From the field

All about stuff

UTSC prof sorts through the truth about hoarding

Chris Garbutt

On September 24, 2010, a cigarette dropped from a balcony in downtown Toronto landed on a balcony below filled with papers and boxes. The fire that resulted caused more than $1 million in damages.

While the cigarette triggered the fires, the Ontario Fire Marshal focused on the “excessive amount of combustible materials” on the balcony and in the apartment, which initiated a flurry of public discussion about hoarding and its dangers.

“It’s interesting that the attention was on the dangers of hoarding and not smoking,” says Katie Kilroy-Marac, an assistant professor of Anthropology at UTSC.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, hoarding has emerged as a media spectacle, a public health issue and a mental health disorder,” she says. While once considered a symptom of other disorders, the American Psychiatric Association now lists “hoarding disorder” as a separate diagnosis.

Kilroy-Marac is taking an ethno- raphic approach—studying by observing day-to-day activity—to better understand the subject. She’ll be volunteering with front-line service providers in Toronto who intervene in hoarding cases. She’s also interviewing the well-intentioned members of what she calls the “clutter management industry”—professional organizers who help people sort their stuff.

“It’s a peculiar disorder,” says Kilroy-Marac, noting that medications for similar disorders aren’t effective for this group. “It’s not the stuff that causes the distress, even if it is affecting their quality of life or health. It’s the anxiety about the removal of the stuff.”

The common response to hoarding, or at least the one seen on TV, is likely not going to work, at least long term.

“Some people think that the solution is the extreme clean,” says Kilroy-Marac. “But this is really only a short-term solution, and it can add to an already traumatic situation.” The trauma can be made even worse for renters, who can face eviction.

Tidiness is something we’ve been socialized to do throughout our lives, notes Kilroy-Marac, so a one-time fix might not address the deeper under- lying issues. “I fear that it may not be representative of the real issues.”

It was during a research study in Senegal that Kilroy-Marac began to think deeply about the difference between what we consider worth keeping and what we should throw away.

“People would pick through my trash, because some of those things weren’t trash to them,” she says.

So while hoarding may be a symptom of an out-of-control consumer society, our interest in it represents a certain anxiety about the stuff with which we surround ourselves.

“Among certain classes, there has been a radical turn away from conspicuous to inconspicuous consumption,” she says. “We spend less on stuff, and more on experiences such as vacations and education.”

By seeing their work first-hand, Kilroy-Marac aims to better understand what service providers are facing, so policy-makers can better respond to people with the disorder rather than simply teaching them to be clean.