Let It Go

New York City might be the only place on earth where you could conceivably date someone for months on end and never be invited into their apartment. But special mention should go to Barry Yourgrau, who managed to keep his soignée food-writer girlfriend (and almost everyone else, even the super) out of his place for five long years. So ashamed was he of his unruly belongings, and yet so deeply attached to them, he tells us in his memoir, Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act (Norton, $26), that he couldn’t stomach any intruders. When the girlfriend, Cosima (not her real name), attempts to cross his threshold and discovers the waist-high silt of knickknacks, packaging, and other debris within, she stages the intervention that sparks the memoir: He must clean his apartment. Or else. Yourgrau, by his own account, spends much of his considerable nonwriting time swanning around the globe as an appendage to Cosima’s work trips, consuming her food and “gloriously aged” wines and amassing piles of sentimentally significant junk: “Just what do you bring to this relationship?” Cosima asks, as well she might.

So, what does he bring? If memoir tends to balance more or less uncomfortably between the general and the particular, the cozily universal journey of self-discovery and the tale of mountain climbing, celebrity, or surviving horrendous abuse, then the hoarding memoir is perhaps a specially representative case. It describes a syndrome whose gothic extremes (Poe-esquely entombed in your own home by your own possessions) can’t conceal its essential, and threatening, contemporary ordinariness. When Barry, post-confrontation with Cosima, starts some quick research into symptoms and syndromes associated with hoarding—anxiety: check!; depression: check!; OCD: check!; ADD: check!—it seems that he might as well diagnose himself with “America” or “the twenty-first century.”

Hoarding is consumerism and its contradictions seen in the fun-house mirror. One test of sanity, of being well adjusted, is to understand that those same items you just paid through the nose for, those things designed to let everyone know what kind of a person you are, should naturally soon be tossed out again along with the tons of trash we all produce at such a clip. The very culture that mandates constant accumulation is the one that supports a healthy decluttering industry and rubbernecks at hoarding-themed reality shows like Buried Alive. We’re all getting the same message: Buy as much as possible. What fascinates us about the full-blown hoarders is that they’re literalists—they’ve taken it all too much to heart, so that commodities never lose their sway, never seem expendable. Yourgrau’s apartment is heaped with empty branded bags from schmancy hotels—and there’s a logic there: If it makes sense for something packaged with a certain magic name on it to cost twenty times as much as the same thing without, then why the hell wouldn’t you want to hold on to the packaging?

Mess, though supposedly the story of the author’s attempt “to clean up his house and his act,” feels less like a redemption tale and more like a victory lap by someone who’s yet again been entertaining enough to get away with it. As the center of a narrative, cleaning already sounds less dramatic than getting clean, but the antic Yourgrau—while he does eventually throw quite a few things out—also doesn’t seem that keen to change. He’s a static character, always eager for semi-parental attention from girlfriend, shrinks, interviewees, and the reader: Wondering how far he’ll go to get it is one of the book’s pleasures. A strange counterpart to Mess is Judy Batalion’s more conventional White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between (New American Library, $16). After growing up with a mother who hoards “mounds of old paper towels, thousands of videocassettes, stale Danishes that formed a barricade,” the author responds by refusing stuff altogether in favor of a “militant minimalism.” Batalion is an anti-Yourgrau: She describes her early reaction of preternatural neatness and maturity, a longing to fit in and be as unspecial as possible. Her mother calls her the “normal one born into an abnormal family,” but the way Batalion refers to her beleaguered father might be a better description: “a realist figure set in a cartoon painting.”Appropriately enough, then, she undergoes a realist character development worthy of a nineteenth-century heroine: After getting pregnant—the ultimate encumbrance—she must adjust to the everyday chaos and mess of life with children. Unlike Yourgrau’s, Batalion’s book really does have a standard memoir arc, in which the traumatized-by-stuff protagonist eventually comes to terms with her mother, herself, and at least some of the material detritus that surrounds us.


