Barry Yourgrau isn’t willing to own the label of “hoarder” despite the chaos and filth of his apartment. It is crammed with his “collections” — not only of books and souvenirs from his world travels but also of empty cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and junk heaps of paper. The kitchen counters are buried, the refrigerator is “a morgue locker of stains and ancient grubby jars and bottles,” the bathroom faucets have leaked for years. He spends most nights and eats most meals at his girlfriend’s house, and also refuses to permit anyone into his own.
But when his girlfriend, who has forgotten her keys, shows up at his door one day laden with heavy grocery bags and he still refuses her entry, she finally draws the line — not only when it comes to his apartment, but also his lack of income, the fact that she does all the cooking, that all their travels are related to her job as a food writer, and, generally, how he lives his life.
“You’re old enough to be a grandfather — and you live like a teenager,” she insists, challenging him to tell her what he brings to their relationship.
Yourgrau has no defense.
“…I know I have not only a problem, I have a cascading set of them,” he writes in Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act. “And I have to fix them. And I am in despair, yet again, because I have no idea how to do this.”
Thus Yourgrau embarks on what he calls the Project: digging out his apartment and the emotional and psychological clutter that led to the problem in the first place, all while writing a book about his process and hoarding in general. (Using, he freely confesses, research for the book as a procrastination tool.)
The result is a compelling and thoroughly entertaining hybrid of memoir and research. By allowing us entry to his apartment, his therapy sessions, and his innermost beliefs and conflicts, Yourgrau tells a story as addictive as a whodunit — one we might call a whydunit.
I was drawn, for a short time, to the voyeuristic reality shows Hoarders and Hoarders: Buried Alive because anything involving rummaging around in the human psyche fascinates me. But I soon tired of the shows and found them depressing, mostly because so much of what you see is cosmetic changes to the home. I rarely felt confident that these were sustainable. Not unreasonably, the intensely personal work of digging into the psychological reasons for the dysfunction is done off camera, with we the viewer catching only occasional commentary from the therapist assigned to each case.
But in Mess, Yourgrau, an insightful and witty writer, provides us glimpses into his process and his psyche, from the heavy family-of-origin baggage he totes around to the mystical hold objects have on him. “Objects become the genies of their affiliations — invasive spell casters,” he writes.
The book’s cast of characters includes his girlfriend, whose nom de plume changes a couple of time through the course of the story, and her mother; his therapists; members of a Clutterers Anonymous group he tries briefly; various experts in the psychology of hoarding; other experts in organizing and decluttering; and one particular hardcore hoarder who allows Yourgrau an up-close experience of what a real hoard is like. The book also explores hoarders throughout history, such as the infamous Collyer brothers, who lived and died in a New York brownstone surrounded by a monumental hoard of more than 140 tons.
Yourgrau’s investigations ultimately lead to personal epiphanies and — spoiler alert — an apartment clean and cozy enough to allow others entry. It sounds to me as if he did make his way to sustainable change in his living quarters. And I trust this book will also represent a turning point in his previously floundering career.
Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act
W. W. Norton & Company, August 2015
Hardcover, 256 pages