Good Evening
Good Evening

Emotional baggage

A forgotten door. A pigeon-infested attic. A stash of

suitcases, covered in cobwebs. These sound more like the ingredients of a

Gothic novel than evidence of real-life misery and neglect.

When the sprawling old Willard Asylum for the Insane in the Finger Lakes

region finally closed its doors in 1995, longtime workers poking about its

abandoned carcass remembered a long-shuttered storage space beneath one of the

buildings' rafters. Prying open an attic chamber, they discovered rows of

suitcases, crates and trunks squeezed onto wooden racks. These, it turned out,

were the forgotten possessions of Willard's inmates, people caught in a

psychiatric maze they never escaped.

The contents of those suitcases and what they reveal about the lives of

their owners are the subjects of a three-pronged exploration: There's a small

exhibit at the New York Public Library, a fascinating and more extensive Web

site and a forthcoming book entitled "The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases

From a State Hospital Attic" (Bellevue Literary Press).

Co-authors and curators Darby Penney and Peter Stastny spent 10 years

piecing together a handful of poignant biographical narratives, tracking down

medical records, talking to former staff and using artifacts from the suitcases

as clues to the lives these patients lived before they were nightmarishly

stripped of their identities.

The exhibit at the library consists mostly of large panels featuring

abbreviated histories of each patient. Vitrines contain a meager sampling of

the suitcase's contents. Much more extensive is the Web site, which, in addition to biographical information, features

haunting photographs by Lisa Rinzler, as well as the aural and written accounts

of former Willard patients and staff.

And so we come to know Ethel S., who found herself at Willard after the

deaths of two of her infant children, the removal of an ovarian tumor and a

divorce from her abusive husband after a 22-year marriage. For a time she lived

alone, supporting herself as a seamstress. Her suitcase contained examples of

her expert handiwork: a delicately embroidered christening gown, a knitted cap,

matching booties and a homemade quilt. Eventually, Ethel succumbed to

depression and refused to get out of bed. Her landlady called the authorities

and had her committed, stating that she heard Mrs. S. laughing in the night and

consulting spirits about her future.

Ethel spent 43 years at Willard, dying there at age 83. She always denied

hearing voices and was never medicated for psychotic behavior, but as time wore

on, she refused to leave. Like so many inmates at Willard, she had lost touch

with the outside world and with her own sense of self. Life at the institution

had reduced her to the role of patient No. 20756.

Prisoners for life

Nearly 50,000 inmates lived at Willard in the course of its 126-year

history, and roughly half of them died there, their bodies buried in graves

marked only by an austere numerical I.D. And as Penney and Stastny's case

histories show, it didn't take much to be locked up for life.

In June 1945, Frank C. (No. 27967) made a fuss in a Brooklyn restaurant

when his food was served on a broken plate. Escorted outside, he lost his

temper, kicking over garbage cans and screaming. The police were called, but

Frank wasn't arrested; he was committed, spending more than half his life in

mental institutions.

At Willard, inmates were put to work, their free labor exploited to create

a more or less self-sustaining community. Patients farmed, baked and

manufactured supplies. The on-site factories produced the shoes and clothing

the patients wore and the pine caskets they were buried in.

These days, it's unlikely such people would find themselves prisoners for

life. In 1955, state mental hospitals all over the country housed 559,000

people; now that number has dropped to 57,000. Patients won the right to be

paid for their labor in the 1970s, a development that suddenly made

institutionalization prohibitively expensive. The ballooning use of

medications, the limits of insurance coverage and the availability of more

community housing have meant that the mentally ill are more likely to live

outside the hospital's walls. Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily mean that

they receive more humane care.


"The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic" through

Jan. 31 at the Science, Industry and Business Library, 188 Madison Ave. at 34th

Street 212-592-7000 or go to

Bad medicine

Penney and Stastny bemoan that the mentally ill, once diagnosed, still lose

their status as human beings with unique histories, sufferings and joys, and

are routinely fed medication instead of therapy.

That lack of real interest in people's experience, as they see it, has

remained constant from the 20th century into the 21st. Their historical

excavations are part of a larger agenda: to ensure that those who tend to the

mentally ill probe their traumas and life circumstances instead of merely

doling out pills.

"If some had taken the time and effort to piece together these people's

stories during their lifetime," they write, "a deeper understanding of their

life circumstances might have led to a successful resumption of the lives they

led before."

Time to make up their minds

There is some irony that terrible but insubstantial afflictions of the mind

required so much land and so many bricks - a whole obsolete infrastructure in

need of a future. Long Island's system of state psychiatric hospitals were

downsized during the 1970s and '80s and mostly shuttered in 1996, and their

campuses remain in limbo.

After a decade of lawsuits and scrapped development plans, the state's

mental health agency turned the 368-acre Kings Park Psychiatric Center over to

the state parks department, which is still trying to figure out what to do with

it and how to clean up the contaminated site. The Central Islip Psychiatric

Center, once a mini-metropolis housing tens of thousands of patients, was

transferred to the town of Islip and chopped up into lots where developers put

up court buildings, educational facilities, offices, affordable housing

and a baseball stadium. Part of the area, though, remained a no-man's land

where in 2003 gang members murdered a man they suspected of belonging to a

rival gang.

The most controversial recycling proposal is at Pilgrim State Psychiatric

Center in West Brentwood, which still operates, at a fraction of its former

size. Developer Gerald Wolkoff owns 460 acres, which for years he has wanted to

transform into a pedestrian-friendly mini-Manhattan. For now, though, this

glittering vision is mired in negotiations over traffic and sewage. -ARIELLA


More Entertainment