Sunday, April 25, 2021

Hoarders and Collectors

Andy Warhol's collection of dental models

Pop artist Andy Warhol excelled in turning the everyday and the mundane into art. During the last 13 years of his life, Warhol put thousands of collected objects into 610 cardboard boxes. These Time Capsules were never sold as art, but they were meticulously cataloged by museum archivists and displayed in a major exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum. “Warhol was a packrat. But that desire to collect helped inform his artistic point of view.” Yet Warhol was aware of his compulsion, and it disturbed him: “I'm so sick of the way I live, of all this junk, and always dragging home more.”

Where does the hobby of collection cross over into hoarding, and who makes this determination? 

Artists get an automatic pass into the realm of collectionism, no matter their level of compulsion. The Vancouver Art Gallery held a major exhibition of the works of Canadian writer and artist Douglas Coupland in 2014. One of the sections consisted of a room filled with 5,000 objects collected over 20 years and carefully arranged in a masterwork called The Brain. Here's what the collection looked like prior to assembly.

Materials used in the The Brain, 2000–2014, mixed-media installation with readymade objects. Courtesy of the Artist and Daniel Faria Gallery. Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery.

Hoarding, on the other had, lacks the artistic intent or deliberate organization of collection. Collectors may be passionate, but their obsessions/compulsions do not hinder their everyday function (or personal safety). According to Halperin and Glick (2003):
“Characteristically, collectors organize their collections, which while extensive, do not make their homes dysfunctional or otherwise unlivable. They see their collections as adding a new dimension to their lives in terms of providing an area of beauty or historical continuity that might otherwise be lacking.”
The differential diagnosis for the DSM-5 classification of Hoarding Disorder vs. non-pathological Collecting considers order and value of primary importance.

Fig. 2 (Nakao & Kanba, 2019).
If possessions are well organized and have a specific value, the owner is defined as a ‘collector.’ Medical conditions that cause secondary hoarding are excluded from Hoarding Disorder. The existence of comorbidities such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) must be excluded as well.

I've held onto the wish of writing about this topic for the last eight months...

...because of the time I spent sorting through my mother's possessions between July 2020 and November 2020 after she died on July 4th. This process entailed flying across the country five times in a total of 20 different planes in the midst of a pandemic.
Although my mother showed some elements of  hoarding, she didn't meet clinical criteria. She had various collections of objects (e.g., glass shoes, decorator plates, snuff bottles, and ceremonial masks), but what really stood out were her accumulations — organized but excessive stockpiles of useful items such as flashlights, slippers, sweatshirts, kitchen towels, and watches (although most of the latter were no longer useful).

Ten pairs of unworn gardening gloves

During the year+ of COVID sheltering-in-place, some people wrote books, published papers, started nonprofits, engaged in fundraising, held Zoom benefit events, demonstrated for BLM, home-schooled their kids, taught classes, cared for sick household members, mourned the loss of their elder relatives, or endured COVID-19 themselves.
I dealt with the loss of a parent, along with the solo task of emptying 51 years of accumulated belongings from her home. To cope with this sad and lonely and emotionally grueling task, I took photos of my mother's accumulations and collections. It became a mini-obsession unto itself. I tried to make sense of my mother's motivations, but the trauma of her suffering and the specter of an unresolved childhood were too overwhelming. Besides, there's no computational model to explain the differences between Collectors, Accumulators and Hoarders.

Additional Reading

Compulsive Collecting of Toy Bullets

Compulsive Collecting of Televisions

The Neural Correlates of Compulsive Hoarding

Welcome to Douglas Coupland's Brain


Halperin DA, Glick J. (2003). Collectors, accumulators, hoarders, and hoarding perspectives. Addictive Disorders & Their Treatment 2(2):47-51.

Nakao T, Kanba S. (2019). Pathophysiology and treatment of hoarding disorder. Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 73(7):370-375. doi:10.1111/pcn.12853

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At April 26, 2021 9:09 AM, Blogger DJL said...

Your last reference mentions that the Japanese media is (actually was is more like it: it seems they've moved on to concern about abandoned houses) overly fascinated by it. I had never heard of it before moving to Japan (sheltered childhood: no TV (really!)), and quite mistakenly thought it a uniquely Japanese problem (the Japanese can overdo organizing things: sometimes it's quite nice, as in the 56-volume set of photograph and image oriented biographies of Japanese authors (hardbound 110 pages, photographs on every page, hagiographic biography, and an essay about a photo by someone from the literary world: I only own about 20 of them*)) but it seems hoarding occurs in the West as well in pretty much exactly the same form. (Once again, Japan and the Japanese are shown to be just ordinary mere humans just like the rest of us) But since the Japanese TV would also interview the hoarders themselves, one got a visceral understanding that these were seriously ill people. It's a horrific disease. They are convinced that the stuff (often seriously foul garbage) is valuable and get majorly upset if someone tries to help by cleaning up their homes. It's not a joke. (There was a British TV drama the other day (maybe an episode of New Tricks?) that joked about this. It's not funny, you idiots.)

Presumably, there must be a range of severities of this syndrome, but folks with the full disease are in very bad shape. Somehow the descriptions don't convey the severity of the problem. DSM gets quite a bit of criticism, but it seems it's not terrible on this.

Ah, I see you've been covering this for a while. As always, Thanks!

And condolences on your loss. When my parents passed away, I was surprised to find that father had cleaned up/cleaned out the place quite thoroughly. (Mostly because he retired early from his side job of repairing musical instruments, so the tools and instruments that weren't being used/played were long gone. (He continued, well into his 70s as safety officer for the Chemistry department at a Boston area liberal arts school, the one up the creek from the trade school I went to...)

* Add in the 4 sets of juggling clubs, a nearly uncountable number of juggling balls, 8 or so guitars, and stacks of clippings from Japanese Go magazines (I can't bear to throw away a Go problem I haven't solved yet) and I am making a good start towards hoarderdom.

At April 28, 2021 10:49 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks for your comments. You're so right that it's a horrific disease and no laughing matter. I recently read an article, The Interior Lives of Hoarders, which reviewed a book of poetry by Kate Durbin. Unlike the exploitative reality shows, the poems are empathetic and written from the perspectives of the (fictionalized) individual hoarders. It sounds like the Japanese TV show also presented a more empathetic view than the US versions.


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