The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

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by Darby Penney
     
 

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The Lives They Left Behind is a deeply moving testament to the human side of mental illness, and of the narrow margin which so often separates the sane from the mad. It is a remarkable portrait, too, of the life of a psychiatric asylum—the sort of community in which, for better and for worse, hundreds of thousands of people lived out their lives.

Overview

The Lives They Left Behind is a deeply moving testament to the human side of mental illness, and of the narrow margin which so often separates the sane from the mad. It is a remarkable portrait, too, of the life of a psychiatric asylum—the sort of community in which, for better and for worse, hundreds of thousands of people lived out their lives. Darby Penney and Peter Stastny’s careful historical (almost archaeological) and biographical reconstructions give us unique insight into these lives which would otherwise be lost and, indeed, unimaginable to the rest of us.” —Oliver Sacks

“Fascinating. . . . The haunting thing about the suitcase owners is that it’s so easy to identify with them.” —Newsweek

When Willard State Hospital closed its doors in 1995, after operating as one of New York State’s largest mental institutions for over 120 years, a forgotten attic filled with suitcases belonging to former patients was discovered. Using the possessions found in these suitcases along with institutional records and doctors’ notes from patient sessions, Darby Penney, a leading advocate of patients’ rights, and Peter Stastny, a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker, were able to reconstruct the lives of ten patients who resided at Willard during the first half of the twentieth century.

The Lives They Left Behind tells their story. In addition to these human portraits, the book contains over 100 photographs as well as valuable historical background on how this state-funded institution operated. As it restores the humanity of the individuals it so poignantly evokes, The Lives They Left Behind reveals the vast historical inadequacies of a psychiatric system that has yet to heal itself.

Editorial Reviews

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.
From the Publisher
The Lives They Left Behind is a deeply moving testament to the human side of mental illness, and of the narrow margin which so often separates the sane from the mad. It is a remarkable portrait, too, of the life of a psychiatric asylum—the sort of community in which, for better and for worse, hundreds of thousands of people lived out their lives. Darby Penney and Peter Stastny’s careful historical (almost archaeological) and biographical reconstructions give us unique insight into these lives which would otherwise be lost and, indeed, unimaginable to the rest of us.” —Oliver Sacks

“Fascinating. . . . The haunting thing about the suitcase owners is that it’s so easy to identify with them.” —Newsweek

“In their poignant detail the items helped rescue these individuals from the dark sprawl of anonymity.” —New York Times

“[The authors] 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.” —Newsday

“This book should be required reading for anyone who struggles with the treatment of mental illness in community settings.” —New England Journal of Medicine

“A powerful indictment of healthcare for the mentally ill.” —Publishers Weekly

“No reader will walk away untouched by these compelling portraits.” —Ronald Bassman, Ph.D., author of A Fight to Be: A Psychologist's Experience from Both Sides of the Locked Door

“An important and profoundly moving story. . . . The exquisite details we learn about the patients’ lives—the color of lace on a dress, a plea to a bishop, the photo of a wife who died—convey the particulars of their humanness, their strengths, and their tragedies, and a chapter revealing sad and frightening parallels between long-ago and current treatment of many people called mentally ill should shock us all into action.” —Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., author of They Say You’re Crazy: How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal

“Darby Penney and Peter Stastny have . . . performed an important service, reclaiming these individuals from the nameless, faceless fate of being only ‘mental patients.’” —Judi Chamberlin, author of On Our Own: Patient Controlled Alternatives to the Mental Health System

“As we have yet to provide a full measure of support and treatment to men and women diagnosed with mental illnesses, The Lives They Left Behind offers a sobering reminder of past tragic errors, lest, in our search for new therapies, we lose sight of what should matter most: our sense of common humanity.” —Drew Days III, Alfred M. Rankin Professor of Law at Yale Law School, former Solicitor General in the Clinton Administration and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Carter Administration

“In unpacking the prior lives stored in these suitcases, Darby Penney and Peter Stastny turn remembrance into an act of alchemy.” —Kim Hopper, Ph. D., author of Reckoning with Homelessness

“A unique and mesmerizing evocation of lives erased . . . at once unnerving, heartbreaking, and a bitter testament to an era in psychiatric history whose legacy is all too present today.” —Gail A. Hornstein, Ph.D., author of To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: The Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann

The Lives They Left Behind is a tour de force, a must-read for anyone concerned with social justice, human rights and historical reclamation. Darby Penney and Peter Stastny brilliantly rescue ten people who spent time at Willard State Hospital from certain historical anonymity and silence by giving them voice to speak for themselves. Their riveting accounts invite us to explore the turmoil and strengths of their inner terrain while mourning the erosion of hope after years of captivity and inhumane treatment in the name ‘help’ and under the guise of ‘best interest.’ The Lives They Left Behind is more than a testament to the past, it is a wake up call to our collective conscience, to uphold the spirit and dignity of all human beings.” —Laura Prescott, President and Founder, Sister Witness International Inc.

