Are you a Collyer?
December 31, 2003 8:27 AM   Subscribe

Examining the Roots of Hoarding - A "mini-collyer" is saved from his junk hoard. As for the real Collyers, "The bizarre collection of objects included 14 grand pianos, two organs, and a clavichord; human medical specimens preserved in a glass jars; the chassis of a Model-T Ford; a library of thousands of medical and engineering books; an armory of weapons; the top of a carriage; 6 U.S. flags and one Union Jack; a primitive X-Ray machine" - Langley was crushed to death by his own garbage boobytrap, leaving blind, helpless Hiram to die trapped in their junk packed labyrinth of a mansion. Accused of living like the Collyer Brothers? - Here's a photo (NYT, reg. req.).
posted by troutfishing (19 comments total)
Mr Trebus would be proud
posted by ajbattrick at 8:37 AM on December 31, 2003

Spending time at this store I couldn't help but think most everyone has this problem. And also this thread about another interesting hoarder.
posted by stbalbach at 10:04 AM on December 31, 2003

The trick is being willing to throw shit out (or when appropriate, give it away.) Don't buy knickknacks. Cut down on (buying) books. Have only one of everything you need and none of those you don't. Money is better than stuff. Nothing is often better than stuff, too.
posted by callmejay at 10:31 AM on December 31, 2003 [1 favorite]

My mom (5 at the time and living in Manhattan) used to tell me stories about them - she has vague memories of all the newspaper coverage. Or was she warning I might turn into them? Ah well, back to basement and my plans to power the house with a pile of blenders...
posted by jalexei at 10:36 AM on December 31, 2003

I once knew a woman who had this problem. She still had every stuffed animal she had ever owned, and constantly bought new ones. She had freezers and shelves full of foods she would never eat, purchased only because they were "on sale." And if she ever encountered an item described as a "collectible," she'd collect it; and not just one, but every item in the set.

Part of the problem, I think, was that she got a little zing every time she bought something. "Look! I've got something new! Woohoo!" The other part was definite anxiety she felt when it was suggested that she could do without some element of her hoard. Her reaction was always, "But what it someday I need it?!"

One day, they'll find her underneath boxes of Christmas candles and partially used cans of paint, clutching that new set of plates she absolutely had to have.
posted by SPrintF at 12:02 PM on December 31, 2003

More about Moore

I've never understood the need to hoard things like these people do. I'm sure it is a sign of mental illness of some sort. Somehow people lose sight of the difference between abundance and clutter.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:13 PM on December 31, 2003

I figure that in about 20 years I will be crushed under a massive pile of vinyl records. An honorable death.
posted by Rattmouth at 12:33 PM on December 31, 2003 [1 favorite]

I can understand the need to hoard, I fight a mild case of it everyday. In my case I believe it stems from being dirt poor as a kid. You see similiar actions in people who lived through the depression.

As the article says I see unconventional uses for everything and I have to work at getting rid off stuff that is still useful but I have no present or likely future use for.

Take for example the three oil filters in my garage that fit a car I no longer own. I'll probably never own anything they fit and they aren't worth ebaying. I can't just throw them away because in the back of my mind lurks the slight possiblity I might need them in the future and I I'd be out the 12 bucks.

It pains me everytime I drive past a construction site and see massive quanities of insulation/framing/shealthing/ etc. in a dumpster. At a minimum a lot of it could be used for firewood. Companies pay to have it buried though because sorting it would "cost to much" and letting people dumpster dive is an insurance risk.

So much valuable waste everywhere.
posted by Mitheral at 1:00 PM on December 31, 2003

It's OK, though, if it's just a lot of books, right?

posted by fidelity at 1:03 PM on December 31, 2003

I couldn't help but think most everyone has this problem.

I actually live with a real hoarder, and let me tell you it's a completely different thing than just being a "collector" or just buying too many knick knacks.

My landlady lives downstairs (it's like a duplex) and won't throw ANYTHING out. She has stacks and stacks of newspapers, dating back at least 10 years, scratched and dented furniture everywhere, cat food cans, she won't throw out any of her mail, even junk mail. None of this stuff is remotely useful to her and she lives in scary filth but she CAN NOT throw it out. I once threw out a stack of her junk mail (ancient coupons etc) that was sitting on the porch for months and she almost evicted me! It's a sick sick sick thing, nothing like those of us who just have too much crap we need to throw out. She really needs some serious help.

