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Hoarding: When Too Much 'Stuff' Causes Grief

When does collecting cross the line and become a disorder? And why do some people save every newspaper? Researchers Randy Frost and Gail Steketee examine compulsive hoarders in their new book, Stuff -- and explain what we know about the causes of and treatment for the compulsive disorder.


Other segments from the episode on May 5, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 5, 2010: Interview with Burt Bacharach and Hal David; Interview with Randy Frost and Gail Steketee.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Music And Lyrics: Burt Bacharach And Hal David


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guests are one of the greatest songwriting teams of the second half
of the 20th century: Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Evidence of their
greatness includes the songs "Make it Easy on Yourself," "I Just Don't
Know What to Do with Myself," "Only Love Can Break a Heart," "Don't Make
Me Over," "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Wishin' and Hopin'," "(There's)
Always Something There to Remind Me," "What The World Needs Now is Love"
and "The Look of Love."

Dionne Warwick had 38 singles written by Bacharach and David that made
the charts. This one's from 1964.

(Soundbite of song, "Walk on By")

Ms. DIONNE WARWICK (Singer): (Singing) If you see me walking down the
street, and I start to cry each time we meet, walk on by, walk on by.
Make believe that you don't see the tears. Just let me grieve in
private, 'cause each time I see you, I break down and cry. So walk on
by, walk on by, walk on by. I just can't get over losing you...

GROSS: I've interviewed Burt Bacharach and Hal David separately, but I
never thought I'd have the chance to talk to them together, but the
revival of their 1968 show "Promises, Promises" has given me that
opportunity. It's the only Broadway musical they've done.

Two songs from it became hits, the title song and "I Say A Little
Prayer." Neil Simon wrote the book for the show, adapting it from the
Billy Wilder movie "The Apartment." The revival stars Sean Hayes and
Kristin Chenoweth.

Burt Bacharach, Hal David, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, it's such an
honor to talk with you together. I was always hoping for a chance this
would happen, and I'm grateful that it has. Let's talk about some of the
songs you wrote for the show. Let's start with the title song "Promises,
Promises," which Jerry Orbach sang in the original production. So let's
start by hearing his performance of "Promises, Promises." So here we go.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Promises, Promises")

(Soundbite of song, "Promises, Promises")

Mr. JERRY ORBACH (Actor): (As Chuck Baxter) (Singing) Promises,
promises, I'm all through with promises, promises now. I don't know how
I got the nerve to walk out. If I shout, remember I feel free. Now I can
look at myself and be proud. I'm laughing out loud.

Oh, promises, promises, this is where those promises, promises end. I
won't pretend that what was wrong can be right. Every night I'll sleep
now, no more lies. Things that I promised myself fell apart, but I found
my heart.

Oh, promises, their kind of promises take all the joy from life. Oh,
promises, those kind of promises can just destroy your life. Oh,
promises, promises, my kind of promises can lead to joy and hope and
love, yes, love.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: That's Jerry Orbach in the original cast recording of "Promises,
Promises." Burt Bacharach, Hal David, let's talk about how you wrote
this song. Let's start with the title. Hal David, did the title
"Promises, Promises" start with the song or with the show?

Mr. HAL DAVID (Songwriter): I think it started with David Merrick, who
wanted a title song for the show.

GROSS: And was the show already called "Promises, Promises"?

Mr. DAVID: Am I correct, Burt?

Mr. BURT BACHARACH (Songwriter): Yeah, and I think Neil wanted to call
it "Promises, Promises" and not "The Apartment." That was the source
from the original film, the Billy Wilder film. And it was just kind of
nice to hear Jerry Orbach singing there, because I hadn't – I guess I
hadn't heard that cast album in...

Mr. DAVID: In 40 years.

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah, I mean, I don't know about you, Hal. I don't sit
around listening to...

Mr. DAVID: No, I don't either.

Mr. BACHARACH: ...our old cast album. But Jerry Orbach, he was wonderful
in the show. I mean, as Sean Hayes is just magnificent in the show. But
I remember with Jerry Orbach, coming into New York, when I came into New
York and would come to see the show maybe after it had been playing
three months, and I'd go backstage and see the cast, and Jerry Orbach
would say to me: Man, if I have to sing this song again, one more – it's
because it's - granted, it is a very notey - in other words, it's not an
easy song to sing.

My motivation was the urgency that makes it work dramatically, or you
think it's going to work dramatically by the anger that comes through in
that many notes and that many words.

But Jerry, after three months, was saying: Why'd you have to make it so
difficult? Night after night, he's up there doing "Promises, Promises."

