Closet Obsessions

Has the current mania for household organization gone a little too far?

Has the current mania for household organization gone a little too far?

An otherwise competent professional couple has lived in a new house for four-and-a-half years and is still tripping over unpacked moving boxes. A middle-class mom and dad have forbidden their children from entering the home office for fear they will be crushed by piled-up files. An average suburban family has been chased out of its living room by Disney collectibles. These people are right in the zone that makes reality TV work: their messes are freakish enough to be entertaining, recognizable enough to be uncomfortably compelling. Most of us have some secret stash of trash.

The question asked by 1- 800-got-junk ?, one of North America’s fastest-growing removal services, is purely rhetorical. Yes, we’ve got junk, and the issue of what we do, or don’t do, with that junk has gone beyond being a practical problem with a practical solution. Our collective obsession with organization disguises itself as sane and sensible, but is actually loaded with unsettling implications. Those seagrass baskets and faux-leather magazine files are being filled up, all right—with irrational impulses and delusions of control.

As a culture we recognize that the aimless accumulation of things is an unhealthy addiction. (Messies Anonymous, neatly alphabetized between Marijuana Anonymous and Methadone Anonymous, is now a twelve-step program.) But we have yet to recognize that organization can be just as compulsive. The current mania for organization is not necessarily clutter’s opposite: sometimes it’s a complement, an enabler, a sneaky, evil twin. Taken together, the drive to accumulate and the drive to eliminate make up the binge-and-purge, all-or-nothing dynamic that characterizes North American consumption, whether it’s of food, shoes, sex, or stuff.

Basic organization, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing. Putting keys where you can find them, picking up wet towels, not using the stove to store old newspapers—these are all good things. As Ye Sweep, So Shall Ye Reap, a recent sociological study by academics from Columbia, Northwestern, and the University of Michigan, claims a direct link between a clean, well-organized household and the educational and financial success of the children raised there. The new organization industry goes way beyond these common-sense observations, however. The danger doesn’t come from isolated instances of organizational extremism (such as the loopy suggestion by the author of The One-Minute Organizer that children who have a hard time getting started in the morning should be put to bed wearing their school clothes). The real issue is that organization is being inflated into an all-embracing principle that can solve all the problems of contemporary North American life. The anti-mess mavens at promise to teach you how to organize your “Home, Office, Time, Finances, Family, Spirit, Mind & Soul,” as if these were all equivalent entities.

The experts’ promises dovetail with the public’s fears. Because our homes are places of refuge, they are also places dogged by insecurities. The more we feel safe and bounded, the more we are beset with niggling worries that something will somehow sneak in. The bright daytime dreams of domesticity have historically been haunted by nightmares of threat and invasion: bad drains, vermin, asbestos, radon, lead paint, toxic mould. The consequences of these household plagues are depicted as dire—and toxic mould litigation has turned into a multi-million-dollar business in the US—but the causes are almost always hard to trace. Traditionally, invaders are silent and invisible, hiding behind walls, scuttling under furnaces, lurking in attics and basements, as if intent on illustrating the Desperate Housewives notion that the smooth surfaces of middle-class life are menaced by subterranean dangers.

The clutter issue marks the first time that the danger is so visible; in fact, its chief symptom is that it’s so emphatically there, right in the middle of the room, so insistent, so unavoidable, so ugly. As the latest menace to domestic felicity, disorganization is a paradoxical problem. It is bounty turned into squalor, middle-class hopes of comfort and plenty multiplied and metastasized into uncontrollable junk. The “before” images on the home-organization TV shows are lurid snapshots of a quintessentially suburban kind of sin—rooms with such a stacked-up, falling-over muddle of goods that doors are blocked, windows covered, surfaces blanketed, the air sucked out and replaced by the reek of dejection and defeat.

Organizing these messes is now big business: in media (with television shows, how-to books, and special-issue magazines); in retail (with specialized sections in most chain stores, along with storage boutiques such as Canadian Closet, Space Solutions, and For Space Sake); and in the service industry (Professional Organizers in Canada, an association that currently lists over 300 members).

Considering that one of the root causes of clutter is unchecked consumerism—organization-based TV programs are forlorn parades of unused exercise equipment, pointless kitchen gadgets, and neglected toys—it’s ironic that we are now trying to buy our way out. One website,, recently reported, in a bolt of honesty, that the latest storage crisis actually involves people purchasing too many containers. Dizzy with dreams of immaculate order, they are recklessly picking up boxes and baskets and bins, learning too late that they have no place to put them. This paradox suggests that our lust for organization is some kind of perverse endgame of consumer capitalism, as objects go into baskets, baskets go into wall units, and wall units are absorbed into dreams of that final transfiguring renovation.

