On January 12, Jennifer Howard discussed her book, Clutter: An Untidy History, an expansive assessment of our relationship to the things that share and shape our lives, in conversation with Meredith Hindley. Howard sets her own personal struggle with clutter against a meticulously researched history of just how the developed world came to drown in material goods.
Watch the video of this event here and read the transcript below:
“Define use and beauty: Does an object matter because of its associations or because of what it can do? What does possessing it cost in time, money, or mental and environmental health?”Jennifer Howard, Clutter: An Untidy History
“Jennifer Howard has written a brilliant and beautiful meditation on the nature of our attachment to things. Reading Clutter made me long for a life without clutter.” ―Malcolm Gladwell, New York Times bestselling author
“Howard’s exploration of one dark corner of consumer culture is quick-witted and insightful―and, appropriately for the subject, refreshingly concise. … A keen assessment of one of society’s secret shames and its little-understood consequences.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“In her stern and wide-ranging new manifesto, “Clutter: An Untidy History,” journalist Jennifer Howard takes the anti-clutter message a step further. Howard argues that decluttering is not just a personally liberating ritual, but a moral imperative, a duty we owe both to our children and to the planet.” ―Jennifer Reese, Washington Post
JANE KULOW: Hello, and welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book, featuring livestreamed author events on Thursdays. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions on Zoom or Facebook. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore the full schedule of upcoming events.
Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers.
Jennifer Howard, author of Clutter: An Untidy History, is a former contributing editor and columnist for The Washington Post and a former senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Her freelance journalism, criticism, and fiction has appeared in national and international publications. She lives in Washington D.C. Learn more at JenniferHoward.com.
Meredith Hindley is a historian and author of Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II. She has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Longreads, Salon, and The Christian Science Monitor. She received her PhD from American University and lives in Washington D.C. You can learn more at MeredithHindley.com.
About the book: Clutter: An Untidy History is an expansive assessment of our relationship to the things that share and shape our lives. Inspired by the painful two-year process of cleaning out her mother’s house in the wake of a devastating physical and emotional collapse, Jennifer set her own personal struggle with clutter against a meticulously researched history of just how the developed world came to drown in material goods. To pick up notes from a couple of reviews, Clutter thoroughly unpacks the topic and it’s a delight to read.
Jennifer and Meredith, thank you for joining us at Shelf Life. Tell us more about Clutter.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: Thank you so much, Jane, for that introduction, and thank you all for joining us today. And thank you for joining us—given that we had to reschedule from last Thursday. We’re happy you could be here. And I’m very pleased to be here with Jen Howard, who is a friend of mine—full disclosure. And I got to talk with Jen as she was writing this book, and I saw this book develop and was with her on the journey as she delved into the stories of Clutter and did original reporting. But also we dealt with some personal issues. And, Jen, I’d kind of like to start off with that question. Jane hinted at that issue. And Jane hinted to it a little bit in her introduction, but what inspired you to write a book about clutter?
JENNIFER HOWARD: Thanks, Mer, and thank you Jane and Virginia Festival of the Book for having us here. Yes, as Jane said in the introduction and as Meredith just said, this has always been a deeply personal book for me. And it came out of a personal crisis that my family went through several years ago, when my mother suffered a physical and mental breakdown that left her—overnight—unable to live in her house, look after her things, and generally to take care of the daily business of life. And, suddenly it fell to me.
So, I went from living my own life, to suddenly having a family house full of fifty years’ worth of stuff that was in total disarray. I just had no idea what to do with it. I had not realized how much stuff there was. And as I started this process of responding to this crisis and trying to figure out what to do, I started talking to other people like Meredith, among others—and other friends—about the situation. And that started producing stories of other families and other situations that were, if not identical my mother’s, had a lot of overlap. And I realized this was not just a problem that had hit my family; it was really a collective problem and a struggle that was much bigger than any one family’s.
