• The Amnesia Issue

    Why I Was a Teenage Hoarder

    The Amnesia Issue
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    Why I Was a Teenage Hoarder

    “Only some compulsive hoarding is comprised of the need to acquire; many hoarders are driven only by the need to retain.”

    I have some baggage. It’s in an antique trunk that weighs maybe sixty pounds and which I’ve dragged with me for twelve years, through six moves across two states. I only open it when I’m both very sad and very drunk, but I never forget the combination for the lock. I keep it because I can’t yet throw it away.

    Some of the things inside I expect to keep forever –  the diaries and many of the letters. Other things I keep because sorting through them to find those diaries and letters would be too painful: old t-shirts, train tickets, paper coffee cups, and hotel matchbooks. It’s detritus from 2000 to 2007, roughly analogous with my adolescence. To misquote Courtney Love, I was a teenage hoarder. I hoarded because I was afraid of forgetting, and I keep my hoard because I don’t yet want to remember.


    “The study of psychological trauma [...] is one of episodic amnesia,” writes Judith Herman at the beginning of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence –  From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. She explains that this scholarly approach to trauma mirrors “the central dialectic of psychological trauma” itself: the competing needs to deny and to affirm, to forget and to remember. Trauma and Recovery goes on to propose the existence of a Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is now, twenty-five years later, widely accepted among female survivors of domestic and sexual abuse but still not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. However, “Disorders of extreme stress, not otherwise specified” has parameters that echo Herman’s work.

    Trauma and Recovery was groundbreaking; it was also, as we say now, problematic. Throughout the text, Herman compares women “who prostitute themselves” with prisoners of war, Patricia Hearst, and women “who fail to escape abusive relationships” (115). She rejects or ignores any economic motive for trading sex, preferring the liberal fiction of an industry sustained solely on demand and a decidedly un-Marxian conception of false consciousness.

    I was a proponent of this viewpoint as a teenager. I went to college to become the next Melissa Farley, whose now-discredited Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress boasts an introduction by Herman. It took me much longer than four years, but I do now conduct research with people who trade sex – only, the events of the intervening decade flipped my ideological approach. Now I try to hold my personal experiences at the back of my mind while I work as a research assistant on a publicly funded study on the sex trades.

    One of my tasks is coding some five hundred qualitative excerpts about interpersonal violence. I have been reading and rereading for months, applying thirty different tags for kinds of violence, perpetrators of violence, and responses to violence and entering them into a database. Coding is only the first step of data analysis, so I can’t impart any findings, but I can share what I’ve noticed: when confirming that they’ve experienced a certain kind of violence, be it robbery or rape or physical assault, people will offer up two or three additional pieces of information. Almost without exception and usually without prompting, they will tell you why the perpetrator might have done it; they will say what their response was immediately following the violation; and they will explain what the long-term ramifications of the violence have been. These comments vary in conviction and complexity, but they seem to appear whenever a person deigns to give more than a two-word answer. 

    The explanations spill forth from female and male and genderqueer respondents; from Black and Asian and Hispanic and white people; from twenty-five year old middle-class Ph.D. students and forty-eight year old homeless drug dealers; from those born in Taiwan and rural Georgia and the Bronx. These diverse people all feel compelled to answer the same unspoken questions: “Why would someone do something like that? Did you try to get away? Was it really so bad?” 

    Their narrative responses elucidate the narrative architecture of human memory, but the oddly uniform content of the narratives hints at a learned cultural script about violence. Herman includes a brief accounting of this script in the first chapter of Trauma and Recovery when she writes that, “Soldiers in every war, even those who have been regarded as heroes, complain bitterly that no one wants to know the real truth about war. When the victim is already devalued (a woman, a child), she may find that the most traumatic events of her life take place outside the realm of socially validated reality.” Everyone who speaks as a survivor of violence responds to this expected social negation. I’m no exception; I’m only strange in that I gathered evidence to support my story, hoarding anything that might corroborate me.

    The comorbidity of compulsive hoarding and post-traumatic stress disorder is well documented. They both entered the DSM-III in 1980. Compulsive hoarding was originally posited as a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder, but it has its own entry in the DSM-5. Leftist thinkers have been writing about the disorder for quite a bit less time, but the radical analysis of compulsive hoarding has become popular of late. See, for example, Patrice Petro’s essay “Austerity Media,” in After Capitalism: Horizons of Finance, Culture, or Citizenship or Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s “Capitalism Eats Itself: Gluttony and Coprophagia from Hoarders to La Grande Bouffe” in Film International, which typify the leftist analytic approach. They apply some form of historical-material analysis to characterize compulsive hoarding as an inevitable perversion of late capitalist consumption. These radical writers also position compulsive hoarding as an allegory or even metonymy for capital accumulation. The visual metaphor is too tempting to pass up: compulsive hoarders gluttonously consume and greedily accumulate even if it means literally suffocating under debt and filth – much like our capitalist overlords, yes? Well, no.

