We went to England to meet Richard Wallace, whose home is a veritable hoarding Valhalla: ghastly, derelict, oppressive—aesthetically astounding and weirdly cozy.
What differentiates a collector from a hoarder? Both passionately accumulate objects; both are intensely attached to them. Indeed, consumer sociologist Russell Belk notes that collectors see their collections as extensions of themselves, and suffer as acutely as any declutter-resistant hoarder if these are lost or destroyed. Objects serve as a means of comfort, even as repairers of damaged egos.
Collecting, however, is considered respectable behavior, while hoarding resides in the shadows of pathology. The collector is an empowered soul, showing selectivity, a focused ordering sense, and a decisiveness in acquiring. Even if, as Belk again notes, collectors will call themselves (smilingly) victims of a madness, an addiction. But they're proud of their objects, proud to display them to others. And they engage with their acquisitions—handling them, admiring them, researching their histories. They will let go of something to acquire another that better serves the theme, and needs, of their collection.
Hoarders amass without selectivity. They have no compunction about owning multiples of the same thing, as opposed to unique items to complete a set. They don't take public pride in what they have, are generally burdened and shamed. They don't display their objects to others, and they don't engage with their acquisitions themselves in more than a perfunctory way. They don't take care of their things, but they can't part with them, however miserable the state they're in. Their accumulations take over their disorderly living spaces, which become unfit to be properly used, or even accessible. Hoarders are powerless before their possessions; there's an inertness to them—both hoarder and hoard.
Of course, there can be overlaps between collecting and hoarding; gray areas. The line of separation isn't always bright.
The reflections above came to mind as I sat talking to Nicho (short for Nicholas) Lowry. A friend of a friend, whom I'd known slightly some years before, Nicho is president of his family's Manhattan auction house. He's also a veteran onscreen appraiser for PBS's Antiques Roadshow, conspicuous in his riotous three-piece plaid outfits. Initially, I'd contacted him hoping that as a member of the National Arts Club, he might have an angle on Aldon James Jr., the NAC's embattled former head, who was much in the news with his twin brother, John, for their scandalous hoarding at the venerable club. Yes, Nicho told me when we met for lunch, he'd run across Aldon many times at flea markets—was amusedly wary of him. But he'd never seen the twins' infamous hoards.
But as for hoarding as such, said Nicho, "You're talking to the right guy!"
A "self-diagnosed class-two hoarder" was what Nicho called himself. The scale was his own, from one up to five. "Clutteritis," he dubbed his condition.
Nicho was a huge fan of the Hoarders series on TV. "When I started watching with my then girlfriend," he told me, "she said, 'This show is all about you!' I said, 'I'm not a hoarder!' She said, 'You're a hoarder— how many ballpoint pens do you have ?'"
About 400, it turned out.
"She asked, why didn't I get rid of some of them, then? I said, OK, I will!"
It took Nicho about six weeks, going through all the pens—from airlines, from hotels—each with a little story to tell, a memory to reignite and tug. Eventually he had to cram pens by the handful into bags and run them down to the trash room in the middle of the night so he wouldn't change his mind. He now had less than 50.
I said I found the hoarding shows too awful to watch. I'd seen a brief excerpt or two; they struck me as exploitative freak fests. "One of the leading brain researchers of hoarding," I noted, "Sanjaya Saxena, told me he feels the same way. He used to go on them as an expert, but he refuses now. They won't yield air time to how proper treatment works."
Nicho shrugged. For him Hoarders struck a chord. He said he could relate to the mom crying "when her kids tried to get her to toss her thirty thousand unread magazines."
To be accurate, Nicho qualified, he had hoarding tendencies. He wasn't crippled by them. Indeed, he assured me, "People come to my house all the time." His personal style was, simply, maximalist.
And unlike me, Nicho was a serious art collector, building with his auctioneer father the finest collection of Czech posters outside museums. In my mind he began to loom as a distinctive bridge figure: collector and sub-hoarder; connoisseur on Antiques Roadshow and fan of hoarding TV.
We arranged to watch a show together at his place. As we parted he told me people's reaction to his apartment was a litmus test. "I consider my surroundings a manifestation of my internal world," he declared. "This is what my head is like, this is what my place is like." He didn't regard his "clutteritis" as negative—a problem that needed curing. He thought what made people hoarders (of his scale) made them more interesting.
"The Happy Hoarder," I told him. "That's you!"
Nicho lives in an art deco building around the corner from the National Arts Club. His place was maximalist, all right.
