The Six-Year-Old has been stuck at home most of the week with a nasty cold, which means that rather than get the writing I’d originally planned done, I’ve been doing other things. Among them–finally getting around to reading The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.
What Inspired the Book?
When the Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York closed in 1995, 427 suitcases were found squirreled away in the attic of the institution’s Sheltered Workshop Building. Recognizing this as a tremendous find, Craig Williams, a curator at the New York State Museum, boxed up all of the crates, suitcases, doctor’s bags, and hat boxes and carted them off to the museum’s warehouse.
A few years later, Williams mentioned the suitcases to Darby Penney, who was working at the New York State Office of Mental Health at the time.
Penney, psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker Peter Stastny, and photographer Lisa Rinzler decided to use the suitcases as a way to reclaim the lives of some of the long-term patients at the Willard.
Their collaboration resulted in a major exhibit at the New York State Museum in 2004, a website (www.SuitcaseExhibit.org), and of course, a book.
How did they decide who to include in the book?
In selecting which people to research, Penney and Stastny first eliminated any empty cases. They then sifted through the remaining cases looking for suitcases that appealed to them, either because of the size of the collection (one woman had brought with her 18 pieces of luggage), unique characteristics of the suitcase’s contents, or because of the markings and monograms on the case itself.
“By the time we had gone through all 427 cataloged containers, we chose 25 individuals for further study, either because their belongings called out to us in a loud and clear manner, or because the relatively few items remaining in their trunks hinted at unique personal traits and backgrounds.” (Prologue, p. 17)
In other words, the authors weren’t trying to assemble a representative sample of the mental health patients at Willard to support a rigorous scientific study. Instead, they were looking for patients with an interesting personal story. The lack of scientific rigor might disappoint social scientists, but as a writer, I find the idea of extracting a person’s history from the possessions they left behind extremely compelling.
The Chosen Ten
In the book, we meet:
- Lawrence Marek, who worked for more than 30 years as the institution’s unpaid gravedigger until he died in 1968 at the age of 90
- Rodrigo Lagon, a young Filipino immigrant who worked as a house servant in Buffalo, NY until he was committed at the request of his employer in 1917
- Therese Lehner/Sister Marie Ursuline, who at age 20, was ejected from her Dominican convent in a leadership dispute (she sided with the former prioress, so was kicked out of the convent along with that prioress), but who was never granted a dispensation from her vows, even though the church no longer allowed her to wear a habit or present herself as a nun
- Ethel Smalls, who after divorcing her alcoholic, abusive husband, and while grieving the death of her father, was committed at the request of her landlady when, instead of meekly allowing herself to be evicted, Mrs. Smalls decided to take to her bed and not get up
- Margaret Dunleavy, a former TB nurse, who was committed to Willard on the advice of her physician after she admitted to feeling persecuted by the administrators at the hospital where she worked
- Herman Graham, an epileptic who was transferred from the inpatient care center at Craig Colony to Willard after his portrait photography business unraveled and his behavior became increasingly difficult for Craig Colony staff members to control
- Dmytre Zarchuk, a WWII refugee who was committed after his wife died of a miscarriage and he began visiting the White House repeatedly in an attempt to convince Margaret Truman, President Truman’s daughter, to marry him
- Frank Coles, an African-American WWII veteran who after receiving a medical discharge from the Army, lost his mother, his job, his girlfriend and his temper in rapid succession, and was committed after he was arrested for kicking a restaurant’s trash can in response to being served dinner on a chipped plate
- Madeleine Cartier, a former French literature teacher who was committed to Willard after her emotionally turbulent nature and belief in spiritualism began interfering with her ability to keep jobs and housing
- Irma Medina, who became extremely paranoid after she made a public claim that her former employer, the Roger & Gallet perfumery, was being used as an illegal distillery to manufacture whiskey during the Prohibition
What Happened to Them?
Lawrence Marek (age 90), Rodrigo Lagon (age 83), Sister Marie Ursuline (age 69), Ethel Smalls (age 83), Margaret Dunleavy (age 81), Herman Graham, and Irma Medina (age 92) all died at Willard after spending several decades there.
Dmytre Zarchuk became an accomplished folk artist, and was eventually released first to the Tompkins Country Home in Trumansburg, New York and later to Preston Manor in Chenango County.
Frank Coles stayed at Willard for a mere three years before being transferred to the Veterans Hospital at Canandaigua.
