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Photo of a pile of stuff on top of a car.
Photo by Julie Akers

Our Problem With Stuff

What is driving North America’s obsession with hoarding?

Like most anthropologists, Katie Kilroy-Marac has no time for junk science. But the science of junk? That’s another matter altogether.

The UTSC professor is currently researching the world of hoarders: people who compulsively accumulate and keep objects, regardless of their inherent value. Over the past 10 or 15 years, she says, hoarding has emerged as “a public health hazard across North America – and also a media spectacle, to the extent that there are TV shows about it.” And in 2013, for the first time, the behaviour was classified as a mental illness in the DSM-V, the latest edition of the standard diagnostic manual for psychiatrists.

Hoarding was once considered an obscure behaviour associated with conditions such as schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Its current primacy in the public imagination, says Kilroy-Marac, may be related to a collective anxiety we all have about our ever-increasing amassment of stuff. “When I speak about hoarding,” she says, “it opens the floodgates. People are very interested in talking about their clutter, or how they’re purging closets or moving a parent into a nursing home and dealing with their things.”

So alongside our fascination with hoarding, it’s not surprising that we now have a booming clutter-management industry: the rising popularity of personal organizers and of “storage closets that can be delivered to your front yard, loaded up, and taken away to some mysterious place.” The home is where our anxiety is centred; hoarders are, by definition, not homeless, although they often face eviction.

Kilroy-Marac, who specializes in the social history of psychiatric thought, is researching a book about why society is so concerned right now about clutter. She draws a fascinating parallel between North America’s long-standing concern over dieting, and its new mania for shedding material pounds. In an age of plenty, hoarders – like obese people – are often perceived by some as weaklings for their inability to surrender what weighs them down. But stuff, it seems, is the new food, and we must increasingly face up to our relationship with it. Because, says Kilroy-Marac, “We’re all consumers. Whether we try to curtail our consumption or not, it’s what we do.”

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