Buying is easier than doing. Cheryl Mendelson, author of the bestselling housekeeping manual Home Comforts, argues that people still want well-kept houses but they no longer want to keep house. The word “nostalgia,” she points out, means homesickness, literally a painful longing for the return home. Like many nostalgists, the domestically challenged generation has become tetchy and irrational, always looking for shortcuts to that recalled (or imagined) paradise. We swoon over glossy photo spreads in Real Simple and buy desk organizers at HomeSense, when we really should be washing down walls and vacuuming mattresses. “Bedding decreases in refinement, freshness, and comfort even as sales of linens, pillows, and comforters increase,” Mendelson cautions sternly. “It is not in goods that the contemporary household is poor, but in comfort and care.”

Mendelson herself refuses to pander to this sort of weakness. There are no seductive, come-hither photographs of beautiful rooms in her book, just spare black-and-white diagrams demonstrating how to fold a circular tablecloth or iron a gathered skirt. If you want an organized, well-run home, she suggests, you need to address air quality, efficient laundering, hygienic food storage, and cleaning routines. Then, and only then, can you think about buying those wicker baskets.

Of course, many would-be neatniks are not satisfied with wicker baskets, leading to the related consumer phenomenon of over-specialization. Rather than cutting down on our belongings, we’re balkanizing them into sock dividers, lipstick holders, and cellphone “valets.” Visit organization retailers and you’ll find spinning stands for TV remotes, Lid Maids for corralling wayward pot tops, storage containers custom-designed for Christmas wreaths. This trend is spoofed in TV ‘s Will & Grace, when the fastidious Will wonders how he ever got along without a “wrapping room.” “I was always losing the scissors and spreading the wrapping paper on the floor. . . like an animal.”

Our grandmothers didn’t have specialized storage (other than those endlessly cunning sewing baskets). They relied on the drawers and shelves of a few looming pieces of dark furniture in houses that were, for the most part, much smaller than the average family homes of today. Many people retreating from over-consumption are looking to the Voluntary Simplicity movement, drawing on recollections of grandma’s house as a model of a quieter, slower, less-crowded time. The movement’s edges may be somewhere in Montana, among those who raise goats and live off the grid. But as it reaches the mainstream, it mutates into an exquisite minimalism that requires a deep consumerist foundation. Real Simple magazine’s solution for the chaos of contemporary middle-class life involves a shimmering mirage of Calvin Klein bedding, Japanese tableware, and that one perfect white shirt. Unfortunately, this kind of “simplicity” is just too tempting. Once you taste its preciousness, it’s hard to get enough of it. Again, our grandmothers didn’t have time for Voluntary Simplicity; they were too busy living through the enforced simplicity of the Depression. One of the most withering things women of that generation could say about some gewgaw was, “I wouldn’t give it house room.” This is not only a killingly effective term of derision; it’s a common-sense recognition that space is finite, as must be our belongings.

The title of Christopher Lowell’s latest decorating book, Seven Layers of Organization: Unclutter Your Home, is the implicit promise of the organization industry. If we whip those drawers, cupboards, and closets into shape, our unruly teenagers, harried workdays, maxed-out credit cards, buzzing brains, even our sick souls will somehow fall into line. It’s hard to see how the concept of organization can apply to all these levels without either extending practical transformation far beyond what it can actually accomplish or trivializing spiritual transformation into a matter of housecleaning.

Considering that the problem of clutter is so palpably physical, it’s odd that many organizational specialists avoid simple materialist explanations, preferring ornate spiritual theories, from feng shui to New Age pseudo-science. Dawna Walter, the otherwise matter-of-fact author of The Life Laundry: How to Dejunk your Life (co-authored by Mark Franks), ties her organizational approach to her interest in reiki: “The easiest way to explain how clutter can affect all levels of your being is through the theories of vibrational medicine which are based on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.” (This would probably be news to the grand old man of physics.)

In The Spirit of Getting Organized, Pamela Kristan makes organization into a link between the earthly and the sacred by offering parallel definitions. What she calls “Everyday Sorting” ( “Separate glass, plastic and metal when we recycle”) is paired with “Spiritual Sorting” ( “Identify the patterns in our compulsions, addictions and habits”), allowing you to clean up your kitchen garbage and kick that heroin habit at the same time.

