Friday, January 15, 2010


The next time you find yourself thinking, “My house is a mess,” pick up a copy of the book Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow. I guarantee, your mess is nothing compared to that.

I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by hoarders and their garbage houses, knowing that they suffer from a form of OCD. E. L. Doctorow’s book about the brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, is a fictionalized first-person account dictated by Homer. However, the brothers were real, and their real-life story is probably even more bizarre than the novel. Theirs was the extreme garbage house.

Their true story begins at the end, in 1947, when the police in New York City received a phone message from an anonymous caller stating that there was a dead body at 2078 Fifth Avenue in a single-family, three-story brownstone building.

However, police attempts to enter the house were futile; all entrances to the house were completely blocked off with trash. Police could not get through the doors.

Finally, a day after the anonymous phone call, police used a ladder to enter the home through a second-story window. There, surrounded by stacks of trash, they found the body of Homer, the blind, partially paralyzed Collyer brother, who (autopsy showed) had died of a heart attack and starvation. But his caretaker brother Langley Collyer was nowhere to be found.

It wasn’t until three weeks later that authorities, sifting through the 136 tons of junk in the three-story home, found the rat-gnawed body of Langley. There was so much “stuff” in the house that the brothers had resorted to making tunnels to get from one room to another. The more reclusive the brothers got, the more paranoid they also became. Langley had rigged burglar/intruder traps around the house. While bringing food to Homer, who was eventually confined to his bedroom, Langley had tripped one of his own traps, and had suffocated under a huge pile of newspapers and other garbage.

E. L. Doctorow’s novel tries to help us understand what happened to the two brothers to lead to this scene in 1947. He takes the Collyers from their well-to-do childhood with their physician father and musician mother to their trash-filled existence at the end of their lives. What made Langley want to “collect” other people’s discards? Why the thousands upon thousands of bundled newspapers? What was the purpose of a disassembled Model T in the dining room? Ten pianos? The junk upon junk upon junk?

Langley collected and hoarded until the entire brownstone was completely filled, from top to bottom. He didn’t pay bills so eventually the two brothers lived without electricity, water, or heat. Langley left the house only at night—to buy groceries at a little neighborhood market and to sift through garbage and piles of discards, looking for ‘treasures’ to bring home.

Perhaps no one will ever know exactly what went on in the minds of these two brothers, but E. L. Doctorow makes an attempt to explain their mental journey in Homer and Langley.

If you want more information on these two reclusive brothers, there are some good web sites: Collyer Brothers Syndrome, Langley Collyer, and Squallor Survivors .

As for me, well . . . I suddenly have a strong urge to clean my house.


Messy@ Bungalow'56 said...

I just stopped by through your comment on Pioneer Woman. I was intrigued as to what 2to4 meant. I'm so glad I did. Your posts are great to read. I Had never heard about the brothers, don't worry the flashbacks to teaching will fade. After 11 years out of the classroom I know this is true. Loved the snow tracks...what a great perspective. Loved the turning things around, very inspirational. And my Nana is turning 91 this May, although I don't think any goosing will be involved.
Take care,

Elaine said...

Yi! We are fans of the TV show "Hoarders", partially because of the shock value, partially due to our own OCD tendencies, and partially because it always makes me throw away things. And I am in the middle of a project that looks like it could take six months--replacing windows, replacing walls due to dry rot, painting, new blinds, new furniture, etc. And I have a morbid fear of becoming like these guys. This makes me want to get a curbside dumpster and really start cleaning! Thanks for the info--I will look up the resources. You really did your homework!

2to4aday said...

Messy: Thanks so much for checking me out! I appreciate the kind feedback!

Elaine: The "Hoarders" show on A&E is so sad . . . it really shows how mental health is tied up into hoarding. Good luck on all your projects!

Jenny said...

Wow- very intriguing. Makes me want to pick up my own copy.

As almost OCD on the other end of the spectrum Hoarders is too much for me to watch. But I do enjoy watching a smaller version of the same idea on TLC called "Clean Sweep." I heart Peter Walsh.

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