GROSS: So, Burt Bacharach, you said it's so notey because it has to show
anger. Well, the instruments, the orchestra is kind of like churning
behind the singer, and it just, like, there's such a kind of hyperactive
energy going on there, and the time signature keeps changing. It changes
like 20 times during this song.

Mr. BACHARACH: You're right. Very good.

GROSS: So it's just kind of like frenetic sounding and disorienting, in
a way. It's wonderful. Did you consciously say, when you sat down to
write this song, it needs 20 different key changes – I mean, time
signature changes?

Mr. BACHARACH: No. I never do – I've never done anything, like,
intentionally. It's only when I have gotten it where I'm hearing it,
where it's in my head, where I can play it, where I can get away from
it, lie on the couch, go over it in my head, and I start to write it
down. And when I write it out, I realize, hey, that's - you've got to
change time signature in this bar, time signature in this bar.

So it's not deliberate. I mean, that's the main thing. It can drive
musicians crazy, you know, until they stop counting and just hear and
feel the music. I think it's kind of selfish on my part. I just write
it, say, we've got to get it down. It'll get done.

So as far as your observation about the churning in the orchestra, yeah.
So much of what I've written, whether it's from the show or whenever,
it's always been – it's almost like they come out of the same bed, you
know. It's not just piano and voice. It's, like, where the drums will be
playing, where the strings come in. Where the - they are made and
created about the same time as the song is being written.

GROSS: So you hear that all in your head as you're writing the song. You
hear the percussion. You hear the trumpet.


GROSS: Okay. Well, that leads me to the final version I want to play of
"Promises, Promises," and that's the one that was the really big hit,
Dionne Warwick's version. Did you know at the start that you would ask
her to do this song? She had already had hits with some of your songs.

Mr. BACHARACH: Well, she was like our star vehicle, you know, and we had
been recording Dionne and producing her, kind of trying to tailor-make
songs that would fit her. And she was an extraordinary vocalist and a
great vehicle for what we would write. And the more that we would write
for Dionne, the more we would see where we could go with her, the
challenges that we could do.

Mr. DAVID: Dionne is a great musician, has a great feel for the songs we

Mr. BACHARACH: And also, Hal, you know, by having that kind of mobility
- I mean, you take a song like "Promises, Promises." In somebody else's
hands, it could sound maybe labored or under duress being sung. Dionne
just kind of floated through it, like, effortlessly, and that was one of
the things that she had.

GROSS: She's incredible. Let's hear her recording of "Promises,

(Soundbite of song, "Promises, Promises")

Ms. DIONNE WARWICK (Singer): (Singing) Promises, promises, I'm all
through with promises, promises now. I don't know how I got the nerve to
walk out. If I shout, remember I feel free. Now I can look at myself and
be proud. I'm laughing out loud.

Oh, promises, promises, this is where those promises, promises end. I
won't pretend that what was wrong can be right. Every night I'll sleep
now, no more lies. Things that I promised myself fell apart, but I found
my heart.

Oh, promises, their kind of promises can just destroy your life. Oh,
promises, those kinds of promises...

GROSS: One of the things I like about that recording, it's so vivid, and
I just love all the orchestral things going on in the background and,
like, is it kettle drum or tympani that you...

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah, orchestra bells, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, I just love hearing all of that. So that's all in your mind
as you're writing the song.

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah, just about.

GROSS: And I think it's actually more vivid on the Dionne Warwick
recording than in the Broadway cast recording.

Mr. BACHARACH: Well, it's also slower. That's surprising for everybody.

GROSS: It is, yeah.

Mr. DAVID: Yeah.

Mr. BACHARACH: Wow. I must have taken a slow pill or something before we
recorded that. But I think also I was thinking probably, Hal, we were
thinking, like, commercially what would be the easier one to grasp would
be maybe a little bit more slow, measured tempo.

Mr. DAVID: Well, whatever it was, it is slower, no question about it.
But she is smooth, and yet she's got all the music and all the lines in
the songs. She's really telling it to us.


GROSS: My guests are composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David, who
wrote many hits together. Their 1968 musical, "Promises, Promises," is
back on Broadway. The revival stars Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are the great songwriting
team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. And there's a revival of their
musical, "Promises, Promises" on Broadway now.

Let's talk about your other really big hit from the show, "I'll Never
Fall in Love Again." There's a great story behind this song. So
whichever one of you wants to start telling it, go ahead.

Mr. DAVID: Well, when Burt was hospitalized with pneumonia...

Mr. BACHARACH: It was, like, maybe three days after we opened in Boston,

Mr. DAVID: Yeah.

Mr. BACHARACH: And we had good reviews in Boston.

Mr. DAVID: Yeah.

Mr. BACHARACH: We thought we had a hit.