Yourgrau’s Mess is a kind of meta-memoir by a meta-hoarder: It constantly (and, for the most part, lovably) dramatizes his inability to decide whether he wants to be ordinary or special. Indeed, he spends much of his memoir approaching various experts for interviews about hoarding that end up with Yourgrau telling the interviewee about himself, brandishing moodily lit pictures of his clogged interiors and asking for reassurance that he’s either a) not that bad a case or b) a case so dreadful as to deserve “respect for being impressive and alarming.” He is, he lets us know repeatedly, “a poet of clutter,” a “flâneur of my own flat,” surrounded by objects charged with fetishistic meaning: a squalid mess, perhaps, but also his Versailles, his trove, his “archive,” his “art installation.”

Yourgrau’s dedication to his own specialness makes an all-American recovery narrative rather tricky to pull off. A couple of visits to Clutterers Anonymous are enough to confirm the problem: “What did I share culturally with this group?” asks the man who invokes Dante on his rare encounters with the vacuum cleaner. The emphasis on quantity over quality troubles him. As one clutter victim shares her story, he laments inwardly that in her account there is “no ruminative intimacy about any of her possessions, their pull on her. Just the tonnage.”

The experts, too, disappoint him: He guesses that Ron, a decluttering pro or “trash-talking transitioner of trash,” “had never felt” anything akin to Yourgrau’s attachment to his unread books: “He was no friend of Walter Benjamin.” He resorts to those in other fields, trying to get the director of the Sigmund Freud House to admit that the good doctor’s statuary collection might count as a bit of a mess, or turning on the charm in the (ultimately vain) hope that a W. H. Auden scholar will give him a detailed breakdown of how Yourgrau’s problems measure up against the poet. Yourgrau’s mess, unlike the unglamorous debris Batalion describes taking over her family home, is always pointedly high-end: He picks his way through stacks of unread Artforums on the floor, and even uses one to glossily vanquish a small mouse. To have fourteen pianos—like the notorious Collyer brothers, who met a grisly end inside the “defensive fortress” of their brownstone mansion—would be pathological, but Yourgrau can’t help but be proud that he has one, and it’s a Steinway.

If that Steinway is a status symbol, though, it’s also the weightier kind: Yourgrau refers to the “paternal beast lurking” underneath, his late father’s books that he can’t face either unpacking or throwing away. If Yourgrau’s attempt to welcome Freud into his club of clutterers goes nowhere, he and his psychoanalytic successors nonetheless continue to loom over the proceedings. In White Walls, too, hoarding seems to be partly about the parents. Batalion’s mother is very much entangled with her own mother (another hoarder) and, like Yourgrau, spent her early life in anxious motion: Conceived in 1945 in a Siberian camp, “formed in the cadence of hiding, running, survival,” she’d spent her later years building a protective cocoon of stuff.

Yourgrau senior, with his mid-twentieth-century grandiosity and angst, seems to be a major root of his son’s troubles. Yourgrau explains his yen for stuff in several ways: Too much moving around when young, a twin from whom he needed to distinguish himself, etc. One foible proudly on display—which even a British celebrity hoarder Yourgrau visits in a “hoarding Valhalla” only navigable by “goat paths” diagnoses as “stark raving potty”— is Yourgrau’s tendency, on the rare occasions he can bring himself to throw something away, to first destroy it so that no one else can ever use it. We see him chop his way through a cardigan, the “Sweeney Todd of paisley.”

Given that hoarding is the commodity fetish writ so large and clear that any child could understand, it’s odd that these memoirs are so much more into Freud than Marx. But the unhappy family is memoir’s bread and butter, and narratively speaking, it’s easy to see why a hoarder’s confession must keep coming back to childhood—after all, at least according to the DSM-5, the major quality that marks out those with a “hoarding disorder” is an inability to let things go. Plus, the miseries of childhood and family are another vexed cluster of the general and the particular—few things feel more specific than our own psychic dramas, and yet every single one of us has one. “Every messy person was messy in their own manner,” Cosima’s mother paraphrases, archly.

Yourgrau’s first attempt at a cure, he tells us, involved purchasing a (nearly three pound) book on housekeeping. Distressingly high on the best-seller list now is a book that tells you how to transform your life by tidying up. Books, the author announces, are only the information in them. Once read, they become mere objects like everything else—to be kept only if the act of holding them brings you “joy.” I picked this particular book up twenty different times, but in the end, the self-defeating irony of buying a book that would hector me to get rid of all my others simply bit too deep.

Lidija Haas is Bookforum’s associate editor.