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The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a…

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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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 |
This book is based on a exhibit of suitcases that were left behind when New York's Willard State Hospital closed in the late 1990s. Opened in 1869, the hospital had a very long and sometimes colorful history when dealing with mental illness. I found this book to be a fascinating look into the lives of several different patients who spent decades of their lives committed without hope of ever being released.

It also provides commentary on how mental illness used to be dealt with and how conditions have evolved over time. The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way in this book was how much hostility the authors had for the doctors treating their patients through the years. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there were plenty of doctors who misused their authority over patients, but they were working in a field where relatively little was known about mental illness. Some of the things they thought or did in regards to their patients seems crazy to us now, but I'm sure the majority of medical professionals back then thought they were doing the right thing. It didn't seem fair that the authors wrote with such anger towards their colleagues of yesteryear. In any case, psychology is a fascinating topic and by using artifacts from patients this book really used a unique angle. ( )
1 vote rosylibrarian | Dec 3, 2014 |
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 |
In the prologue, the authors state that the source material for this book (the abandoned suitcases from the Willard Psychiatric Center) resulted in a museum exhibit, a traveling exhibit, a website, and this book. I think the exhibits and the website were probably pretty good; however, the source material doesn't seem to be particularly well-suited to a book. If this book was produced in conjunction with the museum exhibit, then I guess it works, but as a stand-alone book, it's not very interesting. It's disjointed and badly formatted, and there isn't enough information for each featured patient to justify this book. Maybe in the hands of better authors, this book would have been worth the read. ( )
  palmaceae | Jul 15, 2013 |
Terribly disappointing because it could have been wonderful, but instead suffers from repetitive, barely-restrained vitriol. The book's ostensible focus is on reconstructing, from suitcases left in the attic, the lives of people who were patients at a residential psychiatric hospital. This is an interesting proposition, but it is not pursued hermeneutically or adequately. The problem is not that the authors have a point to make and use the case studies to support it. Rather, they are not sufficiently up-front about their agenda and present a veneer of scientific inquiry to convey their neutrality. However, they are not neutral, and their thesis is ill-served by not being explicitly described.

An otherwise-interesting topic is marred by heavy negative over-generalization, failure to stick to the topic it proposes to present, and failure to separate the issue of type and quality of care from the question of what to do when a person is unable to manage in society. Making the book worse is poor editing, both in terms of sometimes-confusing organization and flow, and unclear and repetitive statements. Some important information and explanation are also missing (for example, whose hands are holding the people's possessions in the photos, and is it journalistically suspect to have used hands that appear to match the person's demographics?). Another area that seems deceptive and detracts significantly is the authors' contradictory attitude about the patients' privacy. On the publishing information page, they report that they would have used patients' names but for privacy laws. I can understand this regret; my dissertation study participants wanted me to use their names and I was not permitted to do so. However, the authors' desire to use names stems from their own wishes, not their subjects', as their subjects are dead. Presumably if the patients' relatives had given permission, the authors could have used the patients' names (since the survivors hold the decedents' privilege). It is possible that the patients would not have wanted their names used. In this light, the authors' use of people's first names, full-face photos, and potentially identifying information seems both coy and unethical, as well as unnecessary and provocative. Who is it who was stripped of their autonomy and used for other people's ends by the bad legal/medical/psychiatric abusers? And whose privacy is abrogated by the authors, for their own purposes? Hmm.

I support the authors' contentions that psychiatry has been used as an instrument of social control and management, that patients were and are pathologized and disbelieved, and that they often receive inadequate care, especially in public institutions. This is widely documented and more effectively demonstrated elsewhere, though it bears repeating. The authors could have used this book more effectively for this purpose had they constrained their editorializing and not engaged in multiple instances of extreme and overgeneralized assertions. For example, they don't give any examples of people who they think need any kind of psychiatric intervention, yet also condemn the state and psychiatric/medical profession for not providing other services. Perhaps most egregiously problematic, they condemn the objectification of the patients and the loss of their complexity and humanity, yet by only portraying the parts of patients' histories that support the authors' perspective, they also treat the patients as objects that serve the authors' ends. ( )
1 vote OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
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» Add other authors

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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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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"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 "Fascinating. . . . The haunting thing about the suitcase owners is that it's so easy to identify with them." --Newsweek When Willard State Hospital closed its doors in 1995, after operating as one of New York State's largest mental institutions for over 120 years, a forgotten attic filled with suitcases belonging to former patients was discovered. Using the possessions found in these suitcases along with institutional records and doctors' notes from patient sessions, Darby Penney, a leading advocate of patients' rights, and Peter Stastny, a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker, were able to reconstruct the lives of ten patients who resided at Willard during the first half of the twentieth century. The Lives They Left Behind tells their story. In addition to these human portraits, the book contains over 100 photographs as well as valuable historical background on how this state-funded institution operated. 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.… (more)

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