The small crowded main room was part English men's club (handsome old leather sofa, a coat rack piled with hats, some dry-cleaned shirts, and a cricket-style striped jacket draped on a café chair), part curiosity shop (a huge sculpted eyeball staring from its high spindly pedestal), part art dealer-collector's lair (a speed-swept Czech art deco poster of a motorbiker on the wall, a portrait of Lenin propped on the floor).
"This house is pervaded with an ADD outlook," said Nicho. "It's meant to hold my attention."
Nicho's place was more object-crowded than mine, for sure. But conspicuously, it was clean—a maid came every two weeks. It also seemed object -happy. Nicho engaged with his things. He'd actively acquired them, and they gave him pleasure. "Surrounded by the objects he possesses," wrote cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, "the collector is preeminently the sultan of a... seraglio."
After I peeked into his petite kitchen (fridge door tree-barked with stickers, magnets, and notes), and admired his display of restaurant and bar matchbooks in the artwork-crowded hall, we settled on his leather seating with popcorn and a bottle of Alsatian Sylvaner to watch a hoarding TV show.
In the picturesque tony village of Westcott outside London, a three-bedroom bungalow and garden were engulfed by hoarding so extreme the mass was visible on Google Earth. To enter and exit his home, the owner had to wriggle body-length right under the ceiling on top of his piles. It took him 40 minutes to get from room to room.
Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder , the show was called—a TV documentary I'd come across and brought along about "Britain's Most Extreme Hoarder," a man named Richard Wallace.
"Awesome!" cried Nicho. "Terrifying!"
Richard Wallace lived—"existed," as he put it—in a couple of burrows within the debris of old newspapers and grocery packaging. We watched him cook his daily arduous supper of two boiled eggs on a gas stove he lit by scraping a match amid towering flammable walls of stuff. He slept in a chair.
"Definitely more intense than the American shows," offered Nicho. "I don't think Hoarders ever had such a fortress of a house."
A kindly local landscape gardener delightfully named Andy Honey broke through the village's standoffish hostility to the hoarder and his monstrous clutter in their picturesque midst. Andy helped Richard start on the long road to decluttering. He got others to pitch in on the junk-buried front yard.
Thirty tons of rubbish were hauled off.
A lot more remained, though. Richard wept quietly on camera now, registering his situation.
"On an American show," said Nicho, "they'd have him freaking out."
"My message to anybody thinking of collecting things," said Richard Wallace: "Don't."
Under the big staring eyeball sculpture, Nicho and I exchanged a look.
An only child and village loner, Richard Wallace became a hoarding celebrity thanks to the documentary, which aired on Britain's Channel 4 right before Christmas 2011. More than 4 million viewers had tuned in. There'd been a sequel doc since, and Australian and German TV had come to film. Major London papers had run profiles.
Richard had lived all his life in his family's bungalow and adjoining semidetached four-bedroom house (into which Andy Honey and his family had moved after decluttering it). His father, Maurice, was a bus driver and traffic warden; his mother, Freda, worked at the grocery store nearby, owned by her father, Frederick Balchin. Richard had inherited not only the two houses he crammed with his stuff but five similarly crammed garages. Overall property value: an estimated 1 million pounds. For a time Richard held a job as a TV repairman. During the last years of his mother's life, he was subsidized by the government as her full-time carer in the bungalow. Since her passing, he delivered newspapers in the village, rising at 6 AM daily. He'd never married, never had a girlfriend, had no real friends.
As a child Richard collected Dinky toy cars (he still had some of them). But his proper collecting began as a teen with Practical Electronics magazine (he still had the copies). Following the death in 1976 of his father—a man who liked to throw things out—he began seriously archiving papers and magazines, keeping them "tucked away" in piles in various rooms. But a year's worth of papers would stack to the ceiling. It didn't take long to accumulate a roomful. His mother kept things more or less in control. Once she died in 2005, at age 91, his hoarding became "ungoverned."
And then, in 2010, a young documentary filmmaker, Christian Trumble, sought him out after seeing him patronized in a TV interview after he won a legal victory over the local county council's attempt to make him clean up his hoarding. And then Andy Honey entered the picture.
The commuter train pulled into Dorking, a picturesque market town in Surrey adjacent to picturesque Westcott village. It was four months later. My girlfriend Meddy had wangled us a three-week apartment exchange in London.
Andy Honey rumbled up in his old work van, his shorts spattered with grass from a neighborly chore. He was no longer a gardener, though. He'd become a hoarding advisor.
We turned off in Westcott by a pub, the Prince of Wales, and then we walked over to where a figure was standing in a cluttered yard by a brilliantly white plastic tent. The tent was the size for a small wedding.
"Mr. Wallace, I presume?" I announced genially, trying not to beam at my good fortune.
