Day after day, year after year, Patrice Moore received a load of mail—newspapers, magazines, books, catalogs, and random solicitations. Each day the 43-year-old recluse piled the new with the old, until floor-to-ceiling stacks of disorganized paper nearly filled his windowless 10-by-10-foot apartment in New York City. In late December, the avalanche came, and Moore was buried standing up. He stood alone for two days, until neighbors heard his muffled moaning. The landlord broke in with a crowbar; it took another hour for neighbors and firefighters to dig Moore out and get him medical help.
Newspaper accounts of the avalanche duly noted that Moore was luckier than Homer and Langley Collyer, two pack-rat brothers who for four decades crammed their Harlem mansion with heaps of debris: newspapers, old Christmas trees, sawhorses, perhaps a dozen pianos, even a dismantled automobile. On March 21, 1947, Homer was found dead of starvation. It took another 18 days for city workers to uncover Langley’s smothered body.
Scientists long assumed that compulsive hoarding is simply a symptom and a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But new studies suggest it may be a distinct disorder with its own unique signature in the circuitry of the brain. The ongoing research has taken on a certain urgency as cities across America have set up task forces to help landlords and relatives deal with thousands of people like Moore whose health is endangered by their compulsion to stockpile.
That compulsion, scientists now theorize, is a natural and adaptive instinct gone amok. Elsewhere in the animal kingdom, the instinct to hoard offers clear evolutionary advantages. One of the most avid hoarders is the Arctic gray jay. To ensure that it has enough food for the long, dark winter, the bird caches over a wide area some 100,000 mouthfuls of berries, insects, and spiders, says Tom Waite, a biologist at Ohio State University in Columbus. Hoarding may also function as a mating strategy. Male black wheatears, avian residents of dry and rocky regions of Eurasia and Africa, spend considerable time and energy piling up heavy stones before mating season. Those with the largest piles are more likely to mate. “It’s called resource-holding potential, and it’s a way of advertising to a mate your true Darwinian fitness,” Waite says.
Humans appear to be the only species that takes hoarding to pathological excess. In extreme cases, compulsive hoarders may fill their houses so full of stuff that they can no longer use the bed, the table, or even entire rooms. They can’t invite friends over. They can’t keep track of their bills. They can’t organize themselves sufficiently to hold a job. As they age and their memories fade, they may no longer even remember what they’ve been hoarding. One 61-year-old man who attends the Clutter Workshop, a support group in Hartford, Connecticut, gathered so many books, papers, and pieces of junk mail that he filled as much of the house as his wife would tolerate. Somewhere in there he lost a six-figure check for the sale of his parents’ house. “You can’t imagine my total embarrassment at having to call the attorney and ask for a new one,” he says.
How widespread is the disorder, and why is it so acute in certain individuals? Answers are hard to gather in part because hoarders tend to be secretive about their habits. Nonetheless, researchers have identified various interesting patterns. For example, hoarding often runs in families. “People with this problem tend to have a first-degree relative who also does,” says Randy O. Frost, a psychologist at Smith College. “So it might be genetic, or it might be a modeling effect.”