Leaving It to the Professionals

Clearing away clutter is no substitute for keeping house

(Igor Kisselev / Getty)

Two days after Christmas, I rolled a huge shopping cart into the home-organization department of the Burbank Ikea and threw in so many baskets and boxes and under-bed storage units that my small son (who had been standing in the front of the cart, navigating) decided to clamber out, leaving just enough room for a big wicker hamper. We were there because the prospect of cleaning up the house after Christmas had struck me as unpleasant and oppressive, whereas the prospect of driving out to Burbank and eating a meatball lunch in the Ikea cafeteria had struck me as attractive and spirit-lifting. Best of all, we would not be shirking the work back home; we would be beginning it—or so I persuaded myself. For, like many women of my proximate age and social position (householders, mothers, irritable presiders over vast domestic holdings of Lego blocks and takeout menus and teetering stacks of unexamined shop-by-mail catalogues), I am preoccupied by clutter; almost every domestic task seems to begin (and also to sputter out) in an effort to eliminate it, or at the very least to assign it to a well-chosen receptacle. This shared preoccupation has given rise to a wide host of American phenomena, only one of which is the Ikea home-organization department.

The anti-clutter movement is enormous, having spawned countless books along with magazine articles (and actual magazines), videos, classes, catalogues, and the 1,500-member-strong National Association of Professional Organizers. The "Eastern art" of feng shui is practiced in thousands of upscale, with-it households, and it proceeds from a "clear your clutter" premise. Anti-clutter campaigns make for excellent voyeur sport; the visits to Oprah of the master organizer Julie Morganstern are never disappointing. Sometimes Oprah has Morganstern perform spot inspections of Harpo employees' offices, events that offer superb moments of reality television: office doors swinging open in the manner of an FBI raid; shocked workers blinking into the camera lights, caught in flagrante with their overflowing mail crates and ripening piles of exercise clothes, their half-eaten lunches moldering on paper-strewn desktops. Far more entertaining, however, are the home visits, which are not feared but, rather, highly coveted, and for which the competition is stiff. Viewers write long, importuning letters describing unabashedly the slovenly states of their homes, which they will gladly reveal to a national television audience if only Oprah will send them some help. If the winner is really lucky, it is Morganstern herself who will make a visit, bringing along her Hefty bags and plastic sorter baskets and brisk "nothing shocks me" professionalism. The houses are never squalid; what they are is crammed to the gunwales with stuff—stuff that's been packed into drawers and cupboards and closets, no rhyme or reason to it, and not an inch of space to spare. No matter how big the kitchens are (and many of them are plenty big), they are never big enough, in part because the success of buy-in-bulk superstores has left people with an astonishing, pre-apocalyptic quantity of supplies. The video tour that begins each segment often reveals curious, forgotten outposts of spaghetti sauce or Formula 409 in the garage or beneath the stairs. No matter what area of the house is under consideration (medicine cabinet, linen closet, kids' rooms), it is sure to be an absolute horror. In the old days, of course, this kind of general chaos would occasion a thorough spring-cleaning, with the children sent upstairs to clear out the mess underneath their beds, and Dad dispatched to the garage under similar orders. But nowadays the home is foreign territory, a kind of very large hotel suite unintended for long-term habitation, and when the whole thing gets so overstuffed that it threatens to explode, the time has come to call on an expert.

The experts, Lord knows, are sympathetic to the psychological magnitude of tidying the house. The Zen of Organizing, which is studded with the inspirational words of boffo organizers from Plutarch to Martha Graham (although nothing at all from Joe Stalin, who by all accounts ran a very tight ship), begins with a description of how the author, Regina Leeds, sits with her clients, "calming" them before they open a single drawer: "We consciously leave fear and judgment behind." They also dress carefully and eat sensibly before beginning the work. Many authors of anti-clutter books mention cluttering as a possible manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it is not uncommon for them to discuss pharmaceutical approaches to dealing with a hall table heaped with Pennysavers and unsolicited AOL start-up disks. Stop Clutter From Stealing Your Life, by Mike Nelson, opens with a disclaimer: "I am not a professional organizer, psychologist, or psychiatrist," Nelson tells us in all earnestness, and his book (which is couched in the language of twelve-step recovery programs) includes a chapter on "the medical view" of clutter and another on how clutter can disrupt a person's sex life, which goes far beyond the logistical problems posed by too many back issues of The New Yorker fighting for space in the marriage bed.