That got me interested, partly, as a way to just keep myself sane through this very difficult emotional and logistical and physical process. I started reading and talking to more people and doing what I do as a reporter, which is to—you know, I have questions, and I go to find people who have answers. And that led me to this book and these investigations beyond the personal.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: So for the audience, we are going to be opening up the last part of this discussion to questions. So please, if you have any questions for Jen—if she says something that sparks your interest or you want to know more about clutter, please do use the Q&A feature. And we’ll be looking at those, and we’ll be asking—I’m going to ask Jen a few more questions, and then we’ll open up the floor.
So one of the things we’ve talked about—about this book and about the discussion around this book—is the role of women and gender and having to deal with clutter. And how it often falls to women to essentially manage the stuff. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
JENNIFER HOWARD: Yes. I could probably spend a lot more than an hour talking about this. I came across a phrase after the book was published that I wish I’d had while I was writing it, and that is designated daughter. This came out—I was talking to a book club of women who are mostly sixty-five and older—so in the later stages of their lives. So they had dealt with various iterations of family stuff. And I was describing this phenomenon of women often being the ones to have to deal with a crisis like the one that fell in my family. And one of the women said, “Oh, you were the designated daughter.”
And I was like, “Designated daughter?”
She said, “Yeah, there’s usually one woman—female—in a family. It isn’t necessarily a daughter. It could be an aunt or a cousin or a niece, who somehow finds herself in charge of dealing with a relative’s stuff. It’s either with downsizing when somebody downsizes or somebody passes on, and someone has to figure out where all this stuff is going to go.”
It really hit a nerve with me—that phrase. Because, as I started talking to people in my own life about what I was dealing with and looking for help with the various challenges I faced, and then as I started looking at the history of these domestic spaces and who is expected to, first, keep them clean and orderly, and then deal with them when they have to be dismantled, it is largely female. That’s not, of course, entirely true. There are many men who for whatever reason are the ones—the designated sons, if you will. But women, as the ones who are traditionally in charge of the domestic sphere, we’re the ones who get stuck with cleaning it up and cleaning it out.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: One of the things that comes out in the book are sort of the moral judgments against clutter. The moral judgments about being tidy versus being messy, and then how clutter contributes to that. Can you talk a little bit about the development of those, and how that plays out in how people respond to and deal with clutter?
JENNIFER HOWARD: Sure. Just think in your daily life—well, back in the days when we actually used to go to each other’s houses. We’re unfortunately not doing that these days so much, nor should we. But how many times when someone comes over to your house do you say, “Oh, sorry about the mess. Don’t look at that. I’m going to get to that, or I need to organize that, and don’t look in the kitchen.” Whatever it is.
So the idea that clutter—that not having an orderly space is a source of shame—is deeply, deeply ingrained in us in this culture. And the worse the clutter is, the more shameful it is. So in a case like my mother’s, she had gotten to the point where she just wouldn’t let anybody in the house (this was pre-pandemic) because it was just so overwhelming. She knew, and she had absorbed the idea that this was shameful. This was a bad way to live.
So for her, that meant that she would refuse offers of help, whether from me or from—you know, I could never have gotten a personal organizer, for example, to come over and work with her because Mom just wouldn’t have let them in the house. But it really is a very—it’s a challenge for society to not look at extreme clutter as a source of shame. And people who are ashamed don’t generally get the help and support that they really need. It’s not motivational. Anybody who’s watched some of the reality TV shows that deal with extreme hoarding situations will be familiar with some of the—the professionals and relatives walk in and say, “Oh my god, how can you live like this? What a shock. This is awful.” And the implication is always that the person is bad. It’s a personal failure.
So as I started looking into the history of this, I became aware of how deeply ingrained that sense of shame is in the culture and how unhelpful—to say the least—it really is for people who are struggling with these issues for whatever reason. Whether they have a diagnosable condition, like hoarding disorder, or whether they’re just overwhelmed by life and the things in their lives.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: I will say for my mother and for my grandmother, the worst possible sin that you could ever do is not keep a perfect house—no clutter. You know, maybe being slightly untidy is a moral failing.