Madeleine Cartier was formally released from Willard at age 78 to a board and care home in a nearby town, where she spent the last seven years of her life.
So Was Willard the Hotel California of the Mental Healthcare System?
The authors of the book (and indeed many Goodreads reviewers) seemed surprised and appalled to find that so many of the people profiled in this book lived and died after decades at Willard. The stories definitely give the impression that you can check in to Willard, but you can never leave.
I would be very careful, though, before I used these anecdotal findings to paint a picture of life at Willard as a whole. In my opinion, the method Penney and Stastny used to select the people for their study almost guaranteed that everyone — or nearly everyone — in the book would turn out to be a long-term patient.
While I don’t know the details of the discharge process at Willard, it seems reasonable to suppose that discharged patients would be allowed to retrieve the things that they had brought with them. Maybe that’s naïve, but at the very least, it seems plausible that short-term, transient patients would have remembered to collect their belongings when they left. That alone would weight the contents of the Willard attic toward patients whose stays were of longer duration, or who never left.
The isolation of the profiled patients doesn’t really surprise me either, although it is heartbreaking. Again, logic implies that most of the suitcases left to linger in the attics of a mental hospital would belong to people who had little, if any, family around to claim their belongings after that patient died. Sister Marie Ursuline, Margaret Dunleavy, Lawrence Marek, Dmytre Zarchuk, Irma Medina, Madeleine Cartier, and Rodrigo Lagon were all immigrants and didn’t have an established family network in America to prop them up. Ethel Smalls did have a family, but her mother was too old to take her in, and her two adult children, both of whom were recently married, refused to. Small wonder that their suitcases would languish in Willard’s attic.
Should You Read It?
Whether you will enjoy this book depends a great deal on what you are looking for from it. Readers looking for a dispassionate scientific study of the human toll of institutionalized mental care will be disappointed. This book is many things, but dispassionate is not one of them.
Penney and Stastny have spent their lives advocating for changes in America’s mental health system and their biases shine through nearly every line, as does their compassion for their subjects. At times they seem unwilling to acknowledge that the people they describe may have had real, enduring — or at least recurring — mental illnesses. Dmytre Zarchuk, for example, regularly referred to himself as Jesus Christ. The authors make a good case for how the language barrier between Zarchuk and his doctors (Zarchuk was a native Ukrainian speaker) could have created the perception that Zarchuk was saying that he was Jesus when in fact he was saying something else entirely–a poorly translated native Ukrainian prayer, perhaps. It’s possible. Unfortunately, this does not explain why Zarchuk repeatedly referred to Margaret Truman as Mary Magdalene.
The authors also argue passionately, and with some evidence, that the institutionalized approach to mental care actually made many of the people in this book worse. The longer she stayed at Willard, the more adamant Irma Medina became that she was in fact Princess Leticia of Naples. Ms. Medina was surely not the only patient at Willard to create and retreat into a fantasy world in response to her confinement.
Other long-term patients, like Madeline Cartier, developed irreversible neurological disorders in response to the neuroleptic medications they were given daily.
Even those who seemed to adapt reasonably well to their surroundings, like Lawrence Marek, who took charge of the asylum’s graveyard and built a wooden house for himself on the cemetery grounds, may have been exploited to some degree for the free labor they provided the asylum, which had to remain self-sufficient if it were to survive. Although Marek was not treated for any mental disorders during the last 32 years of his confinement at Willard, the subject of releasing him was simply never brought up until he was in his 80s, at which point his doctors decided that since he had nowhere else to go, it would be kindest to let him stay.
The anecdotal stories are compelling, but these ten patients are clearly not a truly representative sample of the more than 54,000 patients who have been treated at Willard over the years. That’s ok with me, though, because I am interested in this book as a writer, not as a sociologist.
A Goldmine for Writers
And for a writer, this book is a goldmine of biographical detail. The short biographies include lots of wonderfully detailed information about the various roads that lead to a life in a mental hospital, the seemingly insignificant triggers that can lead to a person’s commitment, and the ways in which people adapt to life in an institution.
In her book Writing with Emotional Tension, Cheryl St. John proposes a writing exercise to help you understand your protagonist. Suppose your character must leave quickly, and has only five minutes to pack everything that’s important to her in one small bag. What would she put in it?
In many ways, this is a real-world application of that writing exercise. In this book, Penney and Stastny attempt to reconstruct the entire life of a person based on the contents of his or her suitcase. I find that absolutely fascinating.
- The Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online (SuitcaseExhibit.org)