The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic Paperback – Large Print, Feb 16 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
When New York's 120-plus-year-old mental institution Willard State Hospital was closed down in 1995, New York Museum curator Craig Williams found a forgotten attic filled with suitcases belonging to former inmates. He informed Penney, co-editor of The Snail's Pace Review and a leading advocate of patients rights, who recognized the opportunity to salvage the memory of these institutionalized lives. She invited Stastny, a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker, to help her curate an exhibit on the find and write this book, which they dedicate to "the Willard suitcase owners, and to all others who have lived and died in mental institutions." What follows are profiles of 10 individual patients whose suitcase contents proved intriguing (there were 427 bags total), referencing their institutional record-including histories and session notes-as well as some on-the-ground research. A typical example is Ethel Smalls, who likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her husband's abuse; misdiagnosed and institutionalized against her will, she lived at Willard until her death in 1973. While the individual stories are necessarily sketchy, the cumulative effect is a powerful indictment of healthcare for the mentally ill. 25 color and 63 b&w photographs.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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And...ok, this is an extreme pet peeve of mine...the editing was terrible. What it is lately about editing that has become so difficult? And we're not even talking about true editing, just simply making certain there are no typos and that form and grammar are correct. This was so poorly done it was painful to read.
I had looked forward to this book for some time, so I was very disappointed when I got through the first ten or so pages and realized it really wasn't for the thoughtful reader who wants solid research behind a story. No, it was a quick read for a non-critical thinker that likes to be hand-fed polemics.
First of all, the authors of this book take a very strong anti-asylum tone. While it stands to reason that conditions in the asylums at the time were far from what would be considered acceptable today, no comparison is made nor information given as to how Willard compared to other asylums at the time. Furthermore, the authors shed very little light on the condition of psychology as it existed in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Other than arguing that a culture prevailed which encouraged a maintenance of the status quo in order for the hospitals to exploit the free labor of the patients, little insight is given (and even this argument is weakly made).
Another problem that I found with this book is that very little information is given on how the details of the lives of these people were acquired. While some of the information is explicitly drawn from the case files as well as interviews with workers at the asylum, the narratives are filled with holes in which the authors posit a number of intriguing, but unsupported theories. An example of this may be seen in a description of someone as being "close to her family" due to the fact that she had personal phone numbers in her possessions. Likewise, on several occasions the book posits that a patient may not have been popular or easy to get along with, due to the frequency of her changing address. While certainly one possibility, such assertions are made continuously on a whole variety of subjects with what appears to be scant grounding.
Generally, the portrayal of health care the authors seek to portray is one which is callous, cold, unsympathetic, and deliberately exploitative. Generally, the people analyzed by the authors are portrayed as being generally normal, ordinary people- who through some quirk, a high degree of emotional stress, or even sinister machinations- were involuntarily warehoused in a sort of prison which only worsened their condition. The symptoms of the patients are presented in a curious, detached sort of way, and at no time do the authors raise any questions with regards to what sorts of conditions the patients may actually have had, or that they were genuinely suffering from serious mental disorders. While some of this may certainly be true, the positions of the authors- that people were incarcerated for decades in mental hospitals simply for becoming upset in public or trying to talk with the president-- seems unlikely.
When the man in question is arrested by the Secret Service and sent to a mental hospital for trying to see the president, the authors postulate that the Ukranian man was just misunderstood and didn't realize that one does not simply walk into the White House to meet the president. The fact that he refers to himself as Jesus Christ in his interviews is not seen to be a sign of mental disorders, so much as an unusual way of expressing his personal innocence. While this is all very psycho-analytical, it does very little to explain how a handful of doctors-- faced with overcrowding and deteriorating facilities-- would have been unable to see the misunderstanding and let him go instead of keeping him locked up for 30+ years.
Furthermore, the book is compounded by a number of factual errors. For example, in describing the arrival of a Ukranian national to the hospital, the authors refer to the armies of tanks which fought in the Ukraine in 1940 after the Germans had pushed past Leningrad (for the record, the Germans did not invade until 1941 and Leningrad is in Russia, on the opposite side of the country from the Ukraine). Likewise a half-French, half-Italian woman is described as coming from countries from which there were "few immigrants to the United States."