    Only some compulsive hoarding is comprised of the need to acquire; many hoarders are driven only by the need to retain. Of course, the need to hold onto literal trash is somewhat less poetic than the need to acquire ever more figurative garbage, and so leftist writers often ignore the former. Petro, for example, begins his essay by describing a “pathology surrounding accumulation” and proceeds to focus primarily on acquisition. Foster speaks of compulsive hoarding in the context of the US “history of excessive gluttony and hoarding, starting with people, as one prime example.”  To compare a mental illness to the greed and brutality driving the trans-Atlantic slave trade is a slimy rhetorical move – as if illness were an atrocity we inflict on ourselves or, conversely, colonial exploitation were a matter that cannot be helped. Moreover, as Susan Sontag will tell you, it’s hardly the stuff of radical thought.

    The most radical and, indeed, most compelling materialist analysis of compulsive hoarding comes from the decidedly non-radical Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society (the History of Science Society is part of the University of Notre Dame). In “Neurohistory in Action: Hoarding and the Human Past,” Daniel Lord Smail uses a “neurohistorical” approach to explain hoarding. Although it sounds like evolutionary psychology’s equally shitty brother, neurohistory is, in fact, more like the good twin. “Neurohistory assumes that the human brain and the endocrine system are plastic and therefore continuously open to developmental and cultural influences. For this reason, the approach offers a more richly historicized vision of the past than is available through fields such as evolutionary psychology,” Smail writes. In other words, “the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social [...] life,” which in turn influences human psychology (or, as Marx put it, human consciousness). 

    A hypothesis linking hoarding to capitalism on the basis of material accumulation and/or mass production is only part of the picture; late capitalism also means atomization, the fracturing of communal relationships. We can horde items not only because there are more items to acquire and more credit with which to acquire them but because we have our individual homes in which to horde them. In the not too distant past, Smail notes, humans were both more mobile and more collective, and “patterns of group living demanded considerable velocity in the circulation of stuff.” The advent of the permanent single-family dwelling provides the remainder of the historical-material basis for hoarding. It also supplies some of the necessary motivation: the conditions for complex posttraumatic stress disorder, Judith Herman tells us, are prolonged captivity, as in “prisons, concentration camps, and slave labor camps [and sometimes] in families.” Herman refers here to ongoing situations of domestic violence, which thrive in the discretion and discreteness imposed by modern living. 


    It was only after I started doing research with people in the sex trades that I also started re-examining my own sex work narrative. One of the interview questions asks, At what age did you first trade sex for something of material value – money, drugs, food, shelter? I had thought I’d started sex work at 21 or 22, when I began doing fetish work after dropping out of college and suddenly needed money for rent. But I wonder now if maybe I first traded at 15 or 16. What trips me up is that my main motivation was immaterial; when I agreed to meet up with grown men from online chat rooms, what I most wanted was validation. I also wanted salvation, though, and its material form, shelter. I thought I could find Humbert Humbert, but the men I connected with were too rooted in their own lives. They had wives and children, and they had jobs in consulting firms and universities and psychiatric hospitals and youth services. They didn’t whisk me away. What they would do sometimes was put me up in hotels and order me room service, and occasionally I would ask to stay longer, and they would allow it; of course, there were expectations, and I was furious and repulsed, but it was also refuge. 

    After my first hotel encounter I went straight home and typed up a detailed account to print and stash in my antique trunk. Several hours into writing, the computer froze. I lost the whole draft. I was already forgetting the details and was terrified that now no one would believe me, should I ever have anyone to tell. I went to my room and put my head under a pillow and sobbed.

    My father heard me. He must have been having one of his manic episodes, because he demanded I open my bedroom door, and when I didn’t, he broke the lock. When I refused to tell him what was wrong, he moved to hit me. He must have told himself he only wanted to help, needed to help, had to force me to let him help. I instinctively recoiled, and the side of his arm came down across my cheekbone. My immediate response was to scream and retreat. I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t; I had drawers full of post-it notes covered with email addresses and hotel addresses, floppy disks and print-outs stashed under my mattress, and a trunk full of old t-shirts, train tickets, paper coffee cups, and hotel matchbooks I could not leave behind.

    “Was it really so bad?”  No, not being hit that one time. Trauma is not the violence, it is the whole narrative: why he did it, what my response was and couldn’t be, how often it recurred, the ramifications of compulsory secrecy over the years. I recognize this as I read through five hundred excerpts decontextualized from other atomized lives, which I was privileged to do not just because I had a degree but because I had experience with the subject, and which I succeed at doing not just because I had experience but because I am adept at things requiring repetitive classification – diagnostic criteria 300.3.A.2. What I still can’t recognize and probably never will is where the trauma ends and the rest of my narrative begins. Maybe one day I’ll sort through it.

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