The fascination among the non-hoarders for Those Who Hoard is hard to describe. It’s a siren song of disgust mingled with curiosity.
I went to see Toy Story 3 yesterday with Husband-Man, and I found myself dismayed that the movie shamelessly exploited the guilt feelings people experience when they throw something away. (I’m not saying it’s not a fantastic movie, though; all three of Pixar’s creations are classics.)
But, you see, my husband is a hoarder. So I found myself wincing several times when the movie overtly sentimentalizes the idea of “forever” childhood playthings (“We’ll always be there for Andy!” the toys say—as long as Andy puts them in the attic, that is). During a heartbreaking scene, the toys steal Andy’s cell phone in a futile effort to get them to play with them again before they get thrown out (he’s moving away to college).
A couple of times during the movie, I felt like covering HM’s eyes with my hand, the way you’d do with a little kid during the sex scenes. He doesn’t need any more reasons to save anything. His affliction stems not only from rigorous training by waste-not want-not Depression-era parents, but from as a latter-born kid in a big family that experienced hard times.
Before I knew much about HM’s childhood backstory, I remember eating dinner with my parents-in-law-to-be at a restaurant. My husband’s dad loudly, elaborately, and thoroughly cleaned his plate with his fork when the meal was drawing to a close. It was an operation that took several minutes.
Other diners looked over at our table, since he was making about as much noise as a cement mixer. I was embarrassed, and made some comment about how it didn’t look like there was much left on the plate to eat.
“There are hungry people in the world,” he said simply. My soon-to-be mother-in-law then took the opportunity to proudly recount a story about a relative’s decades-old tableware, which bore grooves from that family’s dedicated plate-scraping.
I should’ve known then I was in trouble. Yeah, I know there are hungry people in the world…but they certainly aren’t my amply-padded in-laws, who somehow manage to continue absolving themselves of any guilt over world hunger by eating every crumb set in front of them.
When my husband was young, all eight of his family members spent their summers in northern Idaho, living in a one-room-former-chickenhouse shed in the traditional Unabomber style. They had no electricity or running water.
As soon as the kids could walk and carry a chainsaw at the same time, they were put to work. (My husband has so much scarring on his knees from saw accidents that my sons grew up thinking that their father had been run over by a truck.) Fun times.
Once on a visit back to the chickenhouse/chateau about ten years ago, my husband found a tiny red plastic Indian—something that probably came from a bag of plastic “cowboys and Indians” bought for pennies at some drugstore in the mid-sixties.
TS 3 has a hilarious scene where the few remaining plastic army men in Andy’s room go AWOL when they’re faced with the prospect of becoming curb fodder. “Face it, we’re usually the first to go,” the commander says, as they deploy their parachutes and hop out the window into the wind.
Well, not in my husband’s family. HM brought the little figure (warped with age and heat) home and placed it reverentially on a shelf that displays family portraits.
But understanding where his urge to keep everything comes from doesn’t making the hoarding easier to tolerate. I figured years ago that I could solve the problem by just getting rid of things he’d never miss. I’d put his ripped clothes in bags for the Goodwill under a layer of my old clothes so he’d think the whole bag was full of my stuff.
Once when we were moving, I found two big boxes of graded student papers he’d saved from his days teaching composition. I felt that by-then familiar mixture of shock and dismay. What the hell was he saving these for?
But as those of us married to hoarders quickly learn, even though there is no good “reason” for saving these things, clearing out stuff on the sly isn’t exactly a recipe for marital bliss. My husband, a man who rarely raises his voice in anger, has been known to display jaw-dropping amounts of rage over a thrown-out bag of moldy turnips.
I had another glimpse into the family’s longstanding tradition when one of HM’s bachelor uncles died. My husband, his brothers, and other uncles were charged with cleaning out the house, which featured the archetypical lifelong-hoarder winding pathways carved through tottering stacks of shit—shit that was piled to the rafters.
HM, rather than learning a lesson about what happens to people who don’t throw anything away, was as excited as an archeologist let loose on a newly-discovered tomb. He brought home everything from 1950s girlie magazines (“these are valuable, we can sell them on Ebay…”) to dozens of knockoff books on Western art and photography…the kind of schlock you’d see advertised in the slick supplements that used to come by the handful in the Sunday paper (“Buy The Whole Series For Just Three Installments of $19.95!”)
And so I have watched (wavering between frustration, fascination, amusement, and anger) as HM has filled a whole room in our house with tools and mementoes from dead relatives, rendering the shop he always dreamed of having someday completely unusable.
I’d been warned that Toy Story 3’s bittersweet ending was hard to get through without bawling, and bawl I did (to the point where the collar of my shirt was wet). I don’t want to give away the ending or some of the cliffhanger scenes in the movie, but suffice to say that it’s emotional enough that any kid watching this flick will never want to throw a toy away again. Ever.
I’m not sure that’s a great thing.
I know that of course the honorable thing is to make every effort to give away our unwanted items away rather than pile more stuff in the landfill. Especially given our recklessly throwaway culture, especially at a time when we have vast floating piles of plastic in our oceans. Etc.
But at some point, don’t we have to resign ourselves to the fact that nobody (no matter how steep the discount or degree of sentimental value) would be overjoyed to get an old broken old toy or an old pair of our Jockey shorts?
Consider 89-year-old Ed Jackson in Seattle, who died in a fire when he refused to leave his clutter-filled apartment before the building he lived in was demolished. (Among other things, Jackson’s kitchen was lined with hundreds of empty milk cartons stuffed with used paper towels, according to accounts from people who had lived in the same building.) Several firefighters were injured while trying to rescue Jackson, probably because his flat which was crammed with enough flammable material to launch the whole damn building into orbit.
Keeping things from our past is a way of having tangible evidence that our own lives are worth something, that our memories and feelings are meaningful. That’s why hoarders fight so hard to keep their “collections”—after all, what are you without your memories?
But as Kahlil Gibran writes: “And what is fear of need but need itself? Is not dread of thirst when your well is full the thirst that is unquenchable?” In some cases hoarders are even willing to die with their stuff, proving that the need to hoard is a destructive one.
The irony there shouldn’t be lost on anyone, since death is certainly a cure-all for hoarding. You truly can’t take it with you, as they say.
The Toy Story movies are (deservedly) wildly popular and have much to say about the importance of imagination and growing up, being a good friend, and doing the right thing. Andy’s lucky that he finds such a good alternative at the end of the movie for his toys, and maybe the best takeaway message is that kids deserve have a few beloved toys rather than a room stuffed with tchotchkes from McDonald’s Happy Meals.
We have a responsibility to override our guilt and shame over getting rid of something if it means doing the right thing by ourselves. We have to be able to “throw away” symbolic stuff, too, like negative thoughts and old ways of doing things that we know are counterproductive. We sever ties with people that we know aren’t good for us.
Cleaning house is the only way to keep from drowning in life’s flotsam as we continue on in our journey (as Buzz Lightyear would say) to infinity…and beyond.
Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food. ~Austin O'Malley