JENNIFER HOWARD: It is. And that’s an old, old—I mean, you look back. I spent a lot of time reading about Victorian domestic spaces and Victorian domestic morals, basically. I’m talking about Victorian Britain. And that’s really where you see the Cult of Domesticity take hold—these middle-class aspirations. Women become the angel of the home, and you signal your virtue and your place in the world by keeping a very tidy house, having a lot of nice things to put in it, and taking charge of—if you’re lucky—a domestic staff whose job it is to help you maintain this perfect space. And that’s still—we still are struggling, I think, with the habits of generations now in that regard.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: I will say that I fail that test as a historian. I am often overwhelmed by books and papers, so sorry Mom and Grandma. So I want to go back to something you talked about: the hoarding shows where they come in, and it’s used for shock value, but some of your reporting uncovered how like the fire department in Philadelphia—is that right?
JENNIFER HOWARD: Yep, Philadelphia.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: In Philadelphia, where they are basically trying to deal with hoarding and to help people, but also help make it less of a dangerous situation for firefighters. Can you talk about that? Because I found that really interesting.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Sure. That was some of my favorite reporting. I got to go up to Philadelphia and spend the day at a fire station. They made me grilled cheese on the station grill, and I got to sit in the back part of the big hook and ladder. Anyway, I felt like an eight-year-old kid. But on a more serious note, it was really fascinating to see and to hear stories from these people who have to go in.
So imagine you’re a firefighter. You’ve got ninety pounds of gear with the oxygen tanks and all the equipment they have to wear to protect themselves. And you have to go into a house that may have no—there may not be any room—to walk through a lot of the rooms. There might be stuff piled up in front of exits. You don’t know necessarily where someone who might need to be rescued is. Can you find that person? There might be smoke. You’re dragging a hose with water, which is at extreme high pressure. It’s a terrifying situation. These are very brave people who are trained to do this, but it’s so unpredictable and so dangerous—both for them and the people they’re trying to save.
And there’s a fire captain there who has really helped to develop this very empathetic approach. Again, it’s not a shaming approach. He’s not going to go to somebody’s house and slap a fine on them for violating the Philadelphia Fire Code. He’s going to say, “My job is to keep you safe. I can’t do that if my team and I cannot get into your house to give you medical care that you urgently need or to get you out if the place is burning. So I’m not here to take away your stuff. I’m here to say let’s just find a way to make a three-foot pathway, or whatever the specific number is, as the Code requires. This is not going to be a forced cleanout. We’re just going to help you be safer.” And he and his team have found that that’s a much more effective way to actually get people to be a little safer.
It seems like these hoarding situations are rare, but at the fire station, they keep a list of addresses in the neighborhood that have things—certain stances or conditions—that the firefighters need to be aware of. And on that list, I think it had about eighty houses, and about a quarter of them were what they call extreme content situations, which is a hoarding situation—a hoarder. And that’s in one fire district in Philadelphia. So it is a widespread problem.
He told me that we need better statistics than we have, on how many clutter-related fire fatalities and injuries there are nationwide. He thinks it’s underreported and that it, again, is probably about a quarter of civilian, fire-related fatalities that may have something to do with clutter and hoarding situations.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: Oh my goodness.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Yeah.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: So one of the things that has contributed to the growth of clutter—and I will say also the pandemic has spurred this on—
JENNIFER HOWARD: Mmm-hmm.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: —is mail order.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Yes.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: Mail order. The ability to order things by mail. But it isn’t just this sort of rise—it isn’t just sort of Amazon now, but it has a longer history. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. Because, as we know, everything has a history, including your Amazon packages.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Absolutely. Amazon’s one-click shopping. You can look all the way back to the nineteenth century and mail-order catalogs, which started out as a lifeline for people living far away from commercial centers. If you were living on an isolated homestead or farm or settlement, you might need something that you just couldn’t either produce yourself or buy locally. So thanks to westward expansion, for all its, you know, the horrible cost it extracted, we had railroads and changes to the postal service that made it easier to send goods by mail and to get catalogs out to people. You got this pipeline of stuff that started to spread as far as settlements were spreading. But it started really as a way to get essentials, and then it became something more diversionary as well as essential. You could kind of look through these catalogs and imagine a life that you didn’t have or imagine what your life would be like if you could buy these things. So the better communication gets, the better—you know, as technology moves forward, it creates new ways to deliver us things and to get us to buy things. So when you go on and look at Amazon—a hundred years ago, you would’ve been looking at the Sears catalog. These enormous sort of wish books of things. It’s a long and fascinating history.
