Monday, 24 January 2011

Book Review - The Lives They Left Behind

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of The Lives They Left Behind by Darby Penny and Peter Stastny (published by Bellevue Literary Press).  In a way, the subheading gave it away: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic.  But what could possibly be so interesting about suitcases?  Could anything of any significance really have been left inside them?  Well, the answer is a very definite yes.

The hospital in question is the Willard State Hospital in New York – originally called the Willard Asylum for the Insane – which opened in 1869 and finally closed in 1995.  Soon after its closure, a very large number of patients’ suitcases were discovered in the attic of the Sheltered Workshop Building by the curator of the New York State Museum.  He had been exploring the site in search of artefacts worthy of preservation.

The various crates, trunks, and suitcases that were found there were not empty.  They contained all the remaining possessions of the patients they had belonged to: clothing, photographs, books, papers, mementos, and much more besides.  The luggage was saved, and a group of archivists and curators began a ten-year plan to sift through the materials.

What The Lives They Left Behind does is reconstruct – as far as is possible – the biographies of a few selected patients (mainly from the earlier part of the twentieth century), drawing on the content of their suitcases supplemented by any medical records or other documents that may have survived.  What emerges makes grim reading, as these few unfortunate incarcerated patients of Willard are (at last) acknowledged as real people with real histories.

It is notable that almost all of the patients portrayed in this book are immigrants to the United States.  Whether these few patients are truly representative of Willard patients in general is unclear, but if they are, there is a definite suggestion that factors such as nationality, social class and ethnicity played a role in deciding who was to be admitted to the institution.  A little more clarity about this would have been helpful.

It is certainly apparent that the psychiatrists who diagnosed these patients did so according to their own social and cultural assumptions.  Where there was evidence of psychotic delusion, the doctors made no effort to appreciate elements in the patient’s background – such as unfamiliar religious practices – that may have given rise to the delusions.  Symptoms were observed and described, but no effort was made to understand them.

But, as the book makes clear, until the 1960s, there was never any real thought given to ‘curing’ or rehabilitating patients; they were simply kept out of the way at Willard – often for many decades – and frequently put to work to maintain the hospital’s partially self-sustaining economy.  It is especially telling that following the death of a patient whose job was to tend the hospital’s cemetery, that that particular patient was given an anonymous grave and the cemetery he had cared for so meticulously was left to become overgrown.

Although the lives represented in this book are well reconstructed, I get the impression that the priority given to documentary facts and their interpretation sometimes gets in the way of letting these lost voices really speak.  But, on the whole, the authors achieve a good deal in bringing these hidden lives to public attention, and also drawing lessons from past psychiatric practices in a critique of the present state of mental health services.

The Lives They Left Behind has a lot to recommend it, though it may be a little ‘dry’ for some readers.  However, it resists the temptation to be overly academic, and therefore paints a picture of Willard State Hospital that will be readily accessible to most people.


The  Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic (2009) by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, with Photographs by Lisa Rinzler, is published by Bellevue Literary Press
ISBN 978-1-934137-14-7

Delivered Unto Lions by David Austin is published by CheckPoint Press
ISBN 978-1-906628-21-5
For more information visit


  1. ---I suppose I should buy the book to satisfy my curiosity as to the answer but since reading your review, David, I have wondered why the suitcases were found full of possessions -- what happened to their owners -- if they died why weren't the contents passed on to their loved ones----? MPCSL

  2. Hi Anonymous. It seems that all the patients' possessions were stored away in these suitcases when they were admitted - they didn't actually have access to their things while they were in the hospital. Also, most of the patients were never discharged, and so they died there (with hardly any exceptions). Apparently, the suitcases were all forgotten about until they were discovered after the hospital had been closed. I don't think it's made clear why there was no attempt to reunite the suitcases with the patients' surviving relatives. But then, these people had been languishing in the hospital, often for many decades, forgotten by the outside world. It could be that there was no one to return these possessions to.

  3. Oh, that's so sad.

    Thank you, David.