“A stunning achievement.” —Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America (from the Foreword)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781934137239
Publisher:
Bellevue Literary Press
Publication date:
01/01/2009
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
208
Sales rank:
55,165
File size:
5 MB

Meet the Author

Coauthor of The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, Darby Penney is a national leader in the human rights movement for people with psychiatric disabilities and a former state mental health official. An experienced trainer and qualitative researcher with a background in state mental health planning, Darby has written, presented and consulted nationally and internationally on a wide range of issues concerning empowerment, inclusion, rights, and other topics. She is the President and Executive Director of the Community Consortium.

Coauthor of The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, Peter Stastny is a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker who has advocated for radical changes in the mental health system and worked on several transformative demonstration projects in New York and around the world. He has collaborated with Darby Penney and other experts-by-experience on spreading self-help and empowerment programs, spearheaded the employment of ex-patients in alternative services, and is a founder of the International Network for Alternatives and Recovery (INTAR). Peter was on the faculty of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Columbia University and continues to teach and work in New York City.

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The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
PatsyAnn More than 1 year ago
A must read for anyone interested in the history of the mental health system in our country. The book covers the early 20th century up until about the early 70's. In this book you will read letters from patients, doctor's notes, and learn just how easy it was to have someone committed. You will find out that most of the "patients" were never even sick. A wealth of information collected and compiled in a way that is easy to read and understand.
Shirley Schrecengost More than 1 year ago
i enjoyed reading this book, very informative
First_n_last More than 1 year ago
I've always been interested in learning about state hospitals, and the lives of those who were placed in them. I found this book to be incredibly interesting but somewhat difficult to follow at times. I constantly found myself turning back a few pages to double check the things that were said (medical terms, locations, etc.) And while I agree there is a bit of opinion thrown in by the author, the facts are there. And I felt that by the end I had become very attached to the people of Willard and I wanted to know so much more. I would highly recommend this book for anyone that has an interest more so in patient life and treatment. This is no uplifting book so be prepared to become a little frustrated if you get attached to people like I do.
LALN More than 1 year ago
The Lives They Left Behind, talks all about the Willard State Hospital that used to house mental patients up until about 1980. The book depicts how the patients were medically treated during their stay, what it was like for them there, and also the stories of their lives that were lost during all the years the institution was open. The message of the entire the book was basically to prove how poorly the patients were treated at the hospital because they didn't receive proper care, they were forced to work at the institution, and most of the patients were never discharged from Willard. There is a reoccurring theme that staying in the hospital caused the patients to change and almost make their mental state worse than it was when they were first admitted. This theme is prominent because while reading the medical reports about the patients, one can clearly tell based on the records that their condition worsened and no treatment worked on most patients.In my personal opinion, reading the stories about the people in the hospital was the most entertaining part of the book. This is because the stories gave a detailed description of the patient's mental health and gave you and inside look as to who the person really was. As opposed to making you feel the patients admitted were just one more mental person roaming around, the book made you see them as they really were. Although the stories were enlightening, the rest of the book made me feel the author was very biased against the hospital. Most of the book is describing the horrible way they were treated and how no one was every released. Although I did feel sorry for the patients of the institution, by the end of the book I felt it was very repetitive. I would not recommend reading this book because even though it did have good points most of the book was extremely boring. I found it difficult to read The Lives They Left Behind because of the fact the author was trying the entire time to get sympathy votes for the mental patients and brought up the same facts multiple times throughout the book. It was very informing but I would not say it's something you pick up and read just because it's enjoyable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book had a very interesting idea. The problems that were mentioned were common among state mental hospitals. I worked at one, and so I do know the general history of mental illness and hospitalization. I found it to be educational, however I was left wishing they had more information on the people then the human rights issues so common in institutions. I did find the story about the grave digger to be fasinating and made this book worth the read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a sleeper. Don't waste your money !
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Psychology_Student More than 1 year ago
When I heard the idea behind this book, I was fascinated. What a great idea! Then I read the book. It's appalling. It was not the stories of these 10 patients--it was full of assumptions about their lives and boils down to the authors' own crusade against mental health institutions. Their posits and assumptions about the history of the patients, how they were treated and what they experiences are horrid. These assumptions truly ruin the book, changing it from the insight into these people's lives into a finger pointing game. I would strongly discourage anyone from buying this book. It's distasteful and disrespectful. As a psychology major, I implore you to pick out a less biased and more encompassing book.
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Why stick to the facts and modern psychiatric knowledge when you can just read some guys biased interpretation of a few scraps of history.
DebsSweet More than 1 year ago
Don't waste your money - it's not what you think it is. B O R I N G