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Obsession With Possessions

Author Jane Hammerslough says 'dematerializing' doesn't mean buying less, but stepping back and recognizing that objects are just ... objects.


So the tie "wasn't Barneys."

The sweater "was too suburbs."

The datebook "too last century."

All of it, shucked of its fancy paper and tossed back into the car trunk, has been booked for a return trip.

"It just wasn't exactly what I wanted.... "

But, asks author Jane Hammerslough, in her tough but witty new book "Dematerializing: Taming the Power of Possessions" (Perseus Publishing, 2001), just what is it that we want? And can we get it through the physical trappings we seek so persistently?

Hammerslough, a journalist--and a recovering materialist--admits that even after all the deep digging and self-reflection occasioned by her work on the book, she's backsliding all the time. She says that she's buffeted, like the rest of us, by all the not-so-hidden messages swirling through the culture. She, too, is susceptible to the call to be the Good Mom, the Sexy Partner, the Savvy Working Woman--each outfitted with top-of-the line, model-of-the moment accessories to project The Image.

The pressure to buy into a slickly packaged identity is ubiquitous and obvious. But knowing what's at work, and how the gizmos and sleight-of-hand are drawing you in, doesn't make resisting any easier. "I don't know if I necessarily buy less. But I think about it more," Hammerslough says. And she pays a lot more attention to behavior that used to be rote. For instance: This particular evening, just hours away from a soiree, Hammerslough is caught in an all-too-familiar conundrum: "Now, I'm getting ready for a party ... standing in front of my closet and I can't help thinking: What am I trying to project? How accurate is it?" It's learned behavior that's tough to shake.

Chatting from her Westport, Conn., home between holiday parties and travel commitments, she says that her research, talking and writing have kept her focused on the knotty psychology behind our acquisitions.

We think that buying is the problem and vow to shop less. But buying, she says, certainly isn't a sin unless it is used persistently to mask perceived flaws or fill empty emotional spaces. "I don't think it's easy to just stop buying things. It's human [to acquire things]. But it's when it starts to overwhelm people" that the problems begin.

In an economic environment that has, in recent years, produced more bankruptcy cases than college graduates and where storage facilities rate as one of the fastest growing businesses ("We've gotta find someplace to stick all that stuff!"), Hammerslough attempts to make some sense of our competing desires. What is the shape of our souls undressed, unshod, unlacquered? "There is an awful lot of tension and stress devoted to stuff," she explains. "We put so much energy in it. And it can really mess up our lives."

Hammerslough, who has worked as a magazine writer and as columnist for the New York Post and other newspapers, winds her way through our psychological junk drawer, full of all of its hand-me-down debris. Presenting a comprehensive, briskly paced social history of Americans and their spending practices, she fills out facts and figures with examples plucked from history, literature and pop culture--from F. Scott Fitzgerald to "Friends"--illustrating how and why Americans spend and consume, and how our values have been upended and tipped askew.

Of course, there is a machine at work--with all of its behavioral studies, subliminal advertising and marketing research--that keeps the race toward "more" moving forward. "We receive 3,000 marketing messages every day," Hammerslough says, many of which effectively undermine our attempts to retreat into a simpler life, often with products aimed at helping us acquire a simpler life.

Americans gorge themselves on things that they hope will counteract the onslaught of everything from stress to guilt to nostalgia. Things may not make us better, but they make us feel better, safer, more connected to our pasts. Web sites offer to help you find not just an old book, but "the very book you lost on a bus in your youth." And "walk-into-the-past stores," where every object has a story, milk this sentimental snapshot of the past.

Materialism or, as she calls it, "materializing," Hammerslough explains, has grown from one of the basic devices of myth and miracles: "Manna appeared in the desert to save the starving. Loaves and fishes multiplied to feed the hungry.... We've had countless stories of transformation, where something bad turns good and something good gets better," she writes. "Our fables illustrate fulfillment of especially unlikely possibility--capturing the moment when hope becomes reality. And if magic manifests itself in something tangible, well then, isn't the object magical too?"

The belongings that clutter up our lives aren't just props, as Hammerslough suggests, "They're characters."

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