Hoarding is too ubiquitous and entrenched to be dismembered by the boundaries of national tradition or discipline.
On the morning of March 21, 1947, New York police headquarters received a call reporting that there was a dead body in the Collyer Mansion. The caller did not need to give the address; the rundown 2078 Fifth Avenue brownstone and the eccentric brothers who lived there, Homer and Langley, were local legends. Since 1938, when the journalist Helen Worden Erskine wrote about the “Hermits of Harlem” in the New York World-Telegram, the mansion had become a neighborhood attraction. Ongoing squabbles with Consolidated Edison, the Bowery Savings Bank, city officials, and developers resulted in memorable scenes: solicitors banging on the door, Langley shouting at them from an upstairs window. Everyone seemed to have a theory about what was inside the dilapidated brownstone. Neighborhood children insisted that the place was haunted and that Langley lived there with the decomposing cadavers of his father, his mother, and his older brother, Homer, who was blind and had not been seen outside since 1936. Some said there was a car in the basement (there was a Model T that Langley had attempted to rig to generate electricity), a rowboat in the attic (it was a broken canoe), and countless grand pianos (there were fourteen). Others said there were piles of money; rumors of their vast fortunes circulated in the neighborhood, unaffected by regular sightings of Langley rummaging through garbage cans and appealing to butchers and grocers for scraps.
After the mysterious call, an emergency squad was dispatched to the Fifth Avenue address. Performing for a crowd of hundreds of gawkers, the first responders tried to get in through the front door and a basement grate. Unsteady barricades of newspapers blocked both. Eventually, they were able to enter through a second-floor window. There, they found the emaciated corpse of Homer nestled into an alcove amid piles of debris. He had become paraplegic in his final years; the autopsy determined that he had died of starvation-induced heart failure. A frenzied search began for Langley, with the Daily News and the Daily Mirror making competing bids for exclusive information leading to his discovery. The tip lines rang off the hook: Langley was reportedly spotted eating frozen custard in Newark, hitchhiking in North Carolina, trout fishing in the Adirondacks, and riding the subway in Brooklyn. The search continued for another two and a half weeks, expanding into nine states. Meanwhile on Fifth Avenue, the public administrator, H. Walter Skidmore, led preliminary efforts to clear out the townhouse. Cats scurried about, lured by shelter or mice or perhaps the “queer odor” whose source was discovered, on April 8, to be the decomposing, rat-gnawed corpse of Langley. The younger Collyer brother had been dead for about a month; he was bringing food to Homer when he set off one of the many boobytraps he had rigged to deter intruders. He was crushed by bales of newspapers and died of asphyxiation; “a victim of fear,” Worden Erskine writes, “killed by his invention.”
More than 120 tons of stuff—the bulk of which was combustible debris—were removed from the Collyer Mansion. Magazines, newspapers, wood, and other combustibles were carted off by the Department of Sanitation and burned. The clean out yielded the detritus Langley scavenged when he went out walking at night, the remaining effects of the brothers’ childhood and their ancestors, an intricate potato peeler, a beaded lampshade, a toy airplane, a drugstore cologne display, and a jar containing a two-headed human fetus preserved in formaldehyde. The fourteen pianos were put up for auction in the fetid, dusty parlor as bidders stumbled over “battered cartons and bottles” and covered their noses with handkerchiefs; only four sold. Tattered rugs, stopped clocks, musical instruments, toys, furniture, pictures, linens, and clothing—wares described even by the auctioneer’s aide as “junk I wouldn’t pay a dime for”—were removed from the mansion and sold at auction, bringing in the disappointing sum of $1,800. Max Schaffer, the impresario for Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus on 42nd Street, spent $300 on a carpet, a crib, a coffee grinder, Homer’s old school desk, two cornets, a bugle, three rusty bayonets, and some pictures. Another big spender, Jacob Lubetkin, owner of Ye Olde Treasure Shoppe in Greenwich Village, spent $310 on a 200-pound, nine-foot-tall musical clock. Both men correctly recognized that however banged up or broken down their purchases may have been, relics of the legendary hoard would attract customers to their businesses.