Mr. DAVID: Yeah, we thought we had a hit. But there was one spot in the
show, we had a song called "Wouldn't That Be a Stroke of Luck?" or
something similar to that...

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah. That's a good title, Hal.

Mr. DAVID: Yeah, but we threw it out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVID: That song didn't work. Everybody liked the song, but the
audience didn't like the song. And while Burt was in the hospital, I
started writing lyrics for that song. You know, the famous lines - what
do you get when you kiss a girl? You get enough germs to catch pneumonia
after you do. She'll never phone you. I don't recall thinking that Burt
was in the hospital and had pneumonia, but obviously it was some
subconscious thing about it, because that's what I wrote.

GROSS: So...

Mr. BACHARACH: And we wrote it really quickly. I mean...

Mr. DAVID: I think you wrote it - I gave you a lot of the lyric. I think
we wrote it in one day.

Mr. BACHARACH: The day I got out of the hospital.

Mr. DAVID: The day you got out of the hospital, we played it for Neil
and David Merrick. They wanted it in the show next day. It stopped the
show, like a Hollywood movie. It just stopped the show.

Mr. BACHARACH: As it did the other night in the opening of the revival.

Mr. DAVID: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So, Burt Bacharach, you must have been feeling pretty lousy when
you wrote this song, if you'd just gotten out of the hospital from

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah, I felt – there's is no way to recover from
pneumonia is to then write the song and start standing in the back of
the house - meaning in the back of the theater in Boston - for the rest
of the run and then going on to Washington, doing the same and being in
a sweat and thinking you had the pneumonia back and getting frustrated
with it. The conductor that we had, the tempos and, you know, I'm kind
of a control freak. So, what was my choice? Go and take the place of the
conductor and spend the next three years of my life in the pit, in the
Broadway pit, conducting? But it's not the way to get over pneumonia. It
really isn't.

GROSS: I'll bet it's not. But I can understand your frustration. I mean,
your songs are so tricky and require, I think, a real sense of precision
to really get all the twists and turns in the rhythm and in the
orchestrations. And you must have really...

Mr. BACHARACH: And the tempos.

GROSS: ...and the tempos. So you must have really wanted to be there

Mr. BACHARACH: Well, yes. But that is not the answer, because then you
put the rest of your life and your career on hold.

GROSS: Right, right. Okay, so we have to hear the song now. So this is
"I'll Never Fall in Love Again," aka "The Pneumonia Song," and why don't
we hear Dionne Warwick singing it?

(Soundbite of song, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again")

Ms. WARWICK: (Singing) What do you get when you fall in love? A guy with
a pin to burst your bubble. That's what you get for all your trouble.
I'll never fall in love again. I'll never fall in love again.

What do you get when you kiss a guy? You get enough germs to catch
pneumonia. After you do, he'll never phone 'ya. I'll never fall in love
again. Don't you know that I'll never fall in love again?

Don't tell me what it's all about, 'cause I've been there, and I'm glad
I'm out - out of those chains, those chains that bind you. That is why
I'm here to remind you. What do you get when you fall in love? You only
get lies...

GROSS: "I'll Never Fall In Love Again," one of the hit songs from the
Broadway show "Promises, Promises," which is now being revived on
Broadway. My guests are the song's composers, the famous songwriting
team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

So, you know, we were talking before about time signature changes, and
there aren't a lot of them in "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," but the
one I think is really significant. It switches from 4/4 time to 2/4 time
on the I'll of I'll never fall in love again, just like one note: I'll
never fall in love again.

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah. Very good observation.

GROSS: So what does it do to change just for that one note to the I'll
never fall in love again?

Mr. BACHARACH: It certainly makes it fresher for me, and it's a nice
little turn. And it always surprised me that one of the first records we
got on it, Ella Fitzgerald.

Mr. DAVID: Great record.

Mr. BACHARACH: Except...

Mr. DAVID: She didn't do it then. She squared it out.

Mr. BACHARACH: She didn't do it.

(Singing) I'll never fall in love again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And that bothers you?

Mr. DAVID: But that record was on its way to being a hit, and then
Dionne's came out, and, of course, Dionne just swamped her.

Mr. BACHARACH: It's true. But I like it with the 6/4 bar - or a 4/4,
2/4, and you said.

GROSS: Yeah, well, what I like about that is that I think it frames the
I'll, like everything kind of stops for a second when it's sung that
way. But a lot of singers don't do it. A lot singers just go, like, I'll
never fall in love again. You know, they don't emphasize - they don't
give it the full two beats...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...on the I'll, and it always frustrates me.

Mr. BACHARACH: Well, it goes to the most normal way, but an abnormal way
can, in its own right, be the right way. And, you know, it can be
natural, just like the easier way out would've been to just not change
bar lines, not going 4/4/, 2/4. But, hey, we didn't do it that way. It
didn't hurt us. It's fine.

