Twelve Years for the Korean Who Attacked a U.S. Envoy

For some, the need to shed possessions is a life-consuming illness—but the cultural embrace of decluttering can make it hard to seek help.

As long as she can remember, Annabelle Charbit has loathed “stuff.” She hated birthdays because birthdays meant gifts. And gifts meant finding a way to toss them.

At 5 years old, Charbit would sneak toys into her younger brother’s room. By age 10, she was stashing her belongings in alleys around her London neighborhood. At 13, she discovered charity stores, smuggling bags past her parents and out the door.

Living on her own in her twenties, Charbit, now 41, continued her spartan ways, eschewing even lamps. “I would be in semi-darkness,” she says.

Currently a neuroscience researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, Charbit was obsessively decluttering before the word really existed in popular culture. Google Ngram, which charts the use of certain words in book titles, shows that “declutter” first came into use in the 1970s, its popularity shooting up through the ’80s, ’90s, and the first decade of the 21st century. According to Oxford University Press, the term was only added to the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary in June 2015. Today, women’s magazines routinely urge readers to purge; personal organizers offer to coach clients in their pursuit of minimalist perfection; earlier this year, Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which promises to help people achieve “the unique magic of a tidy home,” became a bestseller. But for some people, the cultural embrace of decluttering can provide cover for more problematic behavior.