The Lives They Left Behind

The Lives They Left Behind

Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic

Book - 2008
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Perseus Publishing

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The Lives They Left Behind is a deeply moving testament to the human side of mental illness, and of the narrow margin which so often separates the sane from the mad. It is a remarkable portrait, too, of the life of a psychiatric asylum--the sort of community in which, for better and for worse, hundreds of thousands of people lived out their lives. Darby Penney and Peter Stastny's careful historical (almost archaeological) and biographical reconstructions give us unique insight into these lives which would otherwise be lost and, indeed, unimaginable to the rest of us.”—Oliver Sacks, M.D., Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, Columbia University Artist, and author of Musicophilia

“The haunting thing about the suitcase owners is that it’s so easy to identify with them.”—Newsweek

“In their poignant detail the items helped rescue these individuals from the dark sprawl of anonymity.”—The New York Times

“[The authors] spent 10 years piecing together . . . the lives these patients lived before they were nightmarishly stripped of their identities.”—Newsday

More than four hundred abandoned suitcases filled with patients’ belongings were found when Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995 after 125 years of operation. They are skillfully examined here and compared to the written record to create a moving—and devastating—group portrait of twentieth-century American psychiatric care.

A collection of abandoned possessions conjures forgotten lives of twientieth-century mentally ill and institutionalized patients.

Blackwell North Amer
By the time it closed in 1995 after 126 years of operation, Willard Psychiatric Center, overlooking Seneca Lake in upstate New York, had been home to over 54,000 people. Some were released to their former communities after years of institutionalization, but many more died there. If not for the discovery of more than 400 suitcases filled with patients' belongings in the hospital attic (which led to a 2004 exhibit at the NewYork State Museum in Albany that attracted more than 300,000 visitors and now to this book), their lives would have been lost to history.
In The Lives They Left Behind, the contents of 10 of these suitcases are skillfully examined and compared to the written record to create a moving - and devastating - group portrait of 20th century American psychiatric care. The stories of rich and complex lives not hinted at in the hospital records emerge from a wide array of personal effects - letters to loved ones, photographs of school days and foreign travels, knickknacks, religious tracts, a christening gown, professional photographic equipment, a delicate hand-painted bone china teacup and saucer.
Here are the personal dramas of new immigrants and native-born Americans coping with a host of problems in times of war and economic hardship. They are men and women of different races and ethnicities, among them a young dispossessed German nun, a Scottish nurse and an African-American World War II veteran. The confusion following displacement; the rage or despair that resulted from illness, loss of loved ones or work; and the experience of hearing disembodied voices were only some of the misfortunes that put them on the path to institutionalization, from which most would never escape alive. As it restores the humanity of the individuals it so poignantly evokes, The Lives They Left Behind reveals the vast historical inadequacies of a psychiatric system that has yet to heal itself.

Publisher: New York : Bellevue Literary Press, 2008
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9781934137079
Branch Call Number: 362.21 PEN
Characteristics: 205 p. ; cm
Additional Contributors: Stastny, Peter


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Apr 16, 2017

Not always an easy topic to read about, but it gives a good history in our changing thoughts on mental illness. Those housed at the upstate NY facility were often used as labor with no compensation. Some were more ill than others but some never had the circumstances of their prior considered in how that impacted there help. Some could have been helped if their root issues were discussed. Anyway, as a genealogy buff it was interesting.


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