In some ways, e-commerce feels very new, but it continues a set of consumer habits that was established a long time ago.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: I’m actually going to loop that into a question that we got from our Facebook audience, which is, “Could you talk a little bit about the overlap of planned obsolescence or even useless objects—what happens with that?” It also ties into another question we have about how we get rid of clutter. They’re two different questions, but they are kind of related, in that modern commerce has made it much easier for us to acquire things. But then how do we also get rid of them? And then one of the things that we had also talked about was that it’s not clutter if it has meaning.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Right, right. Clutter is not defined by the amount of stuff that you have, but the effect it has—I think—the effect it has on your life, and is it something that is making your life better, or is it getting in the way? And getting in the way could be physically getting in the way or stopping your budget, stopping planetary resources, putting other people in harm’s way to produce and deliver the cheap goods that we are buying—the cost to the planet. Clutter is so often presented as something that we’re just dealing with in our individual domestic spaces, which is understandable. That’s the stuff we see. But the things that come into your house come from somewhere, they’re made by somebody, and they have to go somewhere. And there are a lot of—there are some things about capitalism that are not so bad, but one of the worst things is this idea that to keep the economic wheels turning, we have to keep consuming stuff. And a lot of that stuff is no longer necessary or even useful. It’s bought on the spur of the moment. It’s bought in too-large quantities because it’s cheaper to buy fifty pens in bulk, rather than the two pens that you actually need.
So people who design things—some of them have some incentive to create things that are going to fade away, break, wear out, so that you get to buy more things. And that’s not a good way to run an economy. There are a lot of systemic failures and problems here, far beyond the clutter that comes to rest in your house and mine.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: In terms of getting rid of clutter, we’ve also seen sort of the rise of the professional organizer. I actually had one come to my house—a really good friend of mine is an organizer—and came and helped me basically do some purging. Honestly, it was a godsend. She kind of helped with the emotional labor that comes with getting rid of clutter. So can you talk about professional organizers and also this sort of emotional lever that is also involved?
JENNIFER HOWARD: Right, and this brings up gender again because most professional organizers—in this country anyway—are female. I went to a meeting of my local chapter of professional organizers, and it was ninety-five percent female. And in interviews, it was confirmed that this was not atypical. And with women often doing—I know emotional labor is a phrase that gets misused. I may be misusing it here. But the idea that women are caretakers, right? That we take care of people and objects. And personal organizers are taking care of both people and objects at the same time. Because what they’re really doing is helping—they’re not going to come in and—the stuff is really not their focus, in a way, even though they’re helping you set up a system for your files or your books or whatever it is, and they’re helping you figure out what to get rid of. But really, they’re working with you, not your stuff. It’s working with you and your feelings about your things, why you may have trouble getting rid of things, or figuring out why you can’t make decisions about your things. So a lot of it is therapy, essentially.
And it is tough work. I think it’s easy for some people to dismiss it, but that’s really not fair. These organizers are really doing a very empathetic and kind thing when they do it well, and many of them really do do it well.
They’re also monetizing that traditional set of female skills, which I really came to admire. These are very entrepreneurial people who are faced with workplaces often that are not particularly kind to their demographic, whatever it is. Or, that are not—again, back when we used to go to offices—sort of the nine-to-five schedules were not very friendly to people who had families or caretaking responsibilities or just wanted a better balance. And if you can set up shop as an organizer, you can schedule jobs that you want to take, when you can take them. So it’s an interesting set of solutions to some very pernicious problems.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: We have a question which kind of goes into what we’re talking about—the emotional labor—which a viewer is asking, “Can we please talk about the guilt associated with getting rid of stuff?”
