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Blessed are the messmakers


Hoarded Possessions Wendy Harmer's TV series Stuff (ABC1, Tuesdays 8pm), makes light of our tendency to hoard. But it does remind us that unchecked possession of material objects can destroy lives and relationships.

The series prompted one of our correspondents to write of a partner's obsessive hoarding, which is clearly damaging a relationship.

The hoarding partner collects objects including plastic bags and containers, old newspapers, magazines and books, pots, crockery, kitchen appliances and cast-off furniture.

The other is angry about the mess.

'For a long time their house became so cluttered that it was a struggle to eat together, and simply out of the question to have anyone else inside for a visit.'

The correspondent writes that the couple 'argued constantly about the problem and grew distant because of it'.

But at the same time, the aggrieved was able to look upon the partner as fellow victim, rather than the perpetrator of the family's misery. Our correspondent described what he could see as a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, an anxiety condition that causes its sufferers to act in ways they may know to be senseless but still find irresistible.

'Hoarders, for instance, are unable to catergorise items in ways the rest of us can do ('this is useful; this is rubbish'). Once they have acquired something they are loathe to throw it out for fear that it might some day prove useful.'

According to the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation in the United States, between 700,000 and 1.4 million Americans are obsessive hoarders. There is no readily available figure for this country, but Sane Australia calculates that 450,000 Australians will manifest some form of OCD behaviour at some time in their lives. There is also no support group for partners and families of obsessive hoarders, neither online nor physical. Perhaps there should be.

The US Jesuit consumerism analyst John F. Kavanaugh reflects that the culture which 'enthrones things, products, objects as its most cherished realities' is ultimately 'in flight from the vulnerability of the human person'.

Our correspondent observes that people with certain mental illnesses play a role not unlike that which canaries once played down mine shafts. He suggests their illness causes them to exaggerate aspects of everyday behaviour in ways that can alert us to impending disaster.

Perhaps the hoarders point to a deeply ingrained, and anything but funny, pathology that is developing in our society, in which each of us is starting to value things more than people. It is becoming a given that having is more important than simply being.

Mess is not an absolute, it's relative to the person's vulnerability, humanity, and — dare we suggest — beauty. The paradox is that it's the vulnerability associated with the compulsive behaviour of the hoarder that can enable us to tap into the deeper humanity required to simply be.


Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. He also teaches in the Media and Communications Department at the University of Sydney.
Flickr image by fyunkie.




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Existing comments

Hoarding can be obsessive but it also can demonstrate a rebellion against our throw-away society and obsession with status achieved by possessions. A test may be the hoarder's willingness to donate and recycle possessions.

Peter Yewers | 31 March 2008  

Michael, this is a very good piece. Having just moved house, and suffered the strain of deciding what to chuck and what to keep, I feel a little close to your words. Very insightful!

geraldine doogue | 14 April 2008  

I agree with Peter Yewers' comment. Also if there were more tips like Kimbriki, tips that never close because everything that can be recycled is recycled, perhaps you'd find people willing to discard their 'useful' bits and pieces.

Louise | 03 November 2008  

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