychologist describes the disorder — accumulation of stuff beyond use value. (In a variety known as Diogenes syndrome, or senile squalor syndrome, people feel compelled to hoard “trash, including old containers, rotting food, or human waste.”) But at the peak of its use, in 1935 according to a Google Ngram search, “hoarding” generally referred to money. During the Great Depression, people lost their trust in banks, so they pulled their savings out and kept it at home instead. According to Keynesian economics, this is a cause of recessions. The “paradox of thrift” states that too much saving reduces aggregate demand and output, which is bad for the economy — therefore, despite collective thrift, everyone is worse off. This line of thinking led Herbert Hoover, in 1932, to call cash hoarding “traitorous.”

We still more or less abide by this paradoxical principle. In March 2020, as state and local governments and leadership at many nonessential businesses have made the decision to close public and private spaces to try to prevent further spread of Covid-19, we’re seeing historic spikes in unemployment and historic drops in the stock market. Against the advice of medical and public health experts, Donald Trump has pushed for a return to the production and consumption of stuff, of nonessential stuff. Though he has limited power to reopen business or make people shop, the potential harm of these claims can’t really be overstated. He has routinely underplayed the severity of the virus, and many people take his assertions and lies seriously, which endangers everyone. Meanwhile, the hoarding of wealth at the top, by corporations and multi-billionaires, has greatly exacerbated the crisis. Massive inequality, a health care system driven by profit incentives, millions of Americans with no savings or health insurance — all of these will increase the number of avoidable deaths, which worst-case-scenario models put in the millions. You could say that the super-rich are suffering from maladaptive and compulsive hoarding, a class disorder. They have far more money in their bank accounts than they could ever use, but no one else can use it either. The billions are purely symbolic — wealth that might outlive us all, like plastic in landfills. Expensive trash.

In his recent book The Longing for Less, Kyle Chayka tells the story of a woman whose mother was a hoarder:

Sonrisa Andersen’s childhood home was a mess … On the kitchen table there were piles of clothes stacked all the way to the ceiling, things they would get for free from churches or charities. The clothes in the looming pile sometimes didn’t even fit. Some were clean and others were dirty — they stayed regardless. Furniture that Andersen’s well-meaning grandmother found on the street accumulated. An avalanche of pots and pans, more than could ever be useful, spilled all over the kitchen counters and floor.

As an adult, Andersen discovered minimalist lifestyle blogs and the Marie Kondo way: “enlightened simplicity, a moral message combined with a particularly austere visual style,” Chayka writes, a style popular on Instagram and Pinterest. Andersen embraced this form of minimalism as an antidote to clutter-induced stress. It’s an aesthetic where blankness and empty space are rendered aspirational.

My husband and I have a long wall in our apartment unbroken by windows or doorways, which we’ve lined with seven dark IKEA Billy bookshelves side by side. They are always at about 99 percent capacity. There’s a row of books on the very top of the shelves too, mostly reference texts and art books and anthologies. The rest is a mix of fiction and nonfiction arranged in alphabetical order. These shelves are curated in the sense that we are always getting rid of old books to make room for new ones, but they are still a display of abundance. They are not curated toward bare minimalism — shelves holding a few artfully chosen books, stacked horizontally, with nothing around them, or maybe a knickknack, one of those little wire sculptures that frame more empty space.

You could say that the super-rich are suffering from maladaptive and compulsive hoarding, a class disorder

We are not, as a couple, the KonMari type. I try to minimize clutter where I can, or at least contain it, but there are piles of books and periodicals all over the apartment. It’s not pure chaos. There’s a system of organization to the stacks: library books to read, library books to return, galleys to consider, galleys to give away or sell. There’s a barstool where I keep a stack of books I’m currently writing about. John’s office has its own system — books he is currently teaching, books he has read so far this year, books he might want to read next. This is a kind of clutter we not only tolerate but enjoy, clutter as an aesthetic. I don’t like when people arrange their libraries in “rainbow order.” I can go to our shelves to see if we have a book that John has acquired without my knowledge or has owned since before we met without having to know what the book looks like. But also, maybe more so, I prefer the look of spines in random color patterns. This randomness looks beautiful to me. Alphabetical order is my aesthetic.

Hoarding and anti-hoarding are both responses to anxiety. People were already getting sick of generic minimalism before the pandemic. A year ago, journalist Taylor Lorenz wrote a widely circulated article for the Atlantic called “The Instagram Aesthetic Is Over.” In it, she described a younger generation of emerging influencers fatigued by false perfection, by the ubiquity of just-so avocado toast and “millennial pink.” In response, these Gen Z content creators were cultivating their own, equally contrived visual brand of imperfection and messiness. Lorenz quoted a “cultural strategist” who said, “We’ve all participated in those staged photos. We all know the stress and anxiety it takes. And we can see through it. Culture is a pendulum, and the pendulum is swaying.” So mess now feels like a novelty, and what’s new (again) is refreshing. But if “everyone is trying to be more authentic,” as another social media marketer in Lorenz’s piece claims, then photogenic “authenticity” will be just another standard that anxious influencers must adhere to, making their anxious followers feel inadequate — too tidy and boring — by comparison. The pendulum isn’t swinging back from fakeness to authenticity, but to a different kind of fakeness, which, like any aesthetic, feels genuinely authentic from the inside. If we believe we like something, we like it, for as long as we believe it.

Since early March, when a number of basic household necessities — along with small luxuries I’m accustomed to, which seem suddenly necessary — have become difficult to obtain or outright unavailable, I’m feeling the tug of a hoarding instinct. I don’t want the luxuries that feel normal to change. I don’t want what feels normal to change any faster than it already is, especially at home, where I’m safe as long as I never leave.

I know I shouldn’t hoard anything useful right now. It’s an asocial instinct, and my sense of security in having extra whatever (Tylenol or hand sanitizer or Clorox wipes) would come at the expense of someone else having any. But I couldn’t hoard those things now if I wanted to. I’m so grateful for the backup supplies we already had on hand — a backup bottle of olive oil in the pantry, extra liquid soap under the sink. I can’t imagine ever feeling comfortable with not having backups again. I wonder if we’re all going to turn into hoarders, all of us living through this moment of hopefully limited, artificial scarcity — sources assure me there’s no actual shortage of food or toilet paper, just blips in the supply chain, and many stores are imposing limits on how many units of high-demand items one person can buy. I’m starting to have dreams — not daydreams, but actual Freudian wish-fulfilment dreams — about going to the grocery store and filling my cart. And I can imagine, once I can wander a physical Target again, at leisure and without fear of other people, buying the biggest package of toilet paper I can find.

That would be an example of “adaptive hoarding,” since we’ll definitely use it, as long as we’re alive. But I can imagine the instinct misfiring too, the way it does for my parents and did for their parents before them, with their magazines and videotapes and antique toys. I wonder what stuff I will die with, and how little it will be worth.

Elisa Gabbert is the author most recently of The Word Pretty. Her next collection, The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays, will be out from FSG Originals in August 2020.