Brooks Palmer, Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (Novato, California: New World Library, 2009). 219 pp. $13.95, paper.
One of the reasons that self-help books are so successful is that they introduce complex thinking to people who aren’t normally exposed to it, or who are made uncomfortable by it. Conversely, self-help books introduce simple thinking to people who spend most of their time thinking, or at least acting, complexly. The formula for a successful self-help book, as far as I can tell, is a title that invites the potential reader into the utopian possibility of relieving the stress of the modern condition, and simultaneously becoming modern in a far more successful way.
Take the slow food movement, as it has manifested itself in the United States. Inspired by former commune resident, and now Chez Panisse chef, Alice Waters, slow food ideology argues that we need to look to taken for granted features of daily life for the places that we have the most control over our happiness and health. Emphasizing the process by which things reach the table, slow food addresses critical ways in which the modern, and now the post-modern condition, undermines people of all races, genders and classes by persuading them that they really want mediocre food. Industrial food production creates labor force abuse, high prices for inferior products and poor nutrition. The phenomenon of “fast food” permits us all to live fast as well, doing more work for less money as we substitute a time-wasting family breakfast for a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-by that costs as little as $3.00 a person and gets us to work and school faster. Habits sold to us by the processed food industry reduce our sociality and our good health. As slow foodies easily point out, what is gained in time and convenience is invariably lost in relaxation, nutrition, and taste.
That said, life as a slow foodie has a deceptively simple formula: grow as much of your own food as you can, buy locally, use fresh ingredients, sit down and face each other at meals. Those of us who followed Barbara Kingsolver’s journey into this world in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2006), which is not a self help book, immersed ourselves in the beauty of this experience. Kingsolver also did, and did not, point out the difficulties of this commitment: the creativity of growing and canning is matched by hours of back-breaking and mind-numbing labor; the seasons in which everything is fresh also requires giving one’s personal calendar over to the weather and sudden ripening of a crop; you have to decide which roosters to send off to the slaughterhouse (don’t, whatever you do, name the chickens); and the food stored for winter can dwindle to a few basic items long before the farmer’s markets open.
My guess is that it also helps to have a big advance.
Authors like Kingsolver, Suze Orman, Andrew Weil, and Brooks Palmer, different as they are, are successful for the same reason. The message is: do this one thing, and you will be happy. You will be healthier, happier, and best of all, you will be free, something that a great many Americans have craved for three centuries or so. If you think this is just a white thing, you probably have not yet read bell hooks’ Sisters of the Yam (2009), in which hooks (of whom I am a great fan but for this one volume) advocates a self-healing process that African-American women can undertake through the consumption of self-help books.
I purchased Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back in a book store that largely serves academics, which I realize was meaningful. I bought it in exactly the way Palmer argues purchases should not be made, on impulse and in response to some neuron that fired off in my head that sent the message: “you will be happier if you buy this book.” (Note to those who want to start clutter busting now: Brooks also has a blog.) A true clutterer, as I discovered to my great relief, would never have read the book, but would come home and put it on a surface. Subsequently, s/he would have become ashamed, put it in a box, and stuffed it under the bed, with dozens — perhaps hundreds — of self-help books that had been purchased, unread and hoarded over the years. Palmer, a professional stand up comic and clutter busterer, features lots of clients who are desperately trying to help themselves by buying and acquiring things, prominent among them New Age books and tapes, and only getting into deeper doo-doo in the process.
Palmer’s central argument is this: culture producers tell us that we are what we own, and many of us are persuaded that having consumer goods and things of great monetary value makes us happy. Some of us acquire these things on the street, unable to pass an item that looks useful without stuffing it in the car. Whatever we acquire, whether it is the magazines that we subscribe to in order to better ourselves, the multiple cats we can’t bear not to bring home from the shelter, or the makeup we buy to look pretty, we become briefly exhilarated as we possess the object, then depressed when we realize that, like all the similar objects our home is filled with, it hasn’t solved anything at all. The objects then more or less taunt us, and fill our houses in such a way that they overwhelm us. Worse, they become objects of sentiment, holding feelings that we are unwilling to let go.
Like all successful self-help people, Palmer tells stories about people who, under his guidance, have recovered from this cycle. Usually the process of recovery involves identifying what role objects of various kinds play in your life. The process points out how you are failing to value yourself by allowing objects this power, and what your feelings actually have to do with either real people you refuse to let go of or insecurities that are undermining you but which you hold dear. Disabling one’s self by clinging to unwanted objects and people (yes, people, pets and services are clutter too under the right circumstances) is a problem for psychotherapy, but it is also something that is amenable to action.
Most of these stories are allegories masking as reality, and show the reader very directly how to take action. All include a cathartic moment in which Palmer’s clients perform exercises of various kinds that induce a crying jag, or a an attack of helpless laughter, and then make them free. There is no one who bars him from the house, or sets the dog on him, for example. Palmer’s techniques revolve around confronting people’s delusions, talking to them about shame, and working through the emotional obligations that they feel towards objects. They sometimes ask the object whether it is ok to send it away and explain why they must; in other situations he asks them to “name” piles of unused stuff. “You are crap!” you might shout at a dirty,
old pile of unreturned student papers from 1996 (secretly,of course, you fear that a student will return to tell you that you are a horrible teacher.) “What a pile of useless garbage!” you would point out to a pile of unused CDs that were really expensive, are still on your credit card, and that you don’t ever listen to.
Here, by the way, is a good place to address the obvious point that all self-help books are not the same. But they all require these moments of truth that are arrived at through confrontation. I could imagine Palmer holding hands with Andrew Weil as, lovingly, they cleansed a food cupboard of uneaten boxes of Ritz crackers, healthy but tasteless salt-free soups, and cocktail napkins from your last birthday party. Simultaneously, I fantasized about a Palmer -Suze Orman smackdown in the making. Orman would know that all those CDs were on your credit card (“And ya charged ‘em? Dintcha? DINTCHA?!”) and insist you hold a tag sale to begin paying that card down. Palmer would argue that attributing any value, monetary or otherwise, to the CDs was simply a way to hang onto them, and that they should go to the Salvation Army hasta pronto.
One flaw in the book is that all of Palmer’s clients are “cured” forever, when we know that most clutter bugs do not receive permanent salvation, slipping back into their habits and needing to be dug out again. All of Palmer’s clutter bugs begin lives of self-actualization by taking the baby/giant step of clutter busting, when actually, just ceasing to hoard would be a major change that might allow a person to live exactly the same life in a happier way. But that’s ok: in that way, Clutter Busting holds out a similar promise as Butler’s Lives of the Saints without all the gruesome scenes that becoming a saint involves.
Palmer points out what we Marxists already know: it really isn’t about the stuff, is it? It’s about the commodity fetish. It’s about the feelings we get when we look at stuff, and the deep betrayal we suffer when commodities fail to deliver. Clutter is about aspirations unmet; unspoken feelings of loss; relationships we can’t let go; old injuries; and lack of self-esteem. For academics, four shelves of books, double-shelved, that you have never read says: “I’m worried I’m not smart enough!” Or, “Maybe if other people see these books, they will recognize that I am smart.” Meanwhile, the books sit there looking at you, sending another silent message: “You bought us, now you are stuck with us. Before you get to your own writing, or any reading that would give you pleasure, you have to make good on the promise to read us. What — you don’t” (sniff!) “want us any more?”
Palmer would suggest that you sit down and have a chat with these books, thank them for the time they have spent in your house, apologize for not reading them and explain to them that you want them to go somewhere that someone will really appreciate them. Then box them up and take them to the library sale.