My Brother, the Keeper

Dmae Roberts

Dmae Roberts

A woman tries to understand her brother’s need to hoard.

By Dmae Roberts, published in Oregon Humanities – Summer 2009

I just saw my little brother, Jack, digging through a Dumpster at our neighborhood grocery store, and I pretended I didn’t know him. He was in the dirty, torn clothes he likes to wear for what he calls “collecting.” Sometimes his flannel shirts and fleece jackets are hanging in shreds on his thin, middle-aged frame. I know he doesn’t eat well, even though I buy him food, and every time I see him, he looks thinner. Though he can afford a haircut, he lets his hair grow long and stringy; when he perspires, it clings to his face and the old, thick glasses he wears.

When I moved him from our mother’s home in Eugene, where he’d lived until her death three years ago, to a nice one-bedroom house around the corner from me in Portland, I naively thought that in new surroundings his behavior would change. I’ve begged, cajoled, and criticized. But he won’t stop. Jack doesn’t dig through Dumpsters for income: collecting is his joy, his passion in life, one I’ll never understand.

Back at home, sitting at my cluttered desk, I fight the urge to phone him and ask again why he won’t stop. I’ve done my research, read about disposophobia–the fear of getting rid of junk. I’ve rationalized that Jack isn’t as bad as the people you see on the news who hoard dozens of small animals in their homes; he’s just a pack rat with a strong compulsion. A year ago, I took him to counseling, but after eight weeks of sessions, the mental health expert concluded, much to my frustration, that Jack was too old to change his behavior and that I needed to stop getting upset about it. That made me angry–but I knew Jack wasn’t the only one in the family with a problem.

Read the rest of My Brother, the Keeper at Oregon Humanities

Dmae Roberts ( is a Peabody award-winning writer and radio producer who is currently working on her memoir, Lady Buddha and the Temple of Ma. She lives in Portland with her husband, Richard, and their twin cats.