GROSS: So what did it mean to you in 1968 to have a Broadway show, to be
on Broadway? Was that important to you?

Mr. DAVID: Well, it was important to me. And I think it was the most fun
time I had on any project I've done. I don't know if Burt will feel the
same way, but...

Mr. BACHARACH: If I hadn't gotten sick, I would have had a good time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BACHARACH: You know, by the time we did the cast album, I was just
looking to get to Palm Springs and not touch a piano for a while. So we
should have written another one, but should've and would've could've, we
don't count that, Hal.

GROSS: Were you asked?

Mr. DAVID: We did enough.

Mr. BACHARACH: I don't know if we were asked. I just know that I had
some frustration, too, that came from the actual problems of writing
something for the theater, and that was there are substitutes in the
orchestra. Maybe there are two, three subs in a given performance.

My music is not so easy to play, and I remember getting a call from
David Merrick...

GROSS: The producer of the show. Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. BACHARACH: ...yeah - a week and a half into the show. And he called
me up and said: I want you to know that there were five subs in the band
today – it was a Saturday matinee – five members of the band had subs,
the drummer, first trumpet player. These are key people reading the
music for the first time. And Richard Rodgers was in the house.


Mr. BACHARACH: And I say geez, you know what I mean? You just want to go
and stick your head in the sand in the desert, because you wanted him to
hear it at the best.

GROSS: You must have really preferred the recording studio in that
respect, where you could really control every aspect.

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah, permanence, absolutely. But there's something
electric about a live performance, you know.

GROSS: Composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David will be back in
the second half of the show. Their 1968 musical "Promises, Promises" is
back on Broadway in a revival starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth.
Here's another song from the show, "Knowing When to Leave," as recorded
by Dionne Warwick in 1970. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Knowing When To Leave")

Ms. WARWICK: (Singing) Go while the going is good. Knowing when to leave
may be the smartest thing anyone can learn. Go. I'm afraid my heart
isn't very smart.

Fly while you still have your wings. Knowing when to leave will never
let you reach the point of no return. Fly...

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with composer Burt
Bacharach and lyricist Hal David. Their 1968 musical "Promises,
Promises" is back on Broadway. The revival stars Sean Hayes and Kristin
Chenoweth. Bacharach and David wrote many hits together, including: "I
Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself," "Don't Make Me Over," "Anyone
Who Had a Heart," "Wishin' and Hopin'," "There's Always Something There
to Remind Me," "What the World Needs Now is Love," and "The Look of

Tell us how you met.

Mr. DAVID: Oh, we were both famous music...

Mr. BACHARACH: Oh, in the Brill Building, and we just, like, working the

Mr. DAVID: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And everybody was writing with everybody.


Mr. DAVID: And one day we said, hmm, let's try to write a couple of
songs together.


Mr. DAVID: Both of us said that.

Mr. BACHARACH: We wrote some bad songs just then.

Mr. DAVID: Yeah.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. BACHARACH: Really bad.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. BACHARACH: "Peggy's in the Pantry."

GROSS: "Peggy's in the Pantry?"

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. DAVID: Oh, we were...

GROSS: Does somebody want to sing that?

Mr. DAVID: But...

Mr. BACHARACH: "Underneath the Overpass." You remember that, Hal?

Mr. DAVID: Yeah, that was Jo Stafford.

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah. At least we got a record on that, you know what I

Mr. DAVID: But we also did "Magic Moments," which...

Mr. BACHARACH: It took us a while to get a hit. I mean, it really did.
"Magic Moments," "The Story of My Life." But, hey...

Mr. DAVID: I think about it happening very early on.

GROSS: So how did you get a sense that you should collaborate with each
other? I mean, what did you know about each other's work? What attracted
you to each other musically?

Mr. BACHARACH: Well, Hal had been doing it longer than me, and kind of
successfully. He'd had hits and, you know, it was an interesting time in
the Brill Building, the famous Brill Building. There were seven floors
of music publishers.

Mr. DAVID: Publisher.

Mr. BACHARACH: Where you could go and play a song for one publisher and
then he'd say I don't like it. And then you'd go down the hall and play
it for another. And that, in itself, was a very interesting time.

GROSS: You both - you wrote so many hits together. At what point did you
break up, and why did you stop writing together?

Mr. BACHARACH: Well, it's a long story.

Mr. DAVID: Yeah.

