Book review: Stuff

authors Gail Steketee, Randy Frost and "Stuff", plus a level-4 cluttered space

I have a long and complex history of interactions with stuff.

Long enough that it’s hard to pinpoint where the more fraught interactions started, although there are artifacts that suggest certain “hot” times: a bright yellow filing cabinet I requested (and received) for my thirteenth birthday; a dedicated “quotes and lists” journal I created during my junior year of college, after a particularly difficult summer.

Complex enough that just thinking about it brings up a variety of disturbing feelings: shame, guilt, confusion, anxiety. My anxiety is bubbling to the surface right now, as I type this, even after a full year of actively sorting through, thinking about, and releasing stuff. My heart is beating faster. I’m warm, a little dizzy, and feel as though it’s harder to breathe. I feel “fuzzed out”, dissociated, instead of present and fully integrated, like a part of me that didn’t want to deal just ran off somewhere else, and now I have to coax it back.

According to Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, co-authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, and preeminent scholars of hoarding as a behavioral disorder, my symptoms are fairly common. While I’m not a hoarder, or at least, compared to the hoarders I’ve known and the ones I’ve been (obsessively) watching on A&E’s gripping show, Hoarders, I have significant attachment issues around stuff, and exhibit many of the behaviors and much of the wiring present among compulsive hoarders: perfectionism, distractibility, depression, difficulty making decisions, and, hallelujah for at least one happy trait, a highly creative personality.

Stuff does a superb job of explaining why it is we get attached to things, and why some of us become pathologically attached to things. The authors use a series of case studies to illustrate the various ways the disorder manifests: there are the “opportunity addicts,” who see potential in everything; there are people who use their stuff as visual reminders, who use it to make them feel safe, or valued, or in control. The stories are fascinating and often heartbreaking. But while they describe life at the extreme end of the acquiring spectrum, they’re also fairly illuminating about the general valuation of objects over experiences, even relationships, that are part of a consumer-driven economy and the culture of materialism it fosters.

In other words, while Stuff is of particular interest to someone who is a hoarder, loves a hoarder or is just interested in learning all about hoarding, it’s also a mandatory read for anyone interested understanding more about the fallout from living in this age of unprecedented access to both goods and information. It’s gripping from beginning to end, and haunting thereafter.


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Photos, clockwise from top left: Steketee; Frost; book cover; a level-4 (out of a possible 9) cluttered space.


  1. Well, thanks for this!
    I’m not an extreme hoarder either, but I do tend to hang on to stuff. Used to think that it was a result of spending my childhood living in rather deprived conditions. Now I can see that it’s all because of the exact same character traits you list above! Especially the perfectionism is making me loopy sometimes; but, like everything else, just realizing I have this helps me deal with it.
    But I am getting better, and have been having big clear-outs.
    Thanks for this book review; I’ll be sure to give it a read.

    1. There are a whole slew of reasons people hang onto things. Brooks, below, has seen a lot of it up close and personal. But this book and the research and the shows and the experts online and all the rest of it make it clear that it can rooted in a number of things, and that sometimes one unfortunate habit can exacerbate/trigger another.

      The book is really, really good. Best I’ve read that illuminates the psychology behind it.

  2. “the general valuation of objects over experiences” says it all. Looking at how quickly the specialness of things goes after we bought or acquired them sinks this battleship. The funny thing is we often hang onto things because of the memories we associate with things, and memories are the echos of experiences. It all comes back to the fulfillment we get from experiences.

    1. It does, Brooks. That said, I think there’s great joy to be had from keeping some physical objects. The trick for me, as I also learned from you, is doing both the acquiring, the sorting and the releasing thoughtfully.

      One of the things that’s so painful about watching the TV show is that most of the people they feature get just two days to go through a LOT. I cannot imagine the stress that must cause. I mean, they’ve painted themselves into a corner, a lot of them, with Child or Adult or Animal Protective Services on their asses, or imminent foreclosure or whatever, so it’s an act of mercy that they’re receiving. Still, must be incredibly painful.

      (For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, they offer followup care with psychologists and organizers who specialize in hoarding to all the participants.)

  3. Hi, Colleen,
    Thanks for passing on this very perceptive review. Of all the books on hoarding and decluttering, this one seems to me to be the one that makes our mental convolutions (is that a word?) the most understandable, especially to those who otherwise can’t understand at all the emotions associated with thing-management and getting-rid-of. At the moment my spaces at home are around level 4, down from 5 or 6, with islands of improvement. Since it took me about 20 years and a couple of life changes to get from level 2 to level 6, I figure I have time to get cleared up to a comfortable, usable space before it all comes back in old age. :-)

    1. Wow—good for you for tackling it while you have the wherewithal.

      I’ve never created a situation worse than Level 2, but I’ve lived in them, and it’s awful. My own issues were more about attachment and control—OCPD stuff—because I get a little nutty when there’s visible clutter for too long. (Although I’ve had two empty Billy bookcases in my place for almost a year now!)

      I do think this is the best book for non-hoarders who want to get a handle on it. I had much more understanding and compassion after reading it, for sure. I feel that way about the A&E show, as well. Unlike some reality shows that just exploit the people for the train-wreck factor, you get the feeling that they’re doing the show as a series of cautionary tales, but also to illuminate the underlying issues and help friends and family be more compassionate.

      1. Oh, yeah, control … me, too!
        As my Tai Chi instructor said, “Well, THAT’S an illusion!”

        Cleared out bookcases will nicely hold art objects and smaller framed pieces!

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