The Collyer brothers’ reclusive lives and horrible deaths may be “the ultimate New York cautionary tale,” as Lidz writes, without specifying what that tale is about, or against what it cautions. Sorting through Collyer curiosa in 1947, Skidmore discovered an unmailed letter from Langley to one of his students describing the anguish he felt when she stopped her music lessons with him. With that evidence, the public administrator imagined a love story to be at the origin of the brothers’ “frightful and puzzling end.” Worden Erskine traces the source of their ills to a different love story, that between their parents, who were first cousins, and whose union she therefore considered a “diluting of the blood by inbreeding.” As an alternate hypothesis, she names the “dominant character” of their mother, speculating that her “overpowering devotion” to her sons rendered them helpless. Dozens of writers have since taken up the story of the Collyer brothers—notable titles include Marcia Davenport’s My Brother’s Keeper (1954), Andrew Scott’s The Dazzle (2002), Lidz’s Ghosty Men (2003), and E. L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley (2009)—to explore the horrifying codependence of a devoted caretaker or a deranged prison-keeper and his helpless charge, or unchecked materialism, paranoia, or misanthropy. The joys and sorrows, attachments and estrangements that conducted the brothers to their crushing end will likely remain opaque despite the efforts of psychologists, playwrights, novelists, and even cultural critics.
However iconic the death of the Collyer brothers may be, stories like theirs are not uncommon. In July 2010, similar events unfolded when firefighters were called to the 5400 block of Foster Street in Skokie, Illinois. There they discovered the corpse of the seventy-nine-year old Marie Davis buried under heaps of domestic debris. To remove her body, first responders had to drill into the roof and create a tunnel through the possessions that were piled up to three feet from the ceiling. The cause of Davis’s death—heart failure—was not directly related to the state of her home, but it was the latter that made her death local news. Or rather, the state of her home and the time of her death: years marked by a spike in cultural interest in hoarding evidenced in literary and visual culture, medical research, and academic works of cultural criticism. In 2009, A&E aired its first episode of Hoarders, a series that has been credited with establishing narrative formulas and iconographies of the phenomenon. Four years later, the American Psychiatric Association included the new diagnostic category of “hoarding disorder” in the fifth revision of its standard reference work, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
The DSM-5 defines hoarding as a “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.” The emphasized qualification suggests that hoarding is rooted in conflicting perspectives about value. Hoarding thus resembles fetishism, a concept that figures prominently in the fields of anthropology, economics, and psychology; naming, in each discipline, a misrecognition of value—religious, commercial, or sexual. Unlike Freudian fetishism, which is generally experienced by the afflicted as a welcome expedient to erotic life, the contemporary psychiatric diagnosis of hoarding requires that the difficulty discarding results in “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
The wording of this specification is generic; it is used to designate the threshold of disorder in multiple entries of the DSM-5. The authors explain that without “clear biological markers” or “clinically useful measurements of severity,” “it has not been possible to completely separate normal and pathological symptom expressions contained in diagnostic criteria.” The formulation “clinically significant distress” thus replaces a gap in information, a representational lacuna: the absence of a measurable difference between normal and pathological symptom expressions. A substitute for something that is not there is also Freud’s basic formula for the fetish: “To put it more plainly: the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and—for reasons familiar to us—does not want to give up.” Hoarding amplifies and multiplies fetishism, not only because both are predicated on clashing perspectives about value, but also because both the diagnostic category of hoarding disorder and the hoard itself are structured like the fetish. The disorder and the hoard are substitutes for something that cannot be seen: a measurable difference between normal and pathological conditions. This doubleness infects hoarding discourse, raising its ambivalences to the third power.
Among disorders included in the DSM-5, hoarding is unique because its diagnosis requires the existence of a material entity external to the patient’s psychic reality: the hoard. However fatal its magnitude, the hoard is an aesthetic object produced by a clash in perspectives about the meaning or value of objects; it is caught between phenomenology, aesthetics, and ontology. This bears a significant implication: the hoarder resembles an artist or an artisan whose identity as such is a function of the (composite) artifact he produces—facit artem. Diagnosis is, in part, an aesthetic problem. Hoarding experts Randy Frost and Gail Steketee have even developed aesthetic standards with which to evaluate a hoard, an assessment tool they named the Clutter Image Rating (CIR). The CIR is composed of three series of nine photographs of increasingly cluttered staged domestic spaces—a kitchen, a bedroom, and a living room (see figure 0.1). Intended to address the absence of a clinically useful measurement of severity, the assessment tool makes the reality of the diagnosis of hoarding disorder derive from an index (a photograph) of a realist representation (a mise-en-scène) of an analogy (a hypothesized likeness to the hoarder’s dwelling). Hoarding disorder, diagnosed as such, is a malady in which “objective reality” is both essential to the diagnosis and incredibly elusive.