Mr. BACHARACH: I think we got involved with a motion picture that
probably never should've been made. Making a motion picture, a movie
musical with new songs, it's not like you can go to Boston and try it
out. The film is shot, and the idea that you can replace a song and
reshoot the scene and the sequence - the picture was called "Lost
Horizon," and it presented its own set of problems. And I must say that
I wrote the score - the background score, as well as writing the songs
with Hal. The songs sounded good. I mean, they sound good to me.

Mr. DAVID: Yeah. The score, I think, is a very good piece of work. But
the movie just didn't work.

Mr. BACHARACH: I mean, there's a song in the middle of the movie called
"If I Could Go Back" that Peter Finch's character sings. And it's about
his longing, whether he stays in Shangri-La or goes back to England. He
has a chance to do either one: stay in Shangri-La, and you live forever.
And when we made the record, we made that particular song for the
soundtrack, it sounded great. I mean, I thought, Jesus, it's beautiful.
And then when you see it in the movie, you're sitting there. You just
don't care whether he goes back...

Mr. DAVID: Right. Yeah.

Mr. BACHARACH: ...or stays. It doesn't make any difference. You don't
care about him. So...

GROSS: So the film was bad, the songs were good. How did that break up
your relationship?

Mr. BACHARACH: I didn't want to write anymore. Period.

GROSS: Really? It was - you were that discouraged from that movie?

Mr. BACHARACH: Listen, I drove up to the opening-night theater having
just read the L.A. Times review, and I just wanted to get out of town. I
wanted to go down to Del Mar - and I had a little beach house there -
and hide, you know, and not write and just play tennis every day. And,
you know, but my attorney told me hey, you know, you're going to get in
trouble with your commitment with Hal to write for Dionne. She's going
on Warner Brothers now. New label. New album is expected to come out.
And I just ignored his advice - very bad. So, you know, as far as
responsibility and blame, it's all on me, you know.

Mr. DAVID: Well, whatever it was, we've been friends ever since.

Mr. BACHARACH: Yeah. It was just a, you know, I'm very happy to own that
up, Hal, you know? We should've just - again, should've, could've - sat
down and just said I tried some new stuff for Dionne's album, but hey,
man. I don't write anybody. You or anybody.

GROSS: Hal David, did you want to give up songwriting after the movie
got such bad reviews and you realized how bad it was?

Mr. DAVID: No. I could understand why someone would, but no, I didn't. I
kept writing.

GROSS: So, I thought we could close with another song. And this is a
song that you wrote - that you didn't write for "Promises, Promises,"
but it's been interpolated into the new production. And the song is "I
Say a Little Prayer." And I thought we'd use Aretha Franklin's 1968
recording of it.

Mr. DAVID: A great record.

GROSS: Yeah. Were you amazed to hear her record this?

Mr. BACHARACH: It's a better record than the record we made.

Mr. DAVID: Mm-hmm. We did, yeah. And we did a great record, but she
topped it.


GROSS: Why is this one better?

Mr. DAVID: You'll hear it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BACHARACH: It's more natural.

Mr. DAVID: Yeah.

Mr. BACHARACH: It's just more natural. We were talking about our changes
and time changes on the chorus of forever and forever, you stay in my
heart, and I will - you know, that's going 4-4, 3-4, 4-4, 3-4. Then
regard the way it was treated by Aretha, because Aretha just makes it
seamless, the transition going from one change to another change. You
never notice it.

GROSS: Okay. It's been really an honor to speak with you both. Thank you
so much for doing this.

Mr. BACHARACH: Hey, good talking to you.

Mr. DAVID: Good to talk to you.

Mr. BACHARACH: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "I Say A Little Prayer For You")

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) The moment I wake up, before I
put on my makeup...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Makeup.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) ...I say a little pray for you. And while
combing my hair now, and wondering what dress to wear now...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Wear now.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) ...I say a little prayer for you.

Forever, and ever, you'll stay in my heart, and I will love you.
Forever, and ever, we never will part oh, how I love you. Together,
together, that's how it must be to live without you would only mean
heartbreak for me.

I run for the bus, dear...

GROSS: I spoke with Burt Bacharach and Hal David last week. A revival of
their musical "Promises, Promises" is now on Broadway, starring Sean
Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth.

(Soundbite of song, "I Say A Little Prayer For You")

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Answer my prayer. And forever, and ever, you'll
stay in my heart and I will love you. Forever, and ever, we never will
part, oh, how I love you. Together, together, that's how it must be to
live without you would only mean heartbreak for me. Oh, boy, only for

My darling, believe me,

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Believe me.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) ...for me there is no one but you. Please love
me, too. Answer my prayer.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Answer my prayer, baby.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Answer my prayer now, baby.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Answer my prayer, baby.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Answer my prayer.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Answer my prayer, baby.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Answer me right now, baby.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Answer my prayer, baby.