Practitioners of the many home-organization philosophies adhere to a few basic tenets, central among them the solemnly held belief that any possession—no matter how serviceable or expensive—that is stored unused and forgotten in a closet or a cupboard will eventually metastasize into clutter. Once this happens, there's hell to pay. The moment your stylish black-and-chrome cappuccino machine makes the terrible one-way crossing from "appliance" to "clutter," it stops simply occupying valuable shelf space and becomes an enemy within your home, capable of draining your energy, sapping your chi, interrupting your sleep, and generally bumming you out. Step one for the professional organizer is persuading the owner of said cappuccino maker to get rid of the thing before it causes real problems. This is often an uphill battle; for one thing, the owner may still be smarting over the 1,200 clams she forked out to Williams-Sonoma for the really good cappuccino maker, the one with the energy-efficient standby mode. Once she has been convinced of the need to chuck the thing, however, the method of disposal is almost irrelevant—although I'm often surprised, given how expensive many of these items are, at what short shrift the notion of hosting a garage sale gets. ("Ugh! Not worth it!" the Washington, D.C.-based organizer Jill Lawrence said when I broached the subject, telling me that garage sales make sense only if one is "on disability" and therefore broke, or new to the neighborhood and therefore lonely—a combination that stigmatizes the enterprise pretty effectively: "Garage Sale Saturday: Broke and Lonely, Everything Must Go.") Some disposal suggestions are peculiar in the extreme. "Take pictures of any items which are simply too bulky to store," recommends Harriet "The Miracle Worker" Schechter in her book Let Go of Clutter, and "then bid a fond adieu to the actual objects." It's a suggestion that would surely lead to some mighty odd conversations way down the road: "Hey, Granny, what's this?" "Why, that's a snapshot of my old standby-mode cappuccino maker, Johnny! Top of the line!"

Even more paralyzing than the prospect of letting go of one's expensive impulse purchases is the thought of hauling out and categorizing the thousand smaller things: the handfuls of half-sorted mail; the videotapes with and without their boxes; the reams of children's artwork; tangles of unmatched socks; outgrown Little Mermaid costumes; multiple packages of Imodium, most of them expired (the stockpiling and subsequent discovery and disposal of expired medications is a gold mine for drug companies); the birthday-cake candles and unspent Chuck E. Cheese tokens and overdue notices from the library, all shoved into kitchen drawers—the whole miserable mess that is American family life as it is lived at a certain economic level. These debilitating decisions must be made one at a time, with the organizer instilling certain precepts in the client as they work. The professionals insist, for example, that householders designate a consistent "home" for each of their possessions, so that they don't end up with what Jill Lawrence calls "thirteen hammer syndrome," in which it becomes easier to haul ass down to the hardware store and buy a new hammer every time you need one than to spend a frustrating hour looking for an old one. ("But that's obvious," an acquaintance of mine said in disbelief when I explained this concept to him. "You'd be surprised," I told him.)

The organizers want clients to hew their household possessions down to the barest kit, augmented only by items of considered emotional or aesthetic value. Certainly, only a masochist would object to Harriet Schechter's recommendation that one throw out one's Dear John letters and "hate mail," but there's a sense in many of these books that any kind of saving is inherently problematic, dysfunctional, bad. Judith Kolberg, the author of Conquering Chronic Disorganization, makes gentle fun of one of her clients, an elderly woman (the Greatest Generation tends to take a pounding in these books) who has saved margarine tubs for years. The woman's husband has tried to cure her by buying her a full set of Tupperware, and she has even "briefly sought counseling." But still she holds on to the tubs. She refuses to throw them in the recycling bin, for which I admire her. Recycling is one of the favorite quick fixes of the organizers, but of course the best way to recycle something—the method that depletes the fewest resources in the process—is simply to use it again, which of course necessitates saving it until a use presents itself. The resourceful Kolberg finds a charity that serves poor women and will be happy to take the tubs: "Welfare mothers are too poor to purchase Tupperware," she informs us, "and too thrifty to throw away leftovers." At last the old woman happily relinquishes most of her cache. The episode is presented as a triumph for the organizer (she got the clutter out of the house!), but of course it was really a triumph for the old woman, who knew instinctively that good plastic bowls with air-tight lids ought not to be thrown out with the trash.

