For 126 years (1869-1995) the Willard Asylum, later the Willard State Mental Hospital, housed the chronically mentally ill — tens of thousands of them — near Seneca Lake in upstate New York. Nearly half of those who were admitted never again left the sprawling facility, and the belongings they had brought with them on their initial arrival accumulated in the asylum’s attic over the many decades of its operation.
Now, the contents of many of those suitcases and trunks have become part of a traveling exhibit and the subject of a book, both bearing the title, The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny. The items displayed tell the stories of an astonishing diversity of patients who inhabited the Willard: a German, an Austrian, a Philippino, a Scott, a Ukrainian, a Frenchwoman, an African-American from Ohio, and, of course, New Yorkers. They brought with them clothes, photographs, letters, keepsakes, religious items, and other possessions, all of which tell us something about the poignant stories of their troubled lives.
The New York Times recently reviewed the book and presents vignettes of a number of the patients:
A Frenchwoman who walked into Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan one day in 1932 to engage the doctors in a dialogue on paranormal communication, and was committed to psychiatric wards for much of the rest of her life….
One set of 18 pieces of luggage held the complete wardrobe and household goods of a successful midcareer nurse who became convinced her co-workers were conspiring against her. She reluctantly assented to temporary hospitalization at Willard and never left;….
One suitcase of small items (including a bronze model of the Washington Monument) belonged to an upstate carpenter whose obsession with Margaret Truman and repeated efforts to contact her for marriage earned him attention from the Secret Service….
One dilapidated satchel of religious materials belonged to a German-born Dominican nun whose life slowly crumbled into a confusion her order wanted no part of. In the hospital, she… spoke of giving birth to a dachshund and of her breakfast eggs hatching to chickens in her stomach.
The designers of the exhibit and authors of the book are not disinterested chroniclers of the institution and its inmates. As the Times puts it,
Both are prominent patients’-rights advocates: Dr. Stastny is described on one advocacy Web site as a “dissident psychiatrist” and Ms. Penney as a “long-time activist.” Their platform is clearly stated in the book’s first pages: much mental illness is “understandable reaction to stress,” orthodox psychiatry often “stands in the way of healing” and even the most “distressed” patients will fare better outside institutions.
Whatever one’s response is to the political aims of the exhibit and book, the contents are undeniably moving.