GROSS: Coming up: when collecting stuff gets out of control. We talk
about compulsive hoarding with two experts on obsessive behavior who
have written a new book called "Stuff."

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Hoarding: When Too Much 'Stuff' Causes Grief


You probably know pack rats, people who tend to store things they might
need some day. And you've probably come across someone whose home is so
cluttered, you can't imagine how they live there.

Our guests Randy Frost and Gail Steketee are both specialists in
obsessive behavior. And they say compulsive hoarding, the pathological
accumulation of things, is shockingly common. Estimates vary, but they
say the disorder likely affects one out of every 30 Americans. Many lead
miserably unhappy lives because of their compulsion, but find it nearly
impossible to control.

Randy Frost is a professor of psychology at Smith College. Gail Steketee
is a professor and dean of the School of Social Work at Boston
University. Both have treated many hoarders, and they draw on their work
in a new book called "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarders and the Meaning of

They spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, welcome to FRESH AIR.

We typically think of people with this problem as being introverted,
maybe to the point of being shut in, perhaps a little disheveled, not
somebody with a lot of friends, contacts. But you found this is not the
case - at least often not the case. And one of the first people that you
write about in the book is a woman named Irene. Tell us about her.

Professor RANDY FROST (Psychology, Smith College; Author): Well, Irene
was a delightful woman. She - when I first met her, what happened was
that her husband had told her that she needed to clean up the clutter,
or he would leave. And she couldn't do it, so he actually left. When I
met her, I was surprised by how outgoing and lovely and - a woman she
was with a great sense of humor. And so we'd done some follow-up
research on this and found that people with hoarding problems don't seem
to have any more emotional attachment kinds of problems than other

DAVIES: What did the clutter in her house look like? What kinds of
things were there? How high were they stacked? How much of the rooms did
they occupy?

Prof. FROST: Well, it occupied virtually every room in her house, except
for her bathroom, and the bathroom sort of varied from person to person
with hoarding problems. But her bathrooms were pretty much the same as
any bathroom you would see in most people's homes. The rest of her house
was somewhere between knee-deep and head-deep in clutter, with goat
paths going through each of the rooms.

DAVIES: When you say goat paths, you mean, literally, a narrow
passageway that one can traverse...

Prof. FROST: Exactly.

DAVIES: ...and clutter everywhere else.

Prof. FROST: Exactly.

DAVIES: And what kind of stuff was there?

Prof. FROST: Well, it was virtually everything: lots of newspapers, lots
of clothes. Irene kept toys, toys that her children had, broken toys
that her children had. She had this box that she called her amazing
junk, and it was little pieces of games and little pieces of plastic and
little things that came in McDonald's meals and things of that sort.

DAVIES: She collected toys, things like that, what - newspapers. A lot
of hoarders collect newspapers, don't they?

Prof. FROST: A lot. One of the motivations that seems key in people with
hoarding is to maintain information. And we think it's related to a
sense of wanting to acquire and preserve opportunities. So for Irene,
when she looked at a newspaper, she saw lots of potential opportunities.
And this carried over in a number of spheres. One was her difficulties
with acquiring things. She told me that she couldn't go to New York
City, because if she goes to New York City, she walks by a newsstand.
And when she sees a newsstand, she thinks to herself, look at all those
newspapers and all those magazines. Somewhere in all that, there's a
piece of information that could change my life. How can I walk away
without it?

DAVIES: Now, it's interesting, when you interviewed hoarders, I mean,
there were so many cases where apartments were so cluttered that they
were virtually unlivable. And I'm curious: Did the hoarders realize what
their circumstances where like? If you showed them a picture of their
home or apartment, would they recognize it?

Professor GAIL STEKETEE (Dean, Boston University's School of Social
Work): Dave, it's interesting, because there's a phenomenon that we
refer to as clutter blindness. And I think in "Stuff" we mention that
Nell had this problem. And what's interesting in particular is that when
you do take pictures and show them the pictures later, they often seem
to have the impression that - it's shock. It's like somebody else's home
that they're looking at in the photograph, because to them, that's not
what it looks like when they walk into the house.

DAVIES: And if you ask them to draw a map of their house, what do you

Prof. STEKETEE: One of the interesting experiences that we had early on
was asking someone to do just that, to draw, on paper, a layout of the
house. And the person actually left off two of the rooms of the homes
because they were so full that he hadn't been into them in a long time.
And so they just disappeared from his point of view.

DAVIES: So they live in these little narrow passageways, and, in effect,
are - what? Oblivious to the clutter? Or comforted by it?

