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The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a…
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The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic (2009)

by Darby Penney, Peter Stastny (Author)

Other authors: Lisa Rinzler (Photographer), Robert Whitaker (Foreword)

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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
Fascinating look at mental health care in the early to mid 20th Century. I found the narratives a bit jumbled; they seemed to jump in time and skip around. But that was a minor irritation, and overall I found this book riveting.

I believe most of the people profiled in this book might not even be given any mental health treatment today, and was struck by the number of individuals (probably 3 or 4 of the 10) who had sustained a head injury at some time prior to their mental health "breakdown."

I like to think we do a better job with mental health care now, but the authors' afterword paints a fairly grim picture of the current state of things. Many of the people who would have been institutionalized in mental health facilities in the past now end up in the prison system, apparently.

I was left feeling grief for the people in the book and their lost lives/lost potential. People pushed to the periphery of society because they didn't fit into established norms or because they fell on hard times, or had a particularly emotional period. It's there but for the grace of God that I go, and probably many others as well. ( )
  glade1 | Feb 29, 2016 |
Quite interesting read- I was both interested and heartbroken while reading this. It sheds some light on the lives of those who lived at Willard Psychiatric Hospital during its 125 years of operation. ( )
  littlebirdreads | Feb 10, 2015 |
Quite interesting read- I was both interested and heartbroken while reading this. It sheds some light on the lives of those who lived at Willard Psychiatric Hospital during its 125 years of operation. ( )
  littlebirdreads | Feb 10, 2015 |
Quite interesting read- I was both interested and heartbroken while reading this. It sheds some light on the lives of those who lived at Willard Psychiatric Hospital during its 125 years of operation. ( )
  littlebirdreads | Feb 10, 2015 |
I have tremendously mixed feelings about this book.
I appreciate the effort the authors made to learn the history of these men and women. I was often deeply moved by their stories and their faces and their struggles.
At the same time, I absolutely hated their decision to use the hands of models, posing as the subjects in photos, and their choice not to use anyone's real last names. I thought the point of this book was the truth; these elements make it seem like theatre.
The laziest way to advance text is to list question after question: Where did she go after she left? Was anyone there to meet her? Did she find a job? Did she find happiness? (These are questions the reader is smart enough to consider him/herself, and invariably the answer is "We don't know." ) This book is filled with such questions.
I also didn't care for the authors' choice to juxtapose contemporary medical know-how with yesterday's assumptions. I certainly believe that mental institutions of years ago were often terrible places, but I also imagine that physicians and nurses of the time likely were doing their best, and genuinely wanted to help their patients.
This could have been an extremely powerful book had the writers simply told the story of the men and women in the asylum. Instead, they chose to lecture and conjecture.
A strange book - sad, melancholy, poignant. ( )
2 vote Eliz12 | Jul 27, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Darby Penneyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Stastny, PeterAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Rinzler, LisaPhotographersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Whitaker, RobertForewordsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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This book is dedicated to the memories of the Willard suitcase owners, and to all others who have lived and died in mental institutions.
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The Sheltered Workshop Building stands alone on a hill overlooking Seneca Lake next to the empty lot that once held Chapin Hall, the massive central building of Willard State Hospital in New York. (Prologue)
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Book description
The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic offers a rare personal look at ten individuals who disappeared into mental institutions during the first half of the 20th century. Based upon the authors’ research for a major exhibit at the New York State Museum drawing on the suitcase contents, the book tells the stories of promising and complex lives, all transformed by commitment to a mental institution. During their lifetimes, these people’s stories were buried in medical records, if they were told at all; the book is a posthumous chorus of their voices, revealing their life stories publicly for the first time.


Going through the steamer-trunks, cardboard boxes, duffle-bags, fancy and plain suitcases, we uncovered many essential details of these people’s lives up until their arrival at Willard. Their asylum years, as traced in the medical records, contrast dramatically with the richness and poignancy of the materials we found among their belongings: letters, photographs, diaries, knickknacks and religious items; and evidence of careers, like nurses’ collars, an army uniform, needlework, and photography equipment. Bringing together these unique sources, the book creates portraits of individuals who led ordinary and remarkable lives before they were isolated from society. Ordinary, because, they were not particularly noteworthy during their lifetimes; and remarkable, because looking back at them now, they impress us with a compelling poignancy and a determination to transcend the fates that befell them, even under lock and key.
The book is also a social history of 20th century psychiatry; the field’s many disappointments and failures are illustrated through the system’s impact on the lives of people from a wide range of backgrounds, each facing a unique kind of mental and emotional distress. But the biographies of the suitcase owners reveal much more than the sorry state of psychiatric care during the first half of the 20th century. They show new immigrants and native-born Americans dealing with a host of problems in a time of wars and economic hardships. At the same time, they are stories of resilience and creativity, since for each one who broke down under the weight of their experiences, there were several who rose up and found reasons to live within themselves and their immediate surroundings. These stories have a strong bearing on the lives of the millions of people living with serious psychiatric diagnoses. While far fewer people are now confined for decades in state institutions, many are still gathered in squalid ghettos and shunned by society, living largely unfulfilled lives, despite the scientific advances claimed by modern psychiatry. They, too, would benefit from a renewed look at their humanity and the lives they could be leading, if they were given the respect, opportunities and supports they deserve.
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