Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lessons in Compulsive Hoarding: The Collyer Brothers

I stumbled upon this Wikipedia article today. It's about the Collyer Brothers, Homer Lusk and Langley, who lived in a Harlem brownstone and hoarded over 100 tons of:

"...baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, [their mother's] hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, a child's chair (the brothers were lifelong bachelors and childless), more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of the old Model T Langley had been tinkering with, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, fourteen pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old."

They guarded these things vehemently, setting up booby traps all over the house to protect against intruders. They died in this gruesome manner:

Langley was crawling through a tunnel of newspapers in order to bring the blind and paralyzed Homer some food. One of his booby traps was set off and killed him. Homer died a few days later, of malnutrition, dehydration and cardiac arrest.

They found Homer first, because a neighbour called to complain about the smell. He hadn't been dead long enough in order to be the culprit, so they realised that Langley must be dead in the house as well. It took them several weeks before they discovered him, after:

"...removing 3,000 more books, several outdated phone books, a horse's jawbone, a Steinway piano, an early X-ray machine, and even more bundles of newspapers. More than nineteen tons of junk were removed, just from the ground floor of the three-story brownstone. The police continued to clear away the brothers' stockpile for another week, removing another 84 tons of rubbish from the house."
I don't really know why this sort of thing fascinates me as much as it does. It's not just hoarders, it's all sorts of stories that suggest the frailty of man. I laugh, often, because it's either that or cry; my heart breaks for these people at the same time as I am thoroughly irritated and/or titillated by them. It's just so ludicrously tragic.

Hoarders are just another example of human machines with faulty wiring: and there, but by the grace of fortune, goes any one of us, if we haven't already got faulty wiring.

I lived with a borderline hoarder as well as have known one or two socially. The crux of the disorder is that the hoarder (usually angrily or defensively) refuses to admit that their hoarding is a problem, seeing as it doesn't harm anyone. The person I lived with had t-shirts from the 8th grade - that he couldn't wear because he was a fat kid in the 8th grade and as such, the shirts were too big for him. They also had holes in them. He kept packaging materials from products he'd purchased, had several different collections of things and a permanent grudge - almost a vendetta - against his mother for disgarding some cherished childhood objects of his. He also had a storage unit full of stuff that he refused to talk about and that I was never allowed to see. Moving house was always a nightmare (at least more so than normal) because instead of the cathartic and traditional throwing away of crap you don't need anymore, he clung on to it, and so ended up packing boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes of garbage. Someone else I knew would save the sides of dot matrix printer paper, coin wrappers and literally trash he found on the road - he picked up a road cone once.

Of all the hoarders or people with hoarding tendancies I've known, the common theme is that they are trying to cling on to some memory. As if the objects around them will help them keep something from fading away. Or they're stuck at some point in their life when something awful happened and they can't move past it. The inanimate object has become some sort of touch stone or remembrance. Often, the inanimate objects must be 'saved' in the emotional as well as the physical sense, as it often has become almost animate in the eyes of the hoarder. Here's a way to explore the reasoning behind hoarding. Think about people who name their cars - a lot of people do this. I, myself, feel sometimes, what I think is a strange attachment to my car. After all, it drove me back and forth to college, has made countless trips to the barn (whichever barn that happened to be), was given to me with all the love and affection a father could possibly have for his daughter and drove me and my new little family across these United States. I am sentimental about the old thing - I actually took a picture of it this morning as it had spent it's first night in the snow.

This makes evolutionary sense - our prehistoric brains are not designed to deal with inanimate objects that so closely simulate a living creature. We assign the same affection to our cars as would to domesticated animals. So then multiply that affection by a lot (due to say, some faulty wiring) and we have an unhealthy attachment to an inanimate object. What triggers this faulty wiring? Perhaps a specific incident or repeated specific incidents.
Anyway. Enough amateur psychology. I'm going to finish knitting a scarf.

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