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UK OCD Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome Case Study: The Collyer Brothers

House Clearance Help & Advice: Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome Case Study: The Collyer Brothers
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Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome Case Study: The Collyer Brothers

The Collyers first came to the attention of the American public during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s when, despite a very lucrative offer, the brothers turned down a real estate’s interest in their 19th Century Harlem home. Originally, they were rumoured to be living in “Orientalist splendor” and so little was thought of their rejection of the offer. However, several years later the brothers began to refuse to keep up mortgage payments on the house. When eviction procedures began and a clean-up crew was sent over, it was discovered that the brothers had been living an isolated existence, never leaving the house, amidst massive walls of junk and old newspapers. At the time, Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome had yet to be designated a medical illness, but this is clearly a textbook case for all of the reasons we will examine in a moment.

When the police attempted to force an entry into the house, they were walled out by a massive mound of rubbish, from floor to ceiling, directly behind the door. After the furoar of the police smashing down their door, Langley Collyer simply made out a check for $6,700, enough to pay off their mortgage in full and without comment retreated back into isolation.
Years later an anonymous tipster reported to the police that he believed there was a dead body within the house. A patrol officer was dispatched and attempted to enter the house which possessed no telephone or doorbell, locked doors and windows protected by iron grills.

Eventually an emergency squad was deployed and after successfully breaking a second-story window, one man crawled for two hours through the network of garbage-tunnels in the Collyers’ house before finding the body of Homer Collyer. It took a further few weeks to find his brother Langley who had been lying fairly close.

Sadly, no-one had yet begun to treat Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome as a mental illness in American society. However, their story serves as a stark reminder of the more extreme symptomatic manifestations that are possible.

The Collyers went well beyond the normal criteria for defining Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome, with the whole house being so inundated with garbage that it could no longer serve its purpose. (After their deaths it was demolished to make room for a municipal park.)

However, the Collyers also displayed some interesting peripheral symptoms and characteristics of the compulsive hoarder. Both brothers seemed to be of above average intelligence and Langley had, in the past, invented an ingenious machine to vacuum the inside of pianos and had adapted a T Model Ford to generate electricity. Later, this intelligence was used to boobytrap the house against the outside world.

Paranoia, isolation and a disregard to personal hygiene characterised the brothers’ entrenchment in their own home. Their boobytrapping and the fact that Langley was prepared to occassionally leave the house to file lawsuits against the police for breaking an entering makes clear the utter hostility that the brothers possessed towards the outside world. A past family upheaval (their father had left the family when they were young men).

Most interestingly, when asked by a journalist why he saved such a massive collection of newspapers, Langley remarked “I am saving newspapers for Homer, so that when he regains his sight he can catch up on the news.”. This clearly echoes the common Compulsive Hoarder’s “I’ll need it later” justification.

Overall, the Collyers were an extreme case but extreme cases from the past can shed light upon the disorders we see around us today.

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