An exerpt from
The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic
By Darby Penney and Peter Stastny Photographs by Lisa Rinzler
LIFE IN THE ATTIC
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. When that towering, meandering structure was torn down in 1988, the institution lost its architectural heart, leaving a scattered bunch of buildings that housed nearly a thousand mental patients until the state finally decided to abandon the entire facility in 1995. That spring, all remaining patients were distributed to other institutions. Curators and state workers roamed the grounds, trying to safeguard anything that might be worth keeping before the buildings were condemned. They scurried from building to building, determined to beat the looming deadline of the demolition crews.
Beverly Courtwright and Lisa Hoffman, two local women who worked at Willard, knew the place intimately. They guided Craig Williams, a curator from the New York State Museum, to the spots that offered the most promise for finding important artifacts. Beverly remembered that there was something stashed under the roof of the Sheltered Workshop Building. She led the group up the steep staircase to the attic and then to a door in a partition under pigeon-infested rafters. Once the door was pried open, they were struck by an awesome sight: a beam of sunlight streaming down a central corridor that separated rows of wooden racks tightly filled with suitcases of all shapes and sizes-men's on the left side, women's on the right, alphabetized, labeled, and covered by layers of bird droppings, apparently untouched for a great many years.
Crates, trunks, hundreds of standard suitcases, doctor's bags, and many-shaped containers were all neatly arrayed under the watchful eyes of the pigeons who had come to join the lost souls and their worldly possessions. For Beverly and some others who saw it, this upper room exuded an unearthly air, a hovering presence of hundreds of souls or spirits attached to the many people who had handled and worn the items in those bags before they were packed, who had read the books, written in the diaries, and looked into the mirrors they contained.
Craig Williams, realizing that he had stumbled across a dream of a treasure, called for additional trucks to salvage the luggage. "Just keep ten, and throw the rest away," he was told. Fortunately, Craig ignored this order, and within hours, all 427 suitcases were wrapped in plastic and driven to the museum's warehouse. He knew this was a unique historical find, but one that could not be dealt with immediately. Interns and volunteers cataloged the items in some of the suitcases over the next three years, but the majority of them remained unopened.
In 1998, a group of archivists and curators, including Craig Williams, met with officials of the New York State Office of Mental Health to brief them on a ten-year plan to document the history of mental health in the state. Almost as an aside, Craig mentioned the patient suitcases in the museum's warehouse from the Willard attic that were saved from destruction when the facility closed in 1995.
This is where we come in. One person at the meeting, Darby Penney, recognized the potential of this historic find to shed light on the lives of forgotten mental patients. She was Director of Recipient Affairs, a position created in the early 1990s to facilitate input from current and former patients about policies and programs. Darby invited her colleague Peter Stastny, a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker, to join the project. Peter brought in photographer Lisa Rinzler to guide the team's visual approach. This collaboration resulted in a major exhibit at the New York State Museum in 2004, attended by over 600,000 visitors; a website, (www.SuitcaseExhibit.org
); a traveling exhibit; and, ultimately, in this book.
We had spent our careers speaking up for living people who got caught up in the mental health system. What possessed us to spend almost a decade in pursuit of the life stories of ordinary people who had died many years before, and whose stories would be told largely in our words and not theirs? Why piece together biographies from remnants when there are living people perfectly capable of telling their stories and having them recorded for posterity? A keenness to rummage through personal effects undisturbed by their owners was certainly a factor; another was the knowledge that these individuals never had the chance to tell their stories outside of the confines of psychiatry. What might be revealed by comparing the personal artifacts from their pre-institutional lives with the way they were perceived by doctors and hospital staff? Regardless of what might have troubled them, we were struck by the sundering of who they were as people from who they became as mental patients.
Psychiatry in those days (and still today) was largely in the business of stripping patients of their quotidian identities. Diagnostic categories serve mainly to pitch people into a few pigeonholes that help psychiatrists talk about them among themselves. This is not to say that nothing was ailing the people whose stories are featured here. Beyond their obvious physical complaints, they were sad, downtrodden, heartbroken, confused, distressed, angry, irritated-and irritating-fearful, convinced of being persecuted, troubled by voices of unseen speakers, soothed by visions of a celestial kind, shaken by religious fevers, in pain from loneliness, isolation, excessive excitement, and misguided love. Each one of them could be assigned one label or another, but none of these labels-schizophrenia, dementia praecox, melancholia, paranoia, manic-depression, delusional disorder-speak to the narratives of their lives or give color to their own unmistakable forms of suffering. Neither could those diagnostic categories, then or now, provide a basis for successful treatment and recovery. If anything, they stand in the way of healing, paths to which are suggested by the individual narratives.
If someone had taken the time and effort to piece together these people's stories during their lifetimes, a deeper understanding of their life circumstances might have led to a successful resumption of the lives they led before being institutionalized. Clearly, even with the best efforts, some people remain trapped in a web of misperception, fear, and self-loathing. Some of the suitcase owners might have remained forever distressed and unable to fully engage in society even if they had been afforded the best treatment. But then again, even they would certainly have done better if they had been treated with kindness and persistent care, and been given a chance to live in the outside world.