The sneaking suspicion I often get from reading such books is that the real purpose of cleaning out the closets is simply to make room for more stuff. Karen Kingston's best-selling Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui tells the inspirational story of a woman who attended one of Kingston's workshops and got so fired up about a clutter-free life that she called Goodwill and said, "You are going to need to send a truck!" She "cleared out her ancient stereo system, stacks and stacks of junk, and all but five items of clothing from her wardrobe," thereby releasing "huge amounts of stuck energy, which created space for something new to come in." What exciting "new" thing would be coming? An unexplored talent? A zeal for charitable giving? No—more stuff! "A week later she received a check in the mail from her mother for $8,000, and she went straight out and bought herself a new sound system, a whole new wardrobe of wonderful clothes, and everything else she wanted."

Nowhere is this uneasy alliance between clutter-clearing and consumption more apparent than in the pages of Real Simple magazine, whose motto is "Do Less, Have More," with the editorial emphasis falling on the "Have More" part of the equation. To be fair, the magazine regularly makes gestures in the general direction of the simple life. A recent article revealing readers' responses to the question "Which woman's life do you admire, and why?" featured a large black-and-white photograph of Dorothy Day, a co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement: "Constantly surrounded by our society's desire to consume, she chose purposeful poverty." Certainly this worthy woman would make an estimable role model for many people, but presumably not for most readers of Real Simple, which is filled to capacity with advertisements for luxury items, some of them garden-variety—six-burner stoves and Mercedes-Benzes and such—but many others of a highly specialized nature. There are regular ads for an American Standard bathtub of a remarkably silly design (it looks like a Shaker writing table into which a bathtub has crash-landed), which will set you back $1,400 but may not "simplify" your life as much as would taking a can of Comet to your old tub and making do with it. Almost every feature pitches one product or another, with purchasing information always included right up front. In essence Real Simple is a magazine about shopping; this is a fact that the advertisers embrace forthrightly. "Inspired by Shaker design," reads the copy on the bathtub ad, "not necessarily the lifestyle." Each issue begins with a series of full-page "Simple Solutions" that tend to run along the following lines: "Simplify" your home exercise program by throwing out your free weights and buying stretch bands ($8.00) and a digital heart-rate monitor ($50). "Simplify" your cleaning routine by dumping surface clutter into the Container Store's foldable mesh cubes ($3.00 to $12). "Simplify" your wine rack by (don't try to follow the logic here, or your brain will melt) "upgrading" its contents with $19 bottles of "rich Penfolds Old Vine Shiraz-Grenache-Mourvèdre," which (unlike the stretch bands and the mesh cubes) have the advantage of being unlikely to end up crammed into a closet where—foster children of silence and slow time—they will surely turn into clutter, drain your energy, bum you out, screw up your sex life, and inspire you to write to Oprah begging for a bailout.

De-cluttering a household is a task that appeals strongly to today's professional-class woman. It's different from actual housework, because it doesn't have to be done every day; in fact, if the systems one implements are truly first-rate, they may stay in place for years. More appealing, the work requires a series of executive-level decisions. Scrubbing the toilet bowl is a bit of nastiness that can be fobbed off on anyone poor and luckless enough to qualify for no better employment; but only the woman of the house can determine which finger paintings ought to be saved for posterity, which expensive possessions ought to be jettisoned in the name of sleekness and efficiency.

A generation ago peaceful cohabitation with a certain amount of clutter was possible, because so many other aspects of home life were ordered and regular. Perhaps only those of us old enough to have grown up in houses in which the old ways were observed—in which dinner was eaten in the dining room, and care was taken not to track dirt on good carpets, and wet towels were not left to sour—know what is missing from so many homes today. The current upper-middle-class practice of outsourcing even the most intimate tasks may free up valuable time for an important deposition, but it by no means raises the caliber of one's home life. My children attend a rather soigné Los Angeles preschool whose élan was recently jeopardized by a recent outbreak of head lice. Parents were given brochures from a service that takes care of the problem in one's home. This seemed a more attractive prospect than spending a morning combing for nits. But on reflection, having someone come to my home to delouse my children seemed perilously close to having someone (presumably not the same person) come in and service my husband on nights when I'd rather put on my flannel nightie and watch Dateline NBC. There's a point at which you have to suit up and do the job yourself; otherwise family members start to wonder whether they're living in a home or in a sort of lawless, anything-for-hire (albeit well-appointed) Bangkok flophouse. What's missing from so many affluent American households is the one thing you can't buy—the presence of someone who cares deeply and principally about that home and the people who live in it; who is willing to spend a significant portion of each day thinking about what those people are going to eat and what clothes they will need for which occasions; who knows when it's time to turn the mattresses and when the baby needs to be taken out for a bit of fresh air and sunshine. Because I have no desire to be burned in effigy by the National Organization for Women, I am impelled to say that this is work Mom or Dad could do, but in my experience women seem more willing to do it. Feminists are dogged in their belief that liberated, right-on men will gladly share equally in domestic concerns, but legions of eligible men who enjoy nothing more than an industrious morning spent tidying the living room and laundering the dust ruffle have yet to materialize (and those men who do fit the bill tend not to be objects of erotic desire for hotshot young copywriters and cardiologists). If you want to make a feminist sputter with rage, remind her of those dark days in America's past when girls took home-ec classes and boys took shop. But to watch yuppie parents squirm with dread and confusion when anything in their households goes on the fritz is to wonder whether it was such a bad thing for one half of the marriageable population to know how to mend a fallen hem and the other to have rudimentary knowledge of the workings of a fuse box. And to see such people frantically dropping wads of cash on hanging shoe racks and designer closet organizers is to suspect that they don't even know where to look for what they've lost. Many Americans of substantial means live in houses in which the prospect of a hot home-cooked meal at the end of the day is dim, in which beds are left in a tangle of sheets and blankets rather than being properly aired and made each morning, in which a button popped off a shirt renders the shirt unwearable for weeks on end or quite possibly forever—because who has time to sew on a button? And who even knows how anymore? And let's not imagine what quarrel about gender-linked tasks the predicament might foment. ("To make an omelette, you need not only those broken eggs but someone 'oppressed' to break them," Joan Didion wrote long ago in an essay on the women's movement.)