Regina Leeds, author of The Zen of Organizing, makes a game attempt at being philosophical: “Perhaps Socrates said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ after the tenth time he tried to clean out his closets!” Sure, and maybe Kant conceived of the Categorical Imperative while trying to rearrange his medicine cabinet. The tie between spring cleaning and the history of Western thought remains elusive.

TV shows like Clean Sweep, Neat, and Mission: Organization tend to avoid these kinds of conceptual frameworks, preferring the spectacle of raw emotion. These programs are ostensibly room makeovers, but they are room makeovers that pivot on pure naked psychodrama. The subjects on tlc’s Clean Sweep first purge their belongings with host Tava Smiley, who encourages a little healthy rivalry between the husband/wife, mother/daughter, or roommate pairs, which then boils over into unhealthy resentment as the couples fight over what to Keep, Sell, and Toss. (What to do with that giant stuffed panda that was a gift from the husband’s old girlfriend?) Next, the Keep pile gets a second, more serious pass with Peter Walsh, a chipper Australian, who comes off as half-therapist, half-organizer. He likes to confront emotional issues that are keeping homeowners mired in mess.

Canadian Hellen Buttigieg, the host of hgtv ‘s Neat, is another expert in therapeutic decoration. No doubt relying on her Certificate of Study in Chronic Disorganization from the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (seriously), she has a compassionate but keen instinct for rooms that have taken on the burden of a family’s tensions and become Freudian dumping grounds for fear, guilt, and dirty little secrets. The show loves trauma, whether it’s a mother suffering from panic attacks over the state of the living room, a wife’s obsessive collecting habit, or families in denial about major life changes (divorce, remarriage, a new baby, or kids leaving home). These are the Oprah hug-fests of the organization world, confessional stories that start with weeping and hand-holding but end in domestic uplift.

Other encounters have a distinct cruel-to-be-kind feel to them. Within the larger genre of shelter porn, home-organization shows have the potential to become a nasty little fetish line, with their repetitive rituals of exposure, humiliation, and punishment, all culminating in the money shot of “the reveal.” Like porn, they feature improbably good-looking carpenters with big, um, tool belts, and like porn, they foster unrealistic expectations, in this case the miraculous creation of mdf storage units in twelve hours. (mdf stands for medium-density fibreboard, a staple material of home shows and ikea furniture.)

Not every clutterer is up to the levels of exhibitionism and sadomasochism required for a TV makeover, however, and not everyone can afford the private services of a professional organizer. (Or a “clutterbug” cruise, in which you enjoy the waters of the Mexican Riviera while attending seminars on how to ditch draining relationships and get rid of gifts you hate.) The organization trend is also powered by a grassroots surge of support groups, self-help movements, and Internet chat rooms.

Clutterers Anonymous attempts to address “the deep emptiness we feel inside—the emptiness we compulsively try to fill by clinging to useless objects, non-productive ideas, meaningless activities, and unsatisfying relationships.” Like Alcoholics Anonymous, the granddaddy of all support groups, CA offers affirmations: “I affirm abundance and prosperity, thus I release the need to hoard . . . . I allocate space and time for anything new I bring into my life or home.” The Clutterless Recovery Groups offer inspirational promises: “We will accept the unlimited good that flows into our lives as we make room for it by eliminating clutter. . . . We will no longer live in a fog of mental confusion.”

Messies Anonymous offers Messietalk, a message board for advice and encouragement. (One hoarder, complaining that her boyfriend just drops his clothes where he stands, receives the adorably optimistic recommendation that she give him “a pretty wicker basket” for his laundry.) There are places for “mates of messies” to vent, groups for single messies, messy moms, messy teachers, and those interested in Bible-based neatening (Faith-in-Organizing-Action).

The unasked question of this self-help movement is at what point a recovering messie becomes a potential “uptightie.” The next step for the organization trend is to recognize the problems not of indiscriminate accumulators and slovenly housekeepers, but of people who are hooked on the hard, ruthless joy of de-junking. We need Over-organized Anonymous, with a whole new creed. It’s not hard to imagine what it would be: We affirm that we will stop using Rubbermaid holdalls to box up our anxieties and fears. We will stop believing that our ironclad control of the laundry-room cupboard has spiritual dimensions. We will recognize that while the glossy layouts in organizing magazines are empty of mess, they are also empty of people, pets, and piles of good books. We will “give ourselves permission” to hang on to our Joan Jett T-shirt from eighth grade. We will stop using the verb “containerize.” And we will admit that it is time to bring our obsession with organization out of the closet. ~

Alison Gillmor