A police inspector examines the Collyer brothers' brownstone in 1947. Credit: The New York Times

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Scott Herring is not a hoarder. He watches shows like Hoarders with the same appalled fascination as the rest of us. But Herring is also an English professor who specializes in American cultural studies, which means it’s his job to think about why shows like Hoarders appall and fascinate Americans to the degree that they do, and how hoarding has become transformed in the eyes of the public from an eccentricity to a mental disorder. His 2014 book The Hoarders: Material Deviance in Modern American Culture, which he’ll discuss this weekend at the Chicago Humanities Spring Festival, is a history not of hoarding, but of other people’s reactions to hoarders.

“I see hoarding as a cultural rather than a biochemical phenomenon,” Herring says. “Some have argued that it’s something about chromosome 14. I was unsure of that claim. I wanted to look at the cultural specifics of it. I wanted to not draw a pro or a con line. I did not want to cheapen the distress of anyone who lives with a hoarder. There are links to grief and suffering, but do not believe that that hoarding makes one mentally ill. I wanted to understand the history.”

Scott Herring, not a hoarderCredit: courtesy Indiana University

Herring selected four case studies for The Hoarders, starting with the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, who appalled and fascinated New Yorkers when they died in 1947 and left a Harlem brownstone packed full of stuff. The public reaction was somewhere between the fascination given the old-fashioned circus sideshow and the modern tendency to pathologize: the habit of amassing unhealthily large amounts of memorabilia or junk or whatever you prefer to call it (Herring uses the academically neutral “material”) became known as “Collyer brothers syndrome.”

Now, instead of sideshows, we have reality TV. Hoarders, at least, supplies therapists and professional organizers to impose some version of order so the hoarders and their loved ones don’t die suffocated by all the clutter. Though Herring also points out that professional organizers and therapists who specialize in hoarding disorder could not exist—or at least not earn a living—without the hoarders themselves. It’s a strange symbiosis. “I do feel that there’s a lucrative industry,” Herring says. “And while it is lucrative, individuals who help promote diagnosis may inadvertently cause harm. Hoarding is often in the eye of beholder—or professional organizer.”

On TV, many of the hoarders don’t think of themselves as hoarders at all. They consider themselves extreme collectors. “Then professional organizers and psychologists will impose the diagnosis upon them,” Herring says. “It’s interesting to watch them negotiate the diagnosis.” In the book Herring describes one particular episode of Hoarders where a woman named Jill views an old and rotten pumpkin not as garbage but as the source of some very interesting seeds and remains immune to her therapist’s attempts to convince her she has a problem.

And what if Jill’s pumpkin really does contain some rare and remarkable seeds? Hoarders really do accumulate treasures. Herring’s case in point is Andy Warhol, who held on to a lot of things that, after he died, were sold at Sotheby’s and are now considered priceless artifacts. (Herring got to go through them at the Warhol Museum. Yes, he says, researching this book was really fun. He also wrote a chapter about “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale of Grey Gardens fame.)

“Hoarders disrupt what does and does not count as valuable,” he says. “One of the diagnoses for a hoarder is, can this person determine the emotional and material worth of an object? But I ask, how you can tell? You have to put an object into a historical moment. It throws us back onto histories of our relationships of things, rather than a universal problem with somebody’s brain.”

When he said that, I immediately thought of my grandmother’s chrome sunburst clock. She’d hung it in the 50s and didn’t move it for 40 years because she never, ever threw anything away. It was ridiculous. During long, boring afternoons when we visited, I would stare at it and marvel at how ridiculous it was. You couldn’t even use it to tell time because the face was so small! It disappeared sometime in the early 90s. No one missed it. Recently I saw one like it in an antique shop for $200. And in that setting, it had somehow become slightly fabulous. So who’s the ridiculous one now?

Herring does not imagine that his book will bring an end to the pathologizing of hoarding. It is, after all, a small volume from a university press. In terms of publicity, it cannot compare to Marie Kondo. Still, he hopes that in its small way both the book and his talk at the Humanities Fest will advance human understanding. “I don’t deny that hoarding can hurt,” he said. “I don’t want to defend or condemn this behavior. I just better want to comprehend why so many are concerned about it. If people see hoarding as a little more strange [than] it’s often characterized, I’d be happy.”

“Hoarders” Sat 4/29, 10 AM, Feinberg Theatre, 610 S. Michigan, 312-494-9509, chicagohumanities.org, $15, $10 students and teachers.