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The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic [Large Print] [Paperback]

Darby Penney
2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Feb. 16 2010
More than four hundred abandoned suitcases filled with patients' belongings were found when Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995 after 125 years of operation. In this fully-illustrated social history, they are skillfully examined and compared to the written record to create a moving-and devastating-group portrait of twentieth-century American psychiatric care.

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Product Description

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 the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Darby Penney is an accomplished poet, a national leader in the human rights movement for people with psychiatric disabilities and a former state mental health official who has experienced the mental health system inside and out. Peter Stastny, author of numerous publications, is a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker. Lisa Rinzler is a prize-winning cinematographer (Three Seasons, Menace II Society, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan) whose photographs illustrate the book alongside reproductions of excerpted medical records and images found among the suitcase contents. Robert Whitaker is the author of Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill.
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting potential, but it didn't deliver Aug. 20 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I didn't find this book nearly as interesting as its subject suggested it would be. There was so little information about the actual mental states, behaviour, and personalities of the suitcase people that I felt I was barely grazing the surface of the stories - almost like going to a museum and reading the brief descriptions without even seeing the exhibits. A good editor would cut out the repetitious parts and put the rest in better order.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  121 reviews
105 of 119 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but disappointing July 18 2009
By I. Detest-Neiklot, J.R. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I bought this book primarily thinking that it would be an even-handed exercise in sociology and amateur archaeology. As someone who really enjoys exploring abandoned buildings and postulating on the things people "leave behind" to be forgotten and then found again, I was really excited about the idea of finding out more about the lives of actual mental patients during the period of widespread institutionalization. Overall, my reaction to this book was mixed.

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.
39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could Have Been So Much More... Aug. 1 2008
By B. Bielen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was gravely disappointed by this book. What could have been a unique, enlightening, and fascinating piece of work was simplified beyond belief, full of opinions instead of research, and really did far less justice to the individuals profiled than the author appeared to believe.

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.

Sorry.
245 of 306 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars One of the Worst Books I've Ever Read Feb. 22 2008
By Docarelle - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was excited about this book when I heard about it and looked forward to it eagerly. The idea behind it was absolutely brilliant. How wonderful would it be to have access to the possessions, writings, and records of the disenfranchised people who were committed to psychiatric facilities back in the "dark ages of psychiatry"? The writers made a claim that they researched intensively when writing this book; however, I was able to locate 15 errors in the first 50 pages without even looking twice. What happened to the "10 years of research"? The further I read, the more unsettled I became. The entire book was an exercise in blaming the mental health field for everything that ever happened to anyone with psychiatric issues, and, although the field frequently needs slapping, it needs an "eyes open" slapping instead of the blindfolded and repeated slam-crash-bang of a pinata stick.
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.
46 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Uncovering the REAL footprints Jan. 20 2008
By R. Bassman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In this this extraordinary, groundbreaking book, the authors introduce us to buried treasure. From their belongings and hospital records, the "forgotten lives"of institutionalized mental patients are re-constructed. Not only do we become privy to the harsh environment in which they are forced to subsist, also we see their unique hopes and dreams - evidence that these mental patients are more like us than different. The profiles of the ten individuals are rendered with tenderness and sometimes a bit of humor, not at the patient's expense but rather at their keepers. At bottom and central, is the illumination of a dark period of our history that the authors point out remains relevant today. Most importantly, a reading will provoke feelings and generate a different way of thinking about how one tumbles into the role of life-long mental patient.
Ronald Bassman, PhD
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Middle of the Road June 23 2008
By Howard L. Dixon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Not one review before mine gave a score of "average". Folks either really like this book or absolutely hate it. The numerous errors and typos were easy to spot. The authors quickly established that they had "an axe to grind". But in most of their observations they were talking about institutional care of the past, rather than the current system. Not to say that events upon which they report aren't still happening. I do think the authors do a reasonable job of showing that a number of the cases upon which they report did not have a "wretched" before Willard. Examples such as "She is in a [private boarding] home and refused to leave after being ordered out and used vulgar and obscene language" seems pretty weak as justification for a lifetime of institutional commitment. And it does seem clear that the culture of the time resulted in very little timely research regarding the underlying reasons behind the patient's abnormalities. I do not share the view that these folks would have been upset with their stories being told, in fact with varying degrees, those that could think coherently would have probably welcomed it.
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