JENNIFER HOWARD: Yes. I feel that question very keenly. If you are a thoughtful person, you realize that you buy something—it comes from somewhere, it has to go somewhere. And you’ve also invested time and money in these objects. Sometimes they’ve been given to you by friends or relatives, and those relationships mean something to you. We all know not every gift is going to be exactly well matched to the recipient. I could think of several examples from recent Christmases and birthdays or whatever. But you feel guilty—it’s understandable—you feel guilty because someone who has value in your life—someone who means something to you—has given you something, and you get rid of it. And that feels like an injury to that person. That is one of the hardest things and one of the reasons—there’s a great phrase that a therapist once shared with me: clutter is deferred decisions. I can’t deal with the emotional labor. I just can’t deal with it now; I’ll figure it out later. And sometimes the thing that’s keeping you from making that decision about an object is the emotional entanglements that it represents.
And I think learning to accept that if you give away the ugly sweater that Great Aunt Agatha lovingly gave you, you are not getting rid of your relationship with Great Aunt Agatha. It doesn’t mean you don’t love her. You can appreciate the thought behind the gift and recognize that it’s just not a good fit for you in your life. But maybe it’s going to go on and have a life somewhere else, which would be great, and maybe Aunt Agatha would be okay. Maybe she never needs to know. It’s the emotion behind the things that really is almost always the hang-up.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: It really is. So I have to say when I had Melissa Klug, who’s in your book actually—the organizer—help me, and the biggest thing she helped me do was to purge my books. And I know that’s a horrible idea, probably, to people who are watching this because they love books. But I was simply out of space. And there was also emotion attached to them because they are part of my history, part of my life. And so having to make those decisions was difficult. And she was able to help me figure out what was important, what do I need now. But then also, just like the physical labor of moving all that stuff around—that was really helpful too. Thank you, Melissa.
JENNIFER HOWARD: I know. I’ve seen your library. I know it’s extensive, as it should be. Once you learn to start letting go of some things, it can get easier, and it doesn’t feel as scary sometimes when you have subsequent—you know, our material lives are full of things that come and go, right? All of us come and go, ultimately, not to get too morbid about it. But there’s not really a stasis, even if you hang on to everything you ever had.
My mother is a great example of that. She accumulated so much, and in the end, it didn’t help her at all. Nor did she get to make any meaningful decisions about it. Which again, the process of letting go can actually—you actually get something back from it, depending on how you are able to do it. If you have a chance to go through your books, for example, and you kind of revisit scholarly projects, professional accomplishments, topics that were fascinating to you—you get that back. You get those memories and that knowledge refreshed, even if you end up getting rid of the book.
And most of the things that we get rid of can also be replaced. If you really needed one of those books, chances are there’s a library somewhere in the world who could produce a copy for you, right? Especially now with e-books and audiobooks and digital facsimiles. Now if it’s marginalia that you took in that book, that’s unique to you, and maybe you’ll keep a book that has that kind of connection.
But I think once you start looking at things as—we are adrift in a sea of things. If it all becomes flotsam and jetsam, is it really doing you or anybody else any good? And when I was cleaning out—I’m maybe drifting here—but when I was cleaning out my mother’s house, one of the things that really helped me was to find meaningful homes for things that I couldn’t use, that she couldn’t use. And there was a sort of healing. There can be a healing quality to deaccessioning things when you feel you are sending them back into the world to be of some good to somebody.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: I feel that too because I have no problem passing on a piece of furniture to someone for free. I’m like I don’t need it anymore; could you use it? And I just feel like I’m giving it a home, and I’m pushing it out there, and it has another use, and it feels good to share that.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Yeah.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: So we have a question, which is something that you and I have both struggled with. But how do you recommend starting conversations with aging parents about getting rid of things and downsizing?
JENNIFER HOWARD: Such a good question and a hard one to answer because every situation—the problem is very, very common and really a collective problem—each situation is going to be individual. And it can be very difficult. Again, this is where a personal organizer might be able to help.
I did not ever find a way to do that with my mother. I made some attempts as things were leading up to her crisis, and I never was able to open that conversation. I think it was just too scary for her. And it’s scary for a lot of people because it requires confronting change and mortality.
Some strategies you could consider, depending on your situation—and a lot of it depends on the relationship you have with the person in question. Is it a trusting relationship, a loving relationship—are there emotional minefields you need to be sidestepping? But, you know, tell me about your books. Tell me about this china from my grandmother. Tell me where that came from. Was this somebody’s wedding present or something? That’s an interesting story. Where do you think—you know, do you think this is something that the family should preserve? Do you want it to go to some—you know, is there someone you feel would be a great recipient for it? Sometimes you can find some openings.
