The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic
Darby Penney, Peter Stastny. Bellevue Literary Press, $25 (205pp) ISBN 978-1-934137-07-9
When New York's 120-plus-year-old mental institution Willard State Hospital was closed down in 1995, New York Museum curator Craig Williams found a forgotten attic filled with suitcases belonging to former inmates. He informed Penney, co-editor of The Snail's Pace Review and a leading advocate of patients rights, who recognized the opportunity to salvage the memory of these institutionalized lives. She invited Stastny, a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker, to help her curate an exhibit on the find and write this book, which they dedicate to ""the Willard suitcase owners, and to all others who have lived and died in mental institutions."" What follows are profiles of 10 individual patients whose suitcase contents proved intriguing (there were 427 bags total), referencing their institutional record-including histories and session notes-as well as some on-the-ground research. A typical example is Ethel Smalls, who likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her husband's abuse; misdiagnosed and institutionalized against her will, she lived at Willard until her death in 1973. While the individual stories are necessarily sketchy, the cumulative effect is a powerful indictment of healthcare for the mentally ill. 25 color and 63 b&w photographs.
Reviewed on: 12/31/2007
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