He looked like he did on TV—a mothier, gentler, more bald cousin of the old hambone horror-film star John Carradine. His face was nobly craggy-nosed and a bit skull-like. He wore an old green zippered cardigan over a grayish checkered shirt, and black pants. He was about my age. Not as gaunt as on TV—he'd been eating more than two eggs a day.
Andy left us to get on, and Richard led the way into the notorious brick bungalow.
Those astounding ceiling-high masses in the documentary I'd seen, figments of a claustrophobic subterranean bad dream, were reduced now. Meaning we could edge along a goat path through the clutter and shambles. Stacks of newspapers loomed just at shoulder height, topped with magazines, bottles, cartons, grocery packaging. We reached the kitchen where Richard used to so precariously scratch a match for his stove. He stood by, smiling demurely but hospitably as I tried not to gape.
"Wow," I gulped.
I'd never been anywhere like it. I was, at last, in hoarding Valhalla: ghastly, derelict, oppressive, aesthetically astounding, most piles and surfaces grayed with dust. But with a weird mundane coziness—because someone was living in all this. Had been for years. I recalled how Richard had reminded a TV interviewer: "An Englishman's home is his castle."
And the smell. At first I panicked, thinking I couldn't bear it. It didn't "reek"; it was high-pitched and punky, intimately piercing. Like the whole place was one long-moldering ancient intimate flesh.
I followed Richard as he went edging along a short narrow hallway into his main living area. It was formerly his parents' bedroom.
Another saucer-eyed "Wow."
Amid once cozily-papered walls, their pale leafy pattern streaked here, blotched there, a giant high mudslide of consumerist stuff appeared to have churned to a precarious, hodgepodge halt. The indoor hillside was made up— in part—of:
Old manuals and books (CLASSIC CARS, blared a spine; Richard was an avid car buff), old newspapers and magazines, VHS cartridges; high up, a jutting big cardboard carton for Miele (the vacuum-cleaner maker; did he own one?); farther down, uncovered smaller cartons, saggy and crammed, bearing tilted advertising logos—"Dell," "Free-Range Eggs," "Vine-Ripened Insecticide Free"; a couple of clunky pillows and alarm clocks; a Kellogg's Corn Flakes box, Weetabix box, Lyons French Sponge Sandwich box; bulky manila folders, clumps of sheets of paper; garish packaging for various Nestlé candies and cakes...
Buried underneath all this somewhere were the old beds, Richard informed me. A slovenly office chair was pressed against the mudslide; a wooden board, inserted into the mass, served as a desktop. The chair was piled now with condiment jars, soft-drink bottles, and a sack of something. The chair would be cleared for sleeping.
"And what's this?"
My gaze had fallen on another section of the hillside, where perched a crumb-scattered brass tray. On this gleamed Richard's white double eggcup, a poignant icon from the TV show I'd watched; one branch held the remnants of a brown eggshell. Alongside this eggy ensemble lay a dove-gray banana-like thing, frail and mysterious, almost surreal.
I pointed wonderingly.
Richard sniffed. "An old piece of bread," he informed me.
"Ah..." I said. For want of what else to say. (How long could it have been there?)
Now I noticed, by the tray, as if on display on the lid of a box for baked goods, some spindly swervy wads of dark hair, like oversized trout-fishing flies.
"You keep locks of your hair?" I piped lightly—hoping I wasn't leering or intruding on some awkward privacy.
"No, no," said Richard—slightly awkwardly—"it's a sample for comparison—of hair color."
(He dyed his hair?) I nodded. Feeling I'd intruded.
But then wasn't that what I was after? My own mini-version of the hoarder reality shows' prying voyeurism? My own fascination with the lurid spectacle that was extreme hoarding? Because in a way, a hoarded space was as gothic and gruesomely fascinating as a horror-movie set—one constructed by an outsider artist, a troubled soul. I admit I found something spooky and Poe-like, even mad, about extreme hoarders. How then wasn't I like Helen Worden, the journalist who'd hounded the famous hoarder-hermit Collyer brothers of yore? Or like today's hoarder TV? Contaminated by a contemporary popular culture that gorged on voyeurism.
But then, as a callow reporter after college, I'd often felt like a voyeur, a creep and intruder, whenever I had to interview people in trouble or in crisis. Ringing up a house for an obituary. In other words, doing my job.