You can also appeal to their sense of parental or familial responsibility. Like you know if you’re not around to deal with your stuff, I’m going to have to do it. Or my brothers and I or whoever. And do you want us to make these decisions for you, or would you rather make the decisions yourself? Would your life be easier if you had a little less—you know—if there were a little less stuff kind of getting in your way. So much depends on the person and their circumstances and your emotional history with that person. But don’t let them not deal with it, if at all possible. Again, it can be a healing process.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: The Swede—talking about the Swede death cleaning, where you—
JENNIFER HOWARD: Swedish death cleaning, yeah. I have that over here somewhere, yeah. Some of you on the chat have probably read this. This is a book called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, and it’s by a Swedish woman who talks about the practice there of people going through their things and getting rid of them, passing them on, or just in a very positive way coming to terms with a lifetime of accumulation of stuff. It’s a quick read, it’s a fun read, and it’s a nice sort of humane take on what I think, in this culture, is often treated as a really bad thing. Like, oh, it’s the end of everything.
But this book, it kind of puts it back in context of having a full life—a life that may be full of things. And that there are ways to find new lives for things and get to appreciate your time with them and your life in general. Maybe you don’t sail anymore, but you find your gear from your sailing days, and you can relive what might be a really nice chapter to relive.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: We also have a question about—for you, Jen. Can you speak about how so much clutter is aspirational and how to give up those dreams?
JENNIFER HOWARD: Oh, clutter is aspirational.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: I think this could be framed in terms of you start a hobby, and it turns out you don’t actually do it. Or perhaps you are not that person anymore, but that stuff is still part of you, and it’s still part of a dream.
JENNIFER HOWARD: So to get rid of whatever it is, you have to perhaps mourn the fact that either you didn’t end up getting to whatever it was, or you are done with it. But again, you could celebrate that you gave it a shot, that it mattered to you. And again, chances are if you ever really decide to take up that hobby again, there would be resources available to you to do that. Yeah, I don’t know. Life is full of fits and starts. Not everything is going to be a gallery of accomplishments, and you can look at it as a series of experiments. I tried that; it wasn’t maybe for me, or I didn’t have time. And that’s okay if I get rid of it, whatever it is. Maybe it makes more room for me to do another thing I’m ready to do now.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: That’s partly where the guilt comes in too, because I bought this stuff, and I haven’t used it, and now I feel guilty about spending it. But now it’s all clutter because it doesn’t have the same kind of—it’s sort of that cycle.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Right. There’s that monetary investment as well as the investment of time and space. If there’s one message I would hope people would take away from this conversation and from the book, it’s that we all need to be kinder to ourselves about this stuff and set aside some of these—you know, the guilt, the shame. Whether it’s looking at people who live in extreme hoarding situations and shaming them for it, or in our own lives saying, “I wasted money on that, gosh I can’t get rid of that—that’s perfectly good—I’ll feel bad if I get rid of it.” Well, if it’s not useful to you, it’s okay. Everybody has struggles, and stuff should only take up so much of your mental as well as your physical space. It’s okay to let go. It does not mean that all your interests are over or that you won’t have—maybe you’re giving it to somebody else who will actually go and make use of it, and that is actually a good investment, too.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: Someone—we have a question from Facebook about what is the line between “this may come in handy someday” and hoarding.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Oh, gosh, yeah.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: We brought up this issue, that it made sense when people had fewer objects, to hang on to something, and you might not be able to have access to it later. And this is also a Depression-era thing, where that generation really holds on to things because circumstances demanded that everything you had was very prized.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Yeah. Well, there is no bright line, I think, between something that might become useful and a hoarding situation. It is a slippery slope, though. It’s not a line. It is hard to get rid of things that are still useful. Honestly, I still feel bad that I put rubber bands in the trash—whatever it is. They’re very tiny things, but they’re still perfectly good, right? These days, all the takeout food and delivery that we get. Every takeout food order seems to come up with the wrapped-up utensil set and the packets of soy sauce or hot pepper or whatever it is. And those are all perfectly good things, but you stick them in a drawer or in a bag, and then they just sit there and you don’t want to throw them out because they could be useful, right?