Prof. FROST: Well, interestingly, when I showed up at Nell's house, what
she said to me was, you know, when you are here, I notice the clutter,
and it makes me feel awful. I get depressed. I look at myself as a
horrible person. But when you leave, I don't notice it anymore. And that
is something that a number of the folks that we've talked to have told
us about their hoarding.

DAVIES: Now I'm sure a lot of people are listening to this and thinking
about their own basements and attics and closets and wondering: Do I
have a problem? How do you know when this becomes a pathology?

Prof. STEKETEE: When it crosses the line from, shall we just say, being
a pack rat or collecting things to the point where there's distress,
either on the part of the person who's got the problem or those around
them - so distress on either side, and impairment, when they can't do
the things that they would like to do in their ordinary lives, when they
can't socialize or have people into the house or work effectively, and
on and on.

Prof. FROST: One of the interesting things that - questions that we get
all the time from people is what's the difference between someone who
has a hoarding problem and someone who is a collector? When people
collect things, they typically want to display them to other people. And
in many ways, if you link this even broader - to a broader notion of
materialism, that's a part of the construct of materialism where people
want to present a facade to the world with the objects that they have.
But people who hoard are not like that. They don't want other people to
see it. They want to kind of keep these things hidden because of the
shame they feel when people see their homes.

DAVIES: Let's talk just a little about why people collect stuff. And you
have a number of these patients that you've worked with that you've
given pseudonyms to, and maybe they collect for different reasons. But
do they get pleasure from the things that they collect that make their
lives unworkable?

Prof. FROST: Absolutely. It's - one of the most fascinating things about
this is to see someone with a hoarding problem while they're getting
pleasure from the object. A couple of examples: Once when I visited
Irene, we started talking. And all of a sudden, her eyes lit up and she
got very excited. And she said, I've got to show you something. And she
ran off into the other room, and she came back a minute later with a
large, plastic bag filled with bottle caps. And she said look at these
bottle caps. Aren't they beautiful? Look at the shape and the color. In
her eyes was such delight, such an appreciation for the aesthetics of
these objects. And it's something we've seen in many people with
hoarding problems, is this sort of aesthetic appreciation of the
physical world that most of us don't have.

DAVIES: Now, in that case, the bottle caps have no particular connection
to their lives or people that were important to them. They're absorbed
with their physical characteristics. But you also find that there are
some people that associate their objects with parts of their lives,
become, in effect, representations of who they are, right?

Prof. FROST: That's right. And we find that in the same people. So on
the one hand, Irene collected all these things because of this aesthetic
appreciation. On the other hand, she collected a lot of the things she
had because of their sentimental attachment. And the attachment went
well beyond what most of us have when we are sentimentally attached to
an object.

For instance, one day, as we were going through some of her stuff, she
came upon a ATM envelope that she'd gotten five years before, some money
in it. And she had written on the envelope what she used the money for,
and it wasn't anything all that special. And she put it in the box for
recycling, and she started to cry. And what she said was I feel like I'm
losing that day in my life. So there's something about that object that
seemed to represent that day of her life, and if she got rid of it, she
would feel like somehow she'd - a part of her was now gone.

DAVIES: So this is fascinating. You have some people who collect
newspapers because there might be something in the newspaper that might
be helpful to them, and they'll save it for years. You have some people
who collect things as insignificant as bottle caps because they're
fascinated with their physical characteristics. And then you have some
people who will keep an ordinary object because they feel a connection
to an event or a person. It sounds like there are all kinds of different
reasons that people pile this stuff up. Is there a connection that links
them all?

Prof. FROST: These beliefs seem to be associated with some peculiar
information processing problems - that is, there are some problems with
attention - that is, distractibility, and sometimes a hyper focus,
problems with categorization, the ability to organize things. People who
hoard tend to live their lives visually and spatially instead of
categorically, like the rest of us do.

So if Irene has an electricity bill, she puts it on top of the pile, and
to find it she remembers where it is in space, but rather than putting
it in a file somewhere under the category of bills. And the kind of
emotional attachments and beliefs about possessions that we see are
paired with this kind of information processing problem. That's when we
seem to get the problem with hoarding.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Randy Frost and Gail Steketee. They've
written a new book about hoarding called "Stuff."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Randy Frost and
Gail Steketee. They're both experts in obsessive compulsive behavior
who've written a book about obsessive hoarding called "Stuff: Compulsive
Hoarding and the Meaning of Things."

Let's talk about treatment, because you know a lot about this because
you've done a lot of this, helping folks who have come to you, often -
and sometimes family members will come to you because they're deeply
affected by someone's hoarding problem, and you - people decide to get
help. One of the things you tell us is that you don't want to throw
things out for the hoarder - in other words, go in while they're not
there and just toss stuff out. Why?

