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.