It drives me crazy, but the rent is so low I am loathe to move.

posted by evilcupcakes at 1:07 PM on December 31, 2003

Rattmouth-- not just an honorable death, a noble one.
posted by spartacusroosevelt at 1:08 PM on December 31, 2003

d'oh! That wasn't supposed to be in all italics. So much for preview!
posted by evilcupcakes at 1:09 PM on December 31, 2003

The trick is being willing to throw shit out (or when appropriate, give it away.) Don't buy knickknacks. Cut down on (buying) books. Have only one of everything you need and none of those you don't. Money is better than stuff. Nothing is often better than stuff, too.

Every so often over at AskMe the suggestion comes up that people who are moving should simply sell/dispose of everything they own and start anew. Perhaps its the incipient-Collyerness in me, but I can't for the life of me imagine how one would do that. The irreplaceable things of value that I'd lose -- photographs of friends and family members now gone, letters explaining the history and story of my family, my father's military medals, fancy dishes that belonged to my great-grandparents, a doll my great-grandmother brought with her from Russia, antique furniture and paintings that I could replace with other objects, but I could never afford replacements that are as beautiful and meaningful ... the list goes on.

Just as I grew up in an environment that was rich with my family history so too I expect that my children will grow up surrounded by things that evoke their past. Some of those things are rarely looked at (the letters and medals, for example) but that doesn't make them any less valuable to me. What separates me from the Collier Brothers, as the article notes, is the fact that I can sort and organize the objects I have, store them carefully, and can differentiate between those objects of actual value (monetary or emotional) from those which simply have potential value ("I might need this someday"). But still, I watch shows like Clean Sweep with mounting horror, as people are left in "neatened" homes where only those objects that are deemed useful, leaving them without objects that exist simply for their emotional value or their contribution to family history. (Not to mention their horrifying viewpoint on books.)

For those people who advocate the "use it or lose it" or the "sell it all" philosophy, how do you do it? Do you simply not own things that have significant (financial, historical, emotional) value? Do you (pardon how this sounds) just not care? Is it simply a difference in upbringing? Or it it an artifact of that notorious "disposable" society that we now live in, that keeping things from generation to generation is now an old-fashioned idea?
posted by anastasiav at 1:10 PM on December 31, 2003

Anastasiav, interesting post. I tend to be on the "use or lose" side of living. I've moved quite frequently (and grew up in a military household that moved every few months) and this has led me to be careful about collecting anything. I do have one weakness though: books, but we can come back to that.

I don't have many objects of purely sentimental value. I do, however have items that have been in use of my family for quite awhile. My mother's old wool blanket, my grandfather's cookbooks, my father's guitar and so on. I don't, however, have many photos, letters or other family documentation. At times I wish I did, but mostly I value those objects that have function. I check the time on an old watch from my step-father and not only know the time, but can hold a bit of him in my hands.

I would posit that it is a function of my up-bringing, rather than a system of "disposability." I don't throw much away since I don't acquire much in the first place. I try to reduce the number of things I need rather than constantly replacing everything with the current years model. I try to keep objects that have multiple functions. I try to preserve the past by using the objects that are relevant to the present.

I do have a book problem. I can't part with my growing collection of books. Perhaps there is a bit of pack-rat in me after all that has just been sublimated into collecting books of debatable value. I try to rationalize in two ways: I'm acting as a sort of private archivist and I'm assembling a kick ass reference library in my home office.
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:25 PM on December 31, 2003

as an appraiser working for the city i once responded on a tax valuation complaint to the 1950's era ranch style home of an elderly widower, who was claiming structural problems were causing cracks in the ceiling and thus lowering the value of the home. as he opened his door to greet me, the most horrendous aroma oozed from the home and my eyes bugged out as i saw behind the gentleman a kitchen absolutely packed floor to ceiling with foil tv dinner trays. there was a narrow path leading through to the interior. the old man seemed oblivious even to the carpet of cockroaches that scattered before his feet as he moved about. the dining area was like the kitchen only occupied by three immense heaps of empty soup and vegetable cans. on shelves in a corner were rubber banded stacks of can labels which had been carefully peeled off. the living room was a maze. floor to ceiling newspapers. in the bathroom sink, i encountered the most gorge-raising of sites - the sink was filled with a thick gooey mass, which had furry growth in some areas. when i asked what it was, the guy explained that the fixture was broken, the water feed to it shut off, but he still brushed his teeth there every morning using paste and no water, and every morning he spit the used toothpaste into the sink. in the basement, i found three dead blackbirds that had entered via the incinerator stack, and, trapped inside the basement, eventually starved. i stepped on one before realizing what it was, and it literally turned to dust. i took like a hundred pictures and after showing them around city hall, someone contacted social services. but what was really weird about him was there was a quite ordinary looking crack in the plaster ceiling, like one often sees in 50 year old homes. while seemingly able to ignore the stench, and squeeze through tunnels of trash without thinking it strange, he was absolutely fixated on the cracked plaster and could not stop talking about it. i would ask the old guy point blank "how can you live in filth like this?" and he wouldn't even seem to hear it, and immediately return to the subject of the crack. i heard a relative was found who took him in or put him in a home or something. the mind goes to some bizarre places, sometimes.
posted by quonsar at 3:30 AM on January 1, 2004

