Rembrandt's Feathers

March 1, 2007
Alexandra N. Helper, MD
Volume 24, Issue 3

This month, I decided that the time had finally come the time to throw out the 4 boxes I had stored in my attic since leaving my childhood home. These boxes lay piled in a corner with 30 years of dust and dirt on their lids. Unopened in all these years, they were filled with things I didn't need or miss. But before tossing them out, I decided to take a look inside.

Tell me what you collect, tell me how you collect, and I will tell you who you are. -Jean Willy Mestach, artist and collector

This month, I decided that the time had finally come-the time to throw out the 4 boxes I had stored in my attic since leaving my childhood home. These boxes lay piled in a corner with 30 years of dust and dirt on their lids. Unopened in all these years, they were filled with things I didn't need or miss. But before tossing them out, I decided to take a look inside.

Holding my breath with excitement, I carefully cut the tape from the first box, then ripped open the top as dust puffed into my face. There, inside the box, were dozens of clippings of pictures and articles about Danny Kaye, my childhood hero. As I pored through the faded images, I could see my orange-haired idol up on screen again, dancing to the tune, "I'm Hans Christian Andersen, I've many a tale to tell."

I pulled the tape from the second box. Inside, wrapped in tissue paper, was a 3-ringed notebook containing dozens of recipes I'd collected during my adolescent fling with becoming a chef: chocolate cake made with mayonnaise, cheesecake with 3 kinds of fatty cheese, deep-fried chicken. How could I, whose American Heart Association Cookbook is tattered from use, have once valued such recipes?

The third box contained Playbills from Broadway plays I barely remembered, each one signed by the star of the show: Zero Mostel, Barbra Streisand, James Valentine, Brian Bedford. The fourth box contained my once-beloved Madame Alexander dolls. I lifted one from the box, smoothed her hair, and carefully straightened her fraying period clothing, as I had often done as a child. Here in the attic, surrounded by my long-ago collections of clippings, recipes, playbills, and dolls, a torrent of childhood memories flooded my present-day world.

Why people collect
Why do people collect? Is collecting a primal activity, perhaps rooted in the survival activities of primitive hunter-gatherers? Is collecting universal across cultures and economic classes? I wonder what drove Rembrandt to collect Amazonian parrot feathers. Did their colors appeal to him? Did they feel good? Did they conjure up the vision of the entire bird? Did he collect them merely to serve as models in his artwork? Collections and collectibles span the range from the most mundane to the most unusual, from those that have only personal value to those that also possess great economic value: pebbles; metal lunch boxes; potato chips in the shapes of animals; Pez dispensers; Elvis memorabilia; the noted art collections of Getty, Guggenheim, and Gardner. Even scientists could be viewed as collectors of data for discovery.

Both of my sons are collectors. My 21-year-old still has the collection of superhero figures he and his friends had drawn as children. My 17-year-old collects banjos of different styles, sounds, and ages to go along with his passion for bluegrass music. When younger, both boys collected newts during early morning walks while we were vacationing in New Hampshire, nurturing them, and sometimes naming them before returning them to the wild.

So, some collections are transient, while others span generations. Some are used in play and creative activities, and others just to "have and hold." Some are kept for private enjoyment, others for public display.

There is psychoanalytic literature that views collecting as an attempt to deal with early developmental tasks that may not have been successfully accomplished. The drive to collect may be related to the need to have an ongoing transitional object: the collection itself. Other developmental scholars postulate that the collector may have been burdened during the anal phase of development, with difficulty in knowing when to hold on and when to let go. I believe that the activity of collecting has a multitude of healthy growth-promoting functions.

CASE VIGNETTES Harry was an 8-year-old patient of mine. He was very intelligent and his eyes seemed to sparkle with good humor. But Harry came to see me because he did not function well at school, a situation that led to low self- esteem. Harry's neuropsychological testing showed that he had visual-spatial organizational issues and attention-deficit disorder. This cognitive problem held him back at school. It was difficult for him to keep track of school papers. He could not remember to do homework assignments, and if he did, he often forgot to turn them in.

At one point in the treatment, Harry's mother told me that she and Harry had gone on a walk together. They met the mother of one of Harry's classmates who commented on the difficulty of the book assigned for reading in their children's English class. Harry's mother reported that he looked bewildered. Almost in unison, they both said, "What book?" Harry had no idea that the class had been assigned a book to read.

Harry's academic situation grew more dire until he began to collect Pokemon cards. Within several months, Harry's schoolwork became less erratic. In amassing his cards, he was catapulted into developing strategies for organizing his collection: there were notebooks with plastic sleeves and a succession of schemes to arrange the creatures by various powers or other characteristics. He was able to apply these new organizational skills to his academic work. Harry's newfound passion for collecting was the drive behind his neurocognitive leap.