The book Not Your Mother's Life describes the arrangement the New York literary agent Amy Lowe made with her husband: she would keep her high-powered job while he stayed home with the children. Yet she still has to do all the family laundry: "He'll throw a load in the washer where it sits all day," she moans; "or he'll leave it in the dryer so it's all wrinkled by the time I get home from work." Nor have the "folding lessons" she has given the man (surely a marital high point) done a lick of good. Browbeating one's mate into providing a higher standard of housework is, we've all come to agree, morally objectionable (see the recently re-issued The Feminine Mystique, currently in its zillionth printing and still smokin' hot about the outlandish notion that one spouse might earn the money for a family's keep while the other provides the actual keep), so the stalemate established sometime in the mid-seventies remains.

All the quarrels and manifestos concerning the divvying up of housework (if this many people had spent this long discussing, say, the Battle of Thermopylae, they'd have left a record of infinitely greater variety and usefulness) have advanced the cause of housekeeping not at all—have in fact made of housekeeping a lost art. It is this art that Cheryl Mendelson hopes to revive in this generation's most important book on the subject, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. She takes careful stock of the many unsuccessful ways in which people attempt to create homes that hark back to the standards and comforts of an earlier era: ways that include elaborate and costly interior-decorating schemes or "nostalgic pastimes—canning, potting, sewing, making Christmas wreaths, painting china, decorating cookies" (an allusion, perhaps, to Martha Stewart and the phenomenal success she has enjoyed promoting just such projects during the very years in which housekeeping has severely foundered). Most unsuccessful of these various approaches are overly rigorous home-organization protocols, whose devotees "arrange their shoes along the color spectrum in a straight line and suffer anxiety if the towels on the shelf do not all face the same way," Mendelson writes. "They expend enormous effort on what they think of as housekeeping, but their homes often are not welcoming. Who can feel at home in a place where the demand for order is so exaggerated?" Of housework, that hideous and reviled pastime (the "drudgery" of housework is the accepted description, as though the work still involved emptying chamber pots and wiping down bedposts with kerosene rags to ward off bedbugs), she writes, "Having kept house, practiced law, taught [in addition to a Harvard law degree, Mendelson holds a Ph.D. in philosophy], and done many other sorts of work, low- and high-paid, I can assure you that it is actually lawyers who are most familiar with the experience of unintelligent drudgery." In Mendelson's opinion, the widespread collapse of housekeeping explains a multitude of domestic woes: "Television often absorbs everyone's attention because other activities (such as music-making, letter-writing, socializing, reading, or cooking) require at least a minimum of foresight, continuity, order, and planning that the contemporary household cannot accommodate." That her book is exhaustive is among its principal delights (my favorite chapter includes "a brief glance at the history of dusting"), but whether its prescriptions will engender noticeable change is highly debatable. (I confess that although I adore Home Comforts, I read it exactly as I often read cookbooks—straight through, enraptured, but finding no more of a call to immediate action than I found in Bleak House or Our Man in Havana.) How much easier it is to hire a professional to sort the children's artwork and arrange it by date in handsome leather-bound portfolios that nobody has time to look through except perhaps—here's a growth industry—someone hired for the purpose.