... and then the shoggoth attacked me.
posted by SPrintF at 7:29 AM on January 1, 2004

shoggoths? I've got a bunch of 'em in my basement. People threw them out with the garbage, and I just couldn't stand the waste. It's goddam shame, wasting a perfectly good shoggoth like that, when all it needs is a little fixing. My wife's been after me about all the shoggoths, because they are starting to pile up in the yard and occasionally eat neighborhood pets. Well - I may be a little messy, but waste and sin are one and the same in my mind and - if the wife can't take it, she'll just have to get packing. What's a few dozen used shoggoths lying around in the yard, anyway? They're harmless creatures, mostly. And I just might need one someday. You never know.
posted by troutfishing at 8:15 AM on January 1, 2004

quonsar - That was a great anecdote about a particularly nasty subvariant of Collyer's Disease, of the "Slime and Ooze" category.

I have a friend who lives like this and isn't even a Collyer! He's just phenomenally lazy and drinks an awful lot of beer, leaving the cans scattered about in his apartment wherever they tend to fall - on top of a rich carpet of half-eaten plates of food, beer cans and bottles filled with urine, books, papers, scuttling roaches......

He has a cat. and a catbox. The catbox lives in the bathroom. It is seldom cleaned - every six months, perhaps.
Lives, I said, not at all casually - the catbox involves a whole, complex bioregion of it's own filled with scuttling creatures, fungus, mold, bacteria...a well developed food chain. I wouldn't be at all surprised if small mutant aquatic alligators squirmed out of the sewer system and up through the toilet, at night, to prey on the local bathroom wildlife.

It's best to wash one's hands with rubbing alcohol after any suspected contact with His kitchen surfaces which are especially - ummm - organic.

The overall effect is very similar to that generated by a true Collyer except that my friend doesn't collect much of anything except empty beer cans, paper bags, kitchen garbage, cat shit, and opportunistic species.

I helped him once with a strategic evacuation, like the British and French from Dunkirk, from one of his apartments, at the point when it had become actively unsafe for life outside of a biohazard suit. Flamethrowers would have been most appropriate in driving back the rearing wall of filth I met that day.....I cannot say more of this....

But I can say that I may the terrible mistake of taking a piece of furniture from that place, a rather nice small antique dresser. I forgot about the mutant roaches - these, my friend had selectively bred into a superior, highly poison resistant strain of roach which is now radiating out past the Baltimore city limits, soon to come to your own city, gentle reader.

Successive halfhearted attacks with various poisons, toxic clouds, goos, and sprays had created a roach which was smallish, unbelievably quick, absurdly prolific, and resistant to about anything but death by fire, drowning, or being squashed underfoot. But catching them to bring about these sorts of ends was close to impossible, for the constant chemical bombardment which had successively weeded out the slow roaches, bit by bit, until the resulting breed of roach was almost invisible from scuttling so fast.

I carried, unbeknownst to me, a healthy breeding pair out with the antique dresser and put it in my Volvo station wagon. I left it there for a couple weeks. To this day I'm thankful I didn't take that dresser into my house. One day, while driving, a roach fell off the car's sun visor onto my wife's head. The roaches had multiplied into a small horde, through feasting on two hundred thousand miles' accumulation of food bits.

We bought enough "roach bombs" for a good sized house, rolled up the car windows, and threw them in. Gas attack! Still, many survived and so we had to repeat the chemical warfare attacks two more times before those little Hell-bugs were all gone.

A confession is in order here.......I'm a Collyer myself, though not the "slime and goo" sort.

I would talk about it, but if I do that I won't have time for my New Year's resolution to clean up my junk, and so my wife will divorce me and I'll go from being a Collyerus Minoris (a lesser collyer, colloquially known as a "mini-collyer") to a Collyerus Majoris.

And I don't want to fall prey to that fate.
posted by troutfishing at 9:04 AM on January 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

Does anyone have the photo? It's no longer available on the NYT site...
posted by psychotic_venom at 12:11 PM on January 2, 2004

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