Randy O. Frost
Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College, author of the 2010 book "Stuff," and an expert on compulsive hoarding, will introduce the classic film "Grey Gardens" today and tomorrow at the Amherst Cinema at 7:30 p.m.
Q. Were the characters in “Grey Gardens,’’ a real mother and daughter who were the cousins of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, compulsive hoarders?
‘I find [hoarders] infinitely fascinating. I think the way in which they look at the world is a little more complex and in some ways maybe better than the rest of us.’
A. The film sheds some light on that, but it doesn’t show us quite enough information to be able to know exactly. Their reactions to the physical world around them were different than other people’s. They let the home they were living in deteriorate. They started collecting animals, which is a form of hoarding.
Q. What exactly is compulsive hoarding?
A. The major defining criteria are a difficulty parting with possessions - throwing them away, giving them away, selling them. We all have a lot of stuff. What really sets this apart is an accumulation of stuff that clutters living spaces so they become unusable, and causes significant distress and interference with the ability to live.
Q. How many people are compulsive hoarders?
A. Somewhere between 2 and 5 percent of the population, which is much more than we ever anticipated before the latest round of research. Only a small percentage of people with hoarding disorder - probably in the neighborhood of 10 percent - live in conditions we might consider squalid [like the mother and daughter in the film] or extremely unsanitary. About that percentage probably neglect their personal hygiene.
Q. How could it be so common and yet so little is known about it?
A. It is an odd phenomenon. It’s because people who do this feel so much shame about this that they will not let anyone else know. Most of the folks we see haven’t had anyone in their house for a decade or more.
Q. Are rates of hoarding rising?
A. I think we’re simply becoming more aware of it.
Q. What is distinctive about a hoarder’s relationship to objects?
A. If I look at a bottle, the only thought I have is trash. Someone with this problem will have all kinds of thoughts about its utility, its intrinsic beauty, its value. That makes consideration of throwing it out much more difficult.
Q. And they classify objects differently in their minds?
A. Most of us live our lives categorically. If we get an electricity bill, we put it with other bills or with other electric bills. But people with this problem put that electricity bill on the pile in the middle of the room and then create sort of a mental map for themselves for where that object appears in space. Their world is organized visually and spatially as opposed to categorically. I do this on my desktop. I’ve got piles of things and I know what’s there because I remember. But if I did that with everything I owned, it would be impossible.
Q. Has studying compulsive hoarders changed your own behavior?
A. I think I’m more careful before I throw something away. I’m much more cognizant of not wanting to waste things. It also has led me to be much more conscious about acquiring things. Do I really need this?
Q. It seems like you have great respect for hoarders.
A. I find them infinitely fascinating. I think the way in which they look at the world is a little more complex and in some ways maybe better than the rest of us. Their appreciation of the physical world is remarkable. They’ve got this gift - on the one hand it allows them to view the world in such a rich and interesting way, but on the other it interferes with their ability to really do anything with that gift.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at Karen@KarenWeintraub.com.