Overall, this book is an interesting look at the lives of people held in almost permanent sequestering inside a mental hospital. However, given the ideological bent of the writers, one cannot help but feeling as though the tragic lives of these people are being filled in or "colored" in order to make a case for the elimination of in-patient mental health care.
The bottom line is this. Tell me the truth. Tell me upfront that you think that institutions stunk and that people were treated cruelly and that everyone was sick and blighted who was ever associated with the running of them. But don't take the lives of people who had pretty wretched lives to begin with and then use them to underscore your personal belief that psychiatry and institutions are bad and evil. That is bathos and victimization at its finest. No one who was "exhibited" in this book gave their permission for their lives and for the minutiae that made up their existence to be examined and cross-examined and interpreted so broadly. That is taking advantage of people with psychiatric issues and using them for your own purposes. That is what I object to. It's making a profit off of other people's misery and to that I object and will always object. That is intellectual dishonesty and making a buck off someone who was helpless by using them to make your point, whether or not they would have agreed with you. And in my egg-headed highfalutin' world that is a bad thing.
The absolute worst thing about this book was that the authors didn't allow these people to have their psychiatric issues. They tried to reframe all their subjects' interactions so that every bizarre thing they did, said, or thought was reframed as "normal" and any interpretation of their thought processes as being "different" was seen as the inherent evilness of the doctors and "the system". This makes me worry about the intent of the authors. Is mental illness or psychiatric illness or whatever you want to call it such a bad and shameful thing that we can't call it by its name or look at it in the daylight? Are we so ashamed of it that we have to make it into something that it isn't? If we do so, then we deny the humanity and struggle that is part and parcel of it just to soothe our own personal fears. Where is the bravery and the dignity in that, pretending something doesn't exist just because we ourselves are frightened by it? I personally like a lot of people who have psychiatric issues but I don't need to pretend that everything they do is normal to like them. Too bad the authors don't have the same viewpoint. This could have been a classic work with the all the rich sources of information they had access to. Instead it's a cheap dime store crime novel without any of the subtleties of the genre.
I would like to profess this by saying, that I looked very much forward to reading this book, and was extremely exited, when it first arrived in the mail.
However. Halfway through the first chapter, I started getting a strong sense, of an anti-psychiatry agenda. Which is fine, but this is not what I bought the book for. A couple of chapters in, it started getting really distracting. All of the sudden, the book seemed to be more of a soap-box for the authors, and the stories they were supposed to tell are interrupted by their constant agenda.
I mean, I know asylums wasn't the perfect solution, and I know a lot of people suffered in them, but you have to take history into consideration; psychiatry wasn't a very developed field at the time and the doctors were grasping for straws, trying to help very sick people. I refuse to believe, that every doctor, nurse, and caretaker at this hospital were as oblivious, cruel and negligent, as this book tries to make them appear. In a lot of the chapters, the authors write things like "If they had only bothered to listen.." or "If they had only cared..", which is just an enormous assumption to make, about all the people who worked there and the work they did.
I am constantly made aware of how incredibly presumptuous the authors seem to be. "Oh, she wasn't sick at all, she just had a quirky personality", type-comments. I'm sorry, but they didn't know these people, so it seems a bit arrogant to me, to suppose things about people you've never met.
I am so annoyed, because the concept of the book is - to me - genius. These writers had a brilliant opportunity to do something great, to dive into the complicated lives of people who suffered loss and tragedy, and finally give them a voice. Instead they chose to focus on their own voices. This final point is especially offending to me.
Also, the editing is horrible. Typos everywhere.
I am so sad, that this book left me so disappointed, because initially it seemed to be everything I could wish for, from a good book.
Unfortunately, I have now fought myself through seven chapters, and I am strongly considering leaving this book in the trash, since I can't really see myself giving it to anyone - it is simply to poorly written, factually wrong and biased.
Not cool. Extremely let down.
Ronald Bassman, PhD