So who was I, really? How did people feel when they entered my place? Did I want to experience the "phenomenology" of extreme hoarding as an inquiring observer or to intimately compare myself against a true big-timer, to sound out our solidarities, find fellowship and insight? Or did I expect revulsion to distance me—or scare me into cleaning? Every time I hauled out my iPad gallery, I had a tangled agenda. I both wanted acknowledgement (yes, a hoarding problem!) and reassuring denial (not full-blown hoarding). And here with Richard, was I using the role of writer-interviewer really as a nervous shield, to keep the sufferer similarities at less painful arm's length?
My ponderings were interrupted by Richard asking if I wanted to see more.
We resumed the house tour. Edging back along the way we'd come, I glanced at a dim room inaccessible for boxes heaped toward the ceiling.
Was it hard, I asked, deciding what to keep or throw?
Yes, if such decisions were thrust upon him. "But if I'm geared up to deal with something collectively," he declared, "then the decision comes quite easily. For example, I tend to hold on to packaging quite a lot."
I almost burst out hooting despite myself. "So I've noticed! " I replied good-naturedly.
"With a view to having one or two samples," Richard continued, unfazed, "because packaging changes. Manufacturers keep the price but reduce quantity, you're not supposed to notice it, but I do, because I compare. Not a lot of people do that." He was just being an exceptionally wily, thorough consumer, apparently. His aim was to have a couple samples of everything and put them into a scrapbook or scan them into a computer (though he didn't own one as yet). "Having done that," he concluded, "then I don't mind discarding en masse. Rather than disposing of them slowly."
So in a sense what he was doing was archiving, I offered. I paused to steer my shoulder bag around a jutting heap of papers and snap another photo.
"Yes, but only the sorts of things of interest to me."
"Do you find decision-making hard generally?" (I was interviewing clutteredly.)
It depended on the context, he said. "Right from a child or teenager, if I'd go into a shop and get confronted with a choice of two or three things, I'd usually end up with one of each."
"Do you collect things as such?"
To which Richard Wallace replied, "I principally regard myself as a collector rather than a hoarder."
He followed this astounding pronouncement, which I found quietly delusional—but which I knew was how many hoarders saw themselves—by noting that "various studies" had determined that once one's collection interfered with "domestic arrangements," then "of course" it became hoarding. The "of course" was a touch of pure-seeming rationality.
"And that's what happened to me," he admitted. "I literally ran out of space."
His voice suddenly rose at the existential absurdity. "You know you've got something," he cried, "but you can't find it because of the sheer scale of the stuff that gets in the way! So that's the same as not having it! Because of the sheer volume of the stuff! So it comes to same thing!"
"Water, water, everywhere," I quipped sympathetically, "nor any drop to drink." In my own lesser way, I knew the feeling. There was the gift certificate from Meddy and her mother I'd lost in the papery slush of my counters. The loss still stung.
"Absolutely right," said Richard. "The answer of course is to approach the problem logically and allocate a certain space for certain things."
That was his solution, then. Space, organization, and "shelving."
We edged around a claustrophobic corner, and then stopped because I wanted him to take my picture. I'd taken lots of him.
Then we entered his dingy bathroom.
The tub was cleared from the heaps I'd seen on TV, but it was filthy. The bathroom overall, though apparently in some use, was woebegone and derelict—wall tiles missing, wallpaper (where merry forest creatures cavorted) hanging in peels. The wooden lower panel of the bathroom door was warped and curling off. By the gross, grubby sink, another display of his locks sat beside two neat piles of rubber bands on a tall white carton for corn flakes. The display touched me: a small obsessive-aesthetic moment in the chaos. On the way out the cuffs of my jeans caught on the warped lower door panel and tore half of it right off.
"That's all right, all right," Richard murmured, waving off my embarrassed "Oh my God!"s.
Outside, the white tent stood glossily in what was, I now gathered, Richard's backyard. The tent housed "temporarily" a bulky load of Richard's beleaguered newspapers—the tabloid Daily Mail (he'd subscribed for 34 years) and more respectable Telegraph. All awaited "sorting out" with an eye to scanning—along with, naturally, heaps of packaging.
I pointed out that newspapers these days had searchable websites.
"That's quite true," Richard conceded calmly. "Lots of people have been pointing that out to me."
He hadn't yet accessed the websites himself, though.
At my request he dug around in the jumbles and brought out some of the photos he liked to take with his old-fashioned film camera. He held up those now bygone bearers of memories—unartful snapshots. The grocery-store refuse around us made a fit background to his mother as pictured, shown by the shelves of Balchin's Stores, the grocery shop Richard's grandfather once owned. It was still there a hundred yards away on the main road, under different management.
Whereupon the obvious penny dropped. Richard's packaging hoard was a tumultuous echo of the grocery store where he'd helped out as a child.
We walked across the road to meet Andy Honey at the Prince of Wales pub.
