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
suitcaseexhibit.org, 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
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 suitcaseexhibit.org.
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
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
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