Prof. FROST: When people go into someone's home and clear it out, what
happens is that they may change the condition of the home relatively
quickly, but they don't change the person's behavior, and the behavior
is really the problem. Without changing the behavior, the condition
would go back to what it was in short order. We've seen that time and
again, when health departments go in a clear people out. What we need to
do is we need to get the person themselves to change their decision-
making about what objects to keep and what objects to throw away, and
that's why we focus so heavily on it.

DAVIES: And what's the emotional impact when a hoarder finds that
someone has come in and gone through their stuff and thrown some of it

Prof. STEKETEE: Typically, quite disastrous, unfortunately. And as a
cautionary note, I think - not only to the community officers or
agencies that are trying to do this, but also sometimes to family
members who want to do it - it is a very quick way to destroy a
relationship. Because if you remember how people feel about these
things, it's like ripping something away from them that they care
greatly about. It's a disastrous experience for them. So anything we
could do to make that a gentler process would be extremely helpful.

DAVIES: So what does work? How do you treat people like this?

Prof. STEKETEE: One of the first things we start off with doing is
trying to figure how motivated they are to get over the problem, because
one of the things we mention several times in "Stuff" is the relatively
limited insight. You know, when they're with us, they feel embarrassed.
But in their own home, they're not at all sure they want to get rid of
anything. So part of that is helping them figure out what values they
have for the future and what goals they have based on those values. And
that can help us sort of set the stage for when they want to back out or
they're afraid to get rid of something, we can always double back to
those goals. That's one place we start.

DAVIES: How do you get them to stop bringing the stuff in and
accumulating it?

Prof. STEKETEE: That's dealing with the acquiring problem, which is a
very interesting challenge in and of itself. A little bit ago, we
mentioned the fact that people get very excited about their objects,
like the bottle caps. And that actually happens a great deal when people
are getting new things, either free things or they're going to the store
and looking to - at things they want to buy. They get very, very excited
about them. And so part of the challenge there is a little like dealing
with an addiction.

Hoarding, in many ways, has elements of addictions like gambling and so
forth, where the excitement drives the behavior. It's like a high that
people get very stuck on, and it's hard to get over. So we have to help
them go into situations. We call them, often, non-shopping trips that we
engage in that help them get over the urge. It actually gradually gets
less and less with more and more exposure.

Prof. FROST: It's a little bit like a physical conditioning program,
except what we're conditioning is a tolerance for the urge to acquire

DAVIES: You know, people who've struggled with alcohol and who have been
sober for years will not describe themselves as a former alcoholic. They
think it's a condition they will always live with. Is the same true of

Prof. FROST: One of the people in the book, Paula Kotakis, one of the
few people who - actually, not only did she give us permission to use
her name, she said if you're going to talk about me, please use my name,
because I want to be out there. I want to be someone who's upfront about
hoarding as a problem, and so forth. I asked her if we could describe
her in the book as a former hoarder, and she wrote back and said no,
because she struggles with it every day. And she wrote a description of
her experience just a few days earlier, where she's trying to throw out
a used yogurt cup.

And she described the thoughts that she had, that somehow this yogurt
cup, when she threw it in the trash bin, would be uncomfortable. And the
yogurt cup would feel bad for being the one that got rejected, the one
that got thrown away and it would feel uncomfortable, extra humid,
because she put the lid on and she's thinking maybe I shouldn't have put
the lid on it. And then she thinks to herself, these thoughts are crazy.
Why am I having these thoughts? But yet she can't ignore them.

DAVIES: I mean, that letter that she wrote about the yogurt cup was a
very compelling thing to read in the book. A lot of people would hear
that behavior and say, now, this is delusional. Are many hoarders like

Prof. FROST: Quite a few are. And we think there might be a distinction
between people with what we consider hoarding disorder and people who
have OCD hoarding - that is, hoarding that's due to obsessive compulsive
disorder - secondary obsessive compulsive disorder. Now the thoughts
sound delusional, but the fact is that she knew the thoughts were crazy.
Now in delusional thinking, people don't know their thoughts are crazy,
but she knew that these thoughts were crazy. But she couldn't stop them.

DAVIES: Well, Randy Frost, Gail Steketee, thanks so much for speaking
with us.

Prof. STEKETEE: You're welcome.

Prof. FROST: Thank you, Dave.

GROSS: Randy Frost and Gail Steketee are the authors of the new book
"Stuff: Compulsive Hoarders and the Meaning of Things." They spoke with
FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: You can see an animated dramatization of the way hoarders gather
possessions on our Web site:, where you can also read
the first chapter of "Stuff."

Also on our Web site, we have something interesting related to our first
interview: a demo recording of the song "Promises, Promises" featuring
the composer Burt Bacharach on piano, accompanying two singers.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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