So again, we’re sort of, as individuals, coming up against this collective excess that is built in. This culture of convenience is creating too many microdecisions for us. You also can sometimes nip it in the bud by telling the person who takes your order on the phone, you know, I don’t need the utensils, I don’t need the soy sauce, or whatever it is. But it’s hard, and that’s extra work, too.
Again, try not to feel too guilty if you throw out perfectly good things. Maybe that’s the best option for you. And most things that you think you might need someday, you’re going to be able to find again. If I need rubber bands, I can probably go find them somewhere. And I do still have a little jar of rubber bands. I don’t throw them all out. But, we can think about being both easier on ourselves and more mindful of the choices we are making in our daily lives, and how we can nip some clutter in the bud anyway, and maybe be a little kinder to our wallets and to the planet in the process.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: So I am going to combine two things together. We have a question about how younger generations aren’t really interested in old stuff and antiques. But at the same time, there’s also this culture of people who go thrifting and who collect stuff and how there’s also this culture on Instagram—so sort of the generational cycles about the utility of stuff. We were also talking about the rise of what they call “the grandmillennial,” which is a millennial who likes to collect china and monogrammed napkins and chintz and the things that their grandparents valued, but their parents did not have.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Right, right. The shifting aesthetics of clutter are fascinating to me, and they are always shifting. It is also important to acknowledge that while there are some generational trends, not everybody in any given generation is going to feel the same way about certain kinds of things. I think there’s probably always been people who would love to get grandma’s china, even though the predominant aesthetic for several decades now really has been minimalist, and sort of very spare, not so personalized rooms. But there are always people who are going to have some countervailing impulses. I think the pandemic is changing some of this, or bringing us up against our stuff in some interesting ways. Some of these trends will be shifting again. You know, “cluttercore,” hashtag cluttercore [#Cluttercore]—so people are embracing a more maximal aesthetic. Maybe they’re glad now that they stuck that craft project in the back of the closet, because they now have time or some kind of need to pull it out again. Cozy interiors—that sort of thing. If you’re stuck at home, you want to have a comforting space, especially in the middle of a pandemic and the deep kind of political unrest that we’ve seen.
Some of it is also age. Maybe an item that you’d reject when you’re twenty will look interesting to you when you’re forty, as you get more interested in family history. I’m very interested to see, on the other side of this pandemic, how people deal with their spaces and what sorts of aesthetics we’re going to be seeing kind of rise to the top. The new maximalism is another one. That’s an Instagram fad. And they’re sometimes described as Victorian spaces. I don’t know if that’s really fair to Victorians. But there is that sense of a lot of color and a lot of pattern. And you don’t have one picture on the wall; you have a wall full of pictures.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: We have a question that kind of relates to that, that goes back to the shame issue that we spoke about before, which is, “How do you help someone who has tens of thousands of dollars of stuff and is stuck, because giving it away seems shameful, but selling it is not realistic?” Can you talk a little bit about what your research found about ways to get rid of stuff? Or creative ways that people do that?
JENNIFER HOWARD: Yeah, it sounds like a hard situation. I’m sorry you’re facing that. It’s thorny, isn’t it? If you can find—this is where professionals may be helpful, whether it’s a personal organizer or—depending on the situation—you can monetize some of it with estate sales. You don’t have to be dead to have an estate sale—if it’s important to the person to get some monetary value back from their stuff. But maybe it’s a matter of just finding good homes. As I discovered when I had to figure out what to do with all my mother’s stuff, it’s not easy. Especially these days, there’s just so much stuff that is being discarded, and there aren’t enough places for it to go. Or at least not easily found places. Each category of things, whether it’s books or furniture or clothes or smaller household goods, you may need to find a different home. If it’s really high-end stuff like high-quality furniture, I think there are services that do specialize in helping resell and get some value back. Just be prepared for a lot of time and labor, which is also a luxury many people don’t have. I think it’s another set of issues when we talk about clutter and decluttering.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: So we’re getting close to the end, and I’m going to take this final question because I think it’s an interesting one to end on—which is someone is asking, “Are there ethnic, racial, or regional tendencies in terms of clutter? Did your research uncover any of that?” And they also asked about, internationally, do people in other countries have the clutter problem?