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The dim Prince of Wales we had to ourselves. Wimbledon was being blurrily projected on a wall. Above the bar hung a busted pink umbrella Richard and Andy had haggled over on television. A dozen potentially useful—i.e., broken—umbrellas remained in the bungalow.
Richard ordered an orange soda (he doesn't drink alcohol, coffee, or tea). Andy called for a pint (that jumbo English pint) of lager. I settled on a half-pint of real ale.
Andy is burly and cheerfully benevolent, a more keen-eyed, playful version of Winnie-the-Pooh. He's "good with people," you can tell. He's become a celeb himself, toasted by online forums for his kindness and fellow-concern for Richard. There's just been a play based on their friendship; they've gone up to Scarborough, the Yorkshire seaside resort, for a performance and appearance. Andy, who's 40, ran his own shipping business before the landscape gardening. He's given that up to be a full-time hoarding consultant. He's being paid to continue working with Richard, but is now also engaged with other clients as well.
"Andy's got his drawbacks," Richard commented to me on the phone before I came.
"He's got a different train of thought to me, a bit more ruthless with stuff. We start off with an ordinary civilized discussion, then it gets a little more heated. But we get by. He helps with a faster pace."
TV celebrity culture has proved good to the both of them, thanks in no small part to the sympathetic director, Trumble. Richard is the opposite of the secretive Collyers and the NAC's James twins. He welcomes cameras through his derelict door—seems almost proud of his hoarding. It's made him a public figure, and he basks in the attention. He's less private than I am! And there's a touching philosophical dignity and candor to him. He suggests an eccentric—that venerable English type—rather than someone disturbed. But that he can tolerate such a radical shambles—make his home in it—that's pretty unsettling.
But then look at what I was able to tolerate in my way.
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After debating the utility of keeping empty boxes on hand (Richard and I were both pro; Andy was against), the conversation wandered briefly to time travel, a pet interest of Richard's (he thinks Einstein got it wrong), then on to regular travel—of which Richard has done almost none. He's been on a plane exactly once.
Exactly being the word.
"Not a jet, a turbo-prop Viscount, with four engines, in 1965, from Gatwick."
"Richard's got a fair memory," grinned Andy.
And all at once I thought of Borges's short story, "Funes, the Memorious." A young gaucho, Funes, is blinded in an accident, after which he can recall everything he's ever seen or experienced—in hypermagnified detail. It's a wonder but a monstrous burden. Funes is engulfed by his excess of remembrance.
"My memory, sir," he complains, "is like a garbage heap." (My italics.)
The line leaped out when I read the story again recently. Isn't Richard with his memory, both mental and material (the archival heaps overwhelming his properties), a real-life cousin of poor memorious Funes?
Except the material has overtaxed Richard's memory capacity: He can't find things.
And then what about me, with my mementos of travel, my postcards, calendars, receipts from Tokyo eyeglass shops, old train tickets, foreign newspapers—all slushed about?
In my way I was part-Funes too.
Finally, it was time for my iPad show-and-tell.
"Low to moderate," Andy rated the photo gallery of my apartment's clutter at its worst.
Richard shrugged. "Looks normal," he murmured.
Waiting for my train back to London, Andy and I sat chatting in his van. I'd return in a week to accompany Richard to a new support group that Andy had helped launch. He'd grown to realize, he told me, that he—Andy, the former gardener—had a gift for aiding hoarders. The TV documentaries opened a new life to him. There were TV-series possibilities to explore; he now had an agent; the small decluttering company he'd joined had ambitions to expand on a national scale.
He'd come to Richard's aid initially out of sympathy for the underdog (the director Trumble did likewise). His empathy and sensitivity, he confided, were inspired by watching his mother's struggle with depression.
I told him I sympathized myself with the pain of depression. And that he and Trumble were striking a blow against the freak shows of reality TV.
And now I learned that somewhere deep in Richard's chaotic hoarded jumbles, there was—supposedly—a set of crucial financial documents. But where? That was one of the urgencies to all the decluttering and sorting underway. But it was slow-going with Richard, as ever with hoarders. Despite so many tons of stuff having already been removed, Andy had few illusions.
"It's five-year project," he said to me.
Barry Yourgrau's memoir of clutter and hoarding, Mess: One Man's Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act,will be published by W. W. Norton on August 10. This article is adapted from the chapter "The Notorious Bungalow."
Barry Yourgrau's books of stories include Wearing Dad's Headand The Sadness of Sex, in whose film version he starred. VICE previously published his " Three Gangster Fables" in the 2012 Fiction Issue. He lives in New York and Istanbul. His website is barryyourgrau.com.