Health & Family

Hoarding: One man’s struggle to clean up his house

Barry Yourgrau, a fiction writer and performer, at his uncluttered apartment in New York in August. Yourgrau, a reformed hoarder, has written a book about his experience, “Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act.”
Barry Yourgrau, a fiction writer and performer, at his uncluttered apartment in New York in August. Yourgrau, a reformed hoarder, has written a book about his experience, “Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act.” NYT

Barry Yourgrau collects shopping bags and stationery from grand hotels, cocktail napkins and coasters from European cafes and more esoteric souvenirs like sponge shoe polishers, a calendar put out by Italian policemen, a tissue-paper Day of the Dead banner tucked inside a Mexican newspaper and soccer club scarves. His girlfriend, Anya von Bremzen, is a food writer who travels half the year for her work and Yourgrau, a fiction writer and performer, accompanies her on all her trips, so he’s been able to feed his collection with a constant stream of new treasures.

With an apartment in Istanbul, and two apartments between them in New York, theirs would seem to be a charmed life: togetherness on the road, and back home, two habitats within a few blocks of each other to stretch out in - his one-bedroom, which he uses as an office, with all his treasures and clothing, and her one-bedroom, where they sleep, eat and entertain. His-and-her stuff, in his-and-her apartments. What could be better?

Then one day in 2010, von Bremzen stopped by Yourgrau’s apartment, and he refused to let her in. His collection had grown weird over the years, and all the lovely, cheerful souvenirs had been joined by dozens of empty cardboard boxes, broken suitcases, old typewriters, dirty clothes and drifts of plastic bags. Von Bremzen’s ultimatum - to clean up or lose her - and his effort, largely successful, to do so are the basis for his hoarder memoir. “Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act,” is out this month from W.W. Norton & Co.

On a recent afternoon, Yourgrau, 66, showed off his still-tidy apartment, the living room of which was edged with tables topped with brightly colored fabric and his carefully arranged collections. These display tables made the place look more like a curiosity shop or an oddball museum - the Queens version of Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence - than someone’s dwelling.

“What I’ve realized is I’m a kind of subcollector,” Yourgrau said. “What happens is I buy something, and it slides out of use. I immediately turn it into an art object and then it looks so good I don’t want to use it.” On a Post-it note on the wall above his desk, one of many stuck there, he has written: “Everything a delayed decision.”

Hoarders, like collectors, see patterns and connections in their objects that the rest of us miss. Hoarding was officially deemed a mental illness in 2013, when it made its way into the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. An inability to throw things away is its chief symptom. It’s more prevalent in Western societies, where access to goods is unfettered and the shopping opportunities are limitless.

Hoarding may be jump-started by trauma, or be a byproduct of depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. But not always. There may be identity issues at work.

“If I throw away too much, there'll be nothing left of me,” says “Irene,” whose story is one of the case histories collected in that hoarder’s bible, “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things,” co-written by Randy Frost, professor of psychology at Smith College and the disorder’s chief apologist and chronicler.

It took three years for Yourgrau to shed his hoardery ways - to let go of the bags and boxes - and he did it by turning himself into a project: He attended self-help groups, like Clutterers Anonymous, with tragicomic results (one meeting is held in semidarkness, because no one can figure out how to on turn the lights); he took photos of his piles topped with his signature on a piece of white paper, like the artwork “made” by Italian conceptualist Piero Manzoni; he invited Corinne May Botz, a photographer who has been documenting extreme hoarders, to take pictures, too. This step backfired slightly: When Botz asked him for a souvenir from his collections, as is her habit with her hoarding subjects, Yourgrau was unable to part with the sponge shoe polisher she requested.

Yougrau had a peripatetic childhood. That constant motion may have factored into his adult habits. He was born in South Africa, and his family moved to the United States when he was 10. They moved often, to follow the career of his European-born father, a theoretical physicist who trained under Einstein and Schroedinger, and a professor of history and philosophy of science.

In 7 1/2 years, Yourgrau and his brothers lived in seven houses and attended five schools. Yourgrau’s father, an overbearing presence, died in 1979, but his ghost continued to haunt Yourgrau, lurking in a stack of unopened boxes of books in his apartment. But it was when von Bremzen had a cancer scare that Yourgrau’s environment slid into chaos. Not that she knew anything about it, von Bremzen said recently.

“There was never a need to go there, because it was his workplace,” she said of the apartment. “So I was really shocked. When we travel, Barry is the neat one. He folds his T-shirts. Even his fiction is spare and short and very articulated.”

Last summer, when Yourgrau and von Bremzen were traveling in Copenhagen, there was a flood in her apartment and many of her belongings were destroyed. Von Bremzen was unfazed, she said.

“There is no single thing in my house that it would break my heart to lose. But if it happened to Barry, if he lost his napkins, he would just be totally traumatized.”