MaryJoe is a 13-year-old with Asperger syndrome for whom life is overwhelming and lonely. She sees me both for psychotherapy and for medication to treat her anxiety and despair. She has collected DVDs of all of Brad Pitt's movies. From our work together, I have concluded that MaryJoe's collecting behavior is driven by her biological psychiatric disorder and her hardwired neurocognitive rigidity.

But I also think that she and I can make use of her collecting behavior toward healthy growth and development. Given my interest in movie stars, I read People magazine. As a result, I have learned a great deal about Brad Pitt and his philanthropic activities. Whenever MaryJoe brings up one of Brad Pitt's movies, we process the story line to help her expand her limited understanding of people and their actions. In addition, I am often able to introduce ideas about Pitt's activities in the real world that involve interpersonal skills, empathy for people who have less than he does, and relating to others through philanthropy.

These real-life activities capture MaryJoe's interest, so we can use them for her therapeutic benefit. MaryJoe's Asperger syndrome leads to an inability to take the point of view of other people. When we discuss Brad Pitt, MaryJoe is motivated to try to understand what other people may be experiencing. The motivator is her collector's interest in Brad Pitt and his movies, but the outcome is that MaryJoe is learning to see people and events in broader, less idiosyncratic ways.

I have had other child patients who are socially awkward and for whom sharing their collections facilitated the development of stronger social skills. For example, when trading cards or other collectibles, they must learn to engage with other children and to negotiate. The children will also need a firm knowledge base about their holdings so that they can trade up in value if they wish. They must try to keep the accrued knowledge organized and must work on strategies for the recall of this knowledge. Clearly, cognitive skills are enhanced by the passion of collecting.

Pathological collecting
There are pathological forms of collecting, such as hoarding and compulsive collecting by patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. I suspect that child hoarders have a sense of insecurity about being well cared for. What gets hoarded may help the child have a sense that, no matter what, he or she will have what is needed to get on in life. To the outside observer, the collected objects may not seem concretely related to the ability to survive, but they are symbols that represent nurturance and survival to the hoarder. Hoarders may also use their collections to feel that they are in control. Collecting behavior may also provide a feeling of control for patients with impulse control disorders such as attention-deficit disorder. Patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder may exhibit extreme collecting behaviors based on abnormal neurochemistry. Nonetheless, skilled therapists can talk to even these patients about the collections and the behaviors associated with collecting in order to promote healthy development.

Thoughts of a collector
I discussed aspects of collecting with John Sweeney, executive director of the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, Mass, and an avid collector himself. He has parlayed his long-standing passion for collecting into a series of consulting jobs, including providing props for a chain of women's clothing stores and set pieces for television programs and organizing a screenplay archive. Sweeney's personal collections include cars, Tiffany studio lamps, vintage motorcycles, antique wrist watches, and mechanical ice-cream scoops.

Sweeney has thought about collections both in terms of business and psychology. He believes that, first of all, a collection gives the collector a sense of mastery of a given subject-specifications, dates, serial numbers, relative rarity, value. Furthermore, people who collect may find that their self-concept becomes sturdier; their passionate interest helps coalesce their sense of who they are and they feel a part of a community of similar-minded people.

Collections serve several other important intrapsychic purposes. Sweeney proposes that collectors can satisfy a need to be in control by being in charge of their collection. He believes that greed may be an aspect of collecting. He goes on to postulate that collectors must take risks and in the context of taking risks may feel a satisfying thrill. Sweeney thinks that this thrill feeling may be quite complex: there is the thrill of acquisition, the thrill of working with what has been acquired, and finally the thrill of the trade. He goes on to guess that collectors may be competitive with other collectors seeking the most valued object in their category of collectibles.

Therapeutic value of collecting
As a child psychiatrist, I agree with Sweeney; however, I would expand on his ideas. I believe that the experience of feeling greed, competitive strivings, and thrill can help children with the accomplishment of affect toleration while they remain in an arena in which there is great emotional safety. Some children fail to form a consistent sense of themselves through time, relationships, and affect states. I feel that it is possible that a deep psychological and emotional involvement with a collection along with the action of collecting may take these vulnerable children a long way toward a sturdier core self-concept.

I decided to keep my childhood collections after all. Truthfully, I had forgotten that I was so interested in Danny Kaye, cooking, and certain kinds of dolls. But it feels pleasantly comforting to know that my collections are still in the attic, even if I don't browse through them. Just thinking of them reminds me of who I was and who I am. I see myself as a more colorful person for having had these passions. Right now, I'm baking a chocolate cake that smells too much of the mayonnaise called for in the old recipe. I doubt that it will be tasty. It certainly won't be healthy. Still, it felt good mixing up that batter from my childhood.