JENNIFER HOWARD: I would love to have more data to answer both those questions with. In talking to psychiatrists and social health workers—mental health workers—who work with people who either have hoarding disorder or struggle with clutter, it is not something that is limited by gender or by socioeconomic status. It can afflict people at the bottom of the economic ladder; it can afflict people at the top. You think of the famous example of the Collyer brothers, who are probably the most famous American hoarders. These are brothers who grew up in Harlem, from a very wealthy family, good educations, lots of opportunities in life, and they both died in the brownstone that they had lived in for a long time. They were people who were very privileged in life. So it can happen to anybody.
If you have a lot of money, you tend to be able to hire people to help you deal with it. If you don’t have very much money, it’s harder to find any kind of help really for whatever problems you may be confronting.
And as someone mentioned, the planned obsolescence. It is easy to buy a lot of stuff without a lot of money. You can go and buy—some of the big box stores, they have their uses. But you can buy a lot of stuff without much money, in terms of volume. And you can also pick up stuff—curbside treasures or go to Goodwill or whatever it is.
As far as gender, it’s actually—even though we’ve talked about women being the ones who often are charged with dealing with clutter, men are just as prone—maybe even a little more so statistically—to finding themselves in the kind of situation my mother found herself in.
I have less of a clear picture of racial and ethnic differences—what they may or may not be. I really do think it is a problem of humans in an affluent, consumer society, whoever those humans may be. But that said, people of course have different cultural traditions. They come from maybe traditions of passing on things—or not—that may change their circumstances.
Around the world—well, Marie Kondo comes from Japan. We didn’t even talk about her.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: Why don’t we finish up by talking about her? I will say that Marie Kondo—you can be certified as Marie Kondo organizer. And there are certified organizers in almost all the European countries—and obviously Japan and the United States. So we are clearly all dealing with stuff. But let’s talk about Marie. We do actually have a little more time. Not only the process but also thanking—thanking a good for its service. Thank you for a useful life.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Yes, I am not a Marie Kondo hater. I know she has been the subject of many op-eds and columns and tweets and everything else. I mean, I’m not a Marie Kondo follower. I did try KonMari-ing my clothes, which sort of worked. But I didn’t get around to doing the rest of the stuff.
And what I really like about her—and again, touching on shame—she brings a kindness to this process and to these very difficult questions and problems that people face, that I think had been lacking in many quarters—particularly in America with the reality TV shows and this sort of tradition of, “Oh my god, this is horrible, you can’t live like this.” And I don’t know what she thinks when she walks into somebody’s very messy house, but she’s unfailingly kind and humane and really invites people to take a breath and look at their stuff in a calmer way—and maybe appreciate it a little more—which I think has been a really necessary set of qualities that has been missing from a lot of this conversation.
And what’s interesting to me is—so what she’s doing on a very popular, entrepreneurial level—is a similar turn to what the mental health profession has made. For example, understanding that these are—that maybe a little more kindness, and looking at the person rather than the problem, is the way to go. The focus has generally been on the problem, not the person who’s suffering from the problem. And so I think Kondo has brought a little bit of that humanity into the process.
MEREDITH HINDLEY: Well, I think this is a really great place to stop, to talk about bringing humanity to your life. So if you’re dealing with clutter, I think the message that comes from Jen’s book is to be more accepting of yourself and also of the people in your life who are perhaps prone to clutter.
So I’d like to thank everyone for joining us today. Thank you to the Virginia Festival of the Book for hosting both of us and this chat. Please—Jennifer’s book is available at your local bookstore. Signed copies are available from East City Books in Washington D.C. They’ll be happy to get you a copy. Also, it’s also available at your local public library.
Please check out the further Shelf Life events that are on every Thursday—although this is a special Tuesday edition—and we thank you for joining us. Thank you very much, and until next time.
JENNIFER HOWARD: Thanks, everybody.