Ever since early childhood I have listened and looked for things. Even as a little child I collected assemblages of found objects: wooden spools, wine corks, bits of fabric, coloured glass, marbles, shells, leaves, birds’ nests, stones.
Nearly every morning in the late 1970s I walked out early from our Leslieville home to buy the newspaper from a box at the end of the street, and if it was garbage day I would dig through the bags and boxes deposited at curbside, collecting pennies, toys and miscellaneous objects that seemed appealing. Once I found hundreds of Legos and other small toys purged by a household whose children had grown out of them; another time I brought home dozens of paint chip cards and wallpaper sample books discarded by a neighbour whose interior decorating interests had waned. I talked to neighbours’ cats and the strays inhabiting the alley behind Gerrard.
One of the first books I recall owning came from the garbage. Early one chilly morning my mother dug a copy of Louis Untermeyer’s The Magic Circle: Stories and People in Poetry (1952) from a box set out at curbside just up the street and gave it to me — my first concerted introduction to narrative poetry. I have it on my desk as I write this, and it still smells the same, more than thirty years later: that faint musty tang emitted by books stored too long in attics and cellars.
Shortly before we moved away from our east-end Toronto home, I brought home a large stuffed elephant that my mother would not allow me to keep in the house. It languished on the back verandah, and when we moved I was not permitted to take it because, my parents argued, there would not be enough room in the new house for it. I longed for that elephant for years afterward, my heart lurching with loss whose memory, even now, remains painful. I could not bear to leave it behind.
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When researchers study hoarding behaviour, often they look for evidence of some incident or trauma that may have sparked it. The children of Holocaust survivors, for example, have often invoked parents who hoarded food or objects as a psychological hedge against the memory of privation. Similarly, those who survived the 1930s Depression or other periods of poverty sometimes describe a thrifty habit grown into a compulsion. Contemporary documentary-style television shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive typically trace their participants’ hoarding to traumas such as the end of a marriage or the death of a parent or child.
But in truth hoarding is far more complex. What accounts, for example, for an apparent increase in hoarding in the past generation–a period marked, for the most part, by widespread wealth and inexpensive access to consumer goods? It is worth noting, along this line, that the most well known North American hoarders — the Collyer brothers of New York, who died trapped in their stuffed-to-the-rafters mansion–had lived in luxury since childhood. Why do most traumatized people not become hoarders–and why do many hoarders report ordinary, even banal pasts? Many hoarders live outwardly average lives, their colleagues and acquaintances having little idea about their compulsions.
The authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) argue that hoarding is diverse and complicated. While much of their study focuses on depression, impulse control disorders and other brain/mood dysfunctions, they introduce other potential correlations, including the possibility that belonging to a consumer culture may influence hoarding, which would make hoarding a social as much as psychological condition.
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I am not a hoarder, although I have all the hallmarks of someone who could easily have become one. I have family members who hoard, or at least accumulate so many possessions their dwellings are uncomfortable and unpleasant to navigate. I feel compelled to collect things, particularly (during this stage in my life) books and vintage kitchen wares. I anthropomorphize things people throw out, and regularly feel drawn to rescue them on the basis of a sentiment akin to pity or sorrow. Having spent part of my childhood growing up in what passes for poverty in Canada, I have an urge to hedge against future hard times. Some part of me asks, whenever the shampoo bottle gets low, if I shouldn’t save the dregs in case hygiene products become scarce in the future. It takes a conscious act of will to squeeze out what I can and toss the bottle into the recycling bin.
But the important thing is that I do. Not only that, I like getting rid of things whose period of utility has passed. Every few months I start to feel ruthless, and at these moments I sort and purge books, clothes, kitchenwares and other categories. In the past year I have begun keeping a cardboard box handy for things I decide on the fly we no longer have any use or place for. I have become much more cold-hearted about gifts people give us, about toys my little daughter no longer plays with, about books I no longer care for on subjects I have lost interest in. [And notably, whenever we set a box or two at curbside, everything in it is gone within hours, making me suspect our neighbours are pack-rats, too.]
If hoarding is understood as a continuum, I would place myself closer to “hoarder” than “minimalist,” but with some notable redeeming features. In our home we have thousands of books, for which finding shelf space is a perennial challenge. At the same time, they are meticulously organized by category or alphabetized and even arranged chronologically where possible. My closets are packed, but the clothes hanging in them are arranged by colour. My financial records are an accountant’s dream–although I have files dating back to the early nineties (including the lease to the house I rented after first moving away from home).
So although I have clutter, at least it’s organized. And isn’t this the very definition of a researcher: someone who compulsively hoards and catalogues information, transforming it through some version of Boyle’s Law into publishable work? This is certainly how I came to write my first book: by pressing masses of analysis into a recognisable shape.
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As a writer I realized years ago that, for me at least, personal preoccupations are the most natural place to start (or take) a writing project. I have never in my life set out to write something; rather, some subject or idea has always lodged itself and taken root.
For years I have listened to stories about hoarders, collecting newspaper clippings and books, such as Franz Lidz’s Ghosty Men (Bloomsbury, 2003), an account of the Collyer brothers. As part of another writing project (excerpted here) I read about dumpster-divers and scavengers with a more-than-professional interest. I’ve always been interested in the urban abject: feral cats, bottle-pickers, street people, vacant lots, alleyways, and have a thick raft of clippings and notes I’ve been saving for years. And while I struggled to conceive and then carry the pregnancy that produced my daughter, I began noticing media reports about mummified babies found in trunks and attics.
At some point, inevitably, these preoccupations began to come together in a new writing project. And while at the moment I’m supposed to be pursuing a new scholarly book project, I’ve decided to write something on the side, a novel called Acts of Salvage, exploring (through a narrative revolving around dumpster divers, bottle pickers, hoarders and a man who discovers a mummified baby in the attic of a Toronto home) what the contemporary city compels us to cling to or discard. No more on this for the moment, although I’ll announce publication details as they become available.
This website is meant to serve as an addendum to Acts of Salvage. In part it will consist of research notes and links, an approach I found tremendously helpful while working on the Imagining Toronto book. At the same time, I plan to use this space for a more frivolous purpose: posting pictures of some of my own ‘acts of salvage.’ As people close to me already know, I’m an inveterate dumpster diver who also loves garage sales and the local Goodwill. For years I’ve been collecting vintage kitchenwares, and in the past few months I’ve managed to pick up some wonderful sixties and seventies-era dishware too lovely not to share.
If you have any questions, thoughts or observations, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel welcome to comment here or contact me at alharris [at] gmail [dot] com.