More on hoarding

I can't be the only person to have noticed the proliferation of TV shows about hoarders that have been on recently. On top of Channel 4's one-off show Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder, which I wrote about before, the channel have now added 'The Hoarder Next Door', in which a rather smooth psychotherapist helps hoarders to get rid of vast amounts of stuff, and 'Get Your House in Order', which has collectors as its main focus, though with the underlying premise that they are in danger of becoming hoarders if they can't impose some order and control on their collections. BBC One also recently showed a documentary called 'Britain's Biggest Hoarders', which I didn't manage to catch.

Undoubtedly this deluge is at least in part related to the impending publication, in May 2013, of the next edition of the international diagnostic manual, the DSM-5, which may for the first time include Hoarding Disorder as a listed mental illness. Let's take a look at the proposed criteria for diagnosis;

a) Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of actual value
b) The above difficulty is associated with strong urges to save items, or distress associated with discarding
c) Accumulation of possessions which fill up and clutter the living space so that it can no longer be used for its original purpose
d) Symptoms cause clinically significant distress in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning
e) and f) state that the hoarding is not related to another medical condition or disorder
Taken from the DSM-5 website, here.

I can understand that if hoarding causes an individual significant distress, then there may be a need to treat it in some way; most of the hoarders featured on the TV programmes express some desire to put a stop to their hoarding and clear out their homes, because the sheer volume of their possessions is having a huge impact on their ability to go about their daily lives.

But there are a few bits in the DSM criteria that I'm not entirely comfortable with, particularly this idea of 'actual value'. The problem is, the criteria makes no attempt to define value in any way, and if there's one thing I've learned through studying objects and collections, it's that value isn't fixed. One object can simultaneously hold several values, which change depending on the context, and who is making the judgment.

Even if we assume that the DSM is talking about monetary value (still, not fixed, and dependent on the object's place within myriad systems), the wording above is ambiguous. The words 'regardless of actual value' suggest that 'hoarding' could be equally applied to a wealthy collector of art and a man who collects cigarette ends, should the rest of the criteria be fulfilled, but the implicit meaning is that objects which have a lower perceived monetary value should be easier to part with.

I wonder if Robert Opie, founder of the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill, would have been disagnosed a hoarder when his collection was still based in the home? The objects that he chose to hang on to are the real effluvia of of modern living, things which people throw away without a second thought, and yet his collection now forms what many see as an irreplaceable archive of British branding and manufacturing.

 Robert Opie, Charles Wade, and Henry Wellcome (Image sources: here, here and here)

What about nineteenth century collectors, like Charles Wade at Snowshill Manor, who collected everything from Samurai armour right down to old candles. He had his own system of value which I hope to explore in another post, and most certainly made his living spaces uninhabitable, moving out into the barn so that his house could be devoted to the collection. Or Henry Wellcome, who, at the time of his death, had amassed over 3 million objects, and had to lease a string of warehouses to keep his collection in. Whilst many of Wellcome's acquisitions were expensive or rare, thousands weren't, and the mammoth task of sorting and disposing of the things deemed unimportant went on for many years after his death.

I wonder what outcome we might get if we applied the DSM criteria to Wade, Wellcome or Opie? Where does the line between a collector and a hoarder lie...and does it really matter? If these three collectors had received therapy to relieve them of their collecting (hoarding?) habits, what would we now be deprived of? I don't doubt that some hoarders are distressed by their own behaviour, but I just wonder if the DSM-5 and its diagnostic criteria threatens to pathologize eccentricity in its policing of our relationship to material culture.