Book Review: The Lives They Left Behind

coverThe Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic
By Darby Penney & Peter Stastny
Photographs by Lisa Rinzler
Bellevue Literary Press, 2008

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.

Some of the 427 suitcases discovered in the attic of the Willard State Hospital. (Photograph: Lisa Rinzler)

Some of the 427 suitcases discovered in the attic of the Willard State Hospital. (Photograph: Lisa Rinzler)

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 (, 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.

(Photograph: Lisa Rinzler)

(Photograph: Lisa Rinzler)

The Chosen Ten

Lawrence Marek, who worked at the asylum as a gravedigger for 31 of his 52 years at Willard. (Photograph from the Willard Suitcase Exhibit online)

Lawrence Marek, who worked at the asylum as a gravedigger for 31 of his 52 years at Willard. His brown leather suitcase contained a pair of black leather dress shoes, shaving mugs and brushes, and heavy white suspenders. (Photograph from the Willard Suitcase Exhibit online)

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, a WWII army veteran who stayed at Willard for only three years before being transferred to the VA. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

Frank Coles, a WWII army veteran who stayed at Willard for only three years before being transferred to the VA. Frank Coles’ neatly packed trunk and Army duffel contained his army uniform, shirts, underwear, shoes, and boxer’s hand wraps, along with a collection of photographs, letters, and diaries. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

  • 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.

Margaret Dunleavy's trunk included photos, postcards, letters, tourist brochures, and maps from her many travels before her admission to Willard. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

Margaret Dunleavy’s trunk included photos, postcards, letters, tourist brochures, and maps from her many travels before her admission to Willard. Margaret carried with her the most of any of the Willard patients. Packed away in her 18 boxes and cases were a vast supply of mint condition 1930s kitchen ware, books, clothing, small appliances, and even small bits of furniture–none of which she had any access to while at Willard. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

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.

Herman Graham's case was filled with equipment and books from his days as a photographer. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

Herman Graham’s case was filled with equipment and books from his days as a photographer. (Photo: Lisa Rinzler)

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.

Dmytre Zarchuk and his wife Sofia on their wedding day. (Photo from The Suitcase Exhibit online)

Dmytre Zarchuk’s suitcase included this photo of Dmytre and his wife Sofia on their wedding day, along with paper patterns for wooden cutouts of various animals, a glider plane, crèche figures, and a small doll’s carriage. (Photo from The Suitcase Exhibit online)

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.

Sister Marie Ursuline's doctor's bag was filled with tattered Ace bandages, small dried out bottles of iodine and gold leaf, dessicated acorn seeds, black shoelaces, and a hollowed out apple filled with buttons, needles, and sewing notions. Farther down, the authors found a large collection of religious items, including a worn Bible, dozens of votive cards, hymnals, and a package of letters, including several letters Sister Ursuline sent to her local bishop requesting clarification on her religious status. (Photo from the Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online)

Sister Marie Ursuline’s doctor’s bag was filled with tattered Ace bandages, small dried out bottles of iodine and gold leaf, desiccated acorn seeds, black shoelaces, and a hollowed out apple filled with buttons, needles, and sewing notions. Farther down, the authors found a large collection of religious items, including a worn Bible, dozens of votive cards, hymnals, and a package of letters, including a letter Sister Ursuline sent to her  bishop requesting clarification on her religious status. (Photo from the Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online)

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.

Related Links:


About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at, chatting about books and the writing life at, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
This entry was posted in 1900-1920, 1920-1940, 1950-2000, Book Reviews, Nonfiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Book Review: The Lives They Left Behind

  1. Darby Penney says:

    Shala, thank you for taking the time to read our book and respond to it. I find it puzzling that your primary complaint seems to be that the stories of the suitcase owners represented here are not ” a truly representative sample of the more than 54,000 patients who have been treated at Willard over the years” and that our book “lacks scientific rigor.” It was never our intention to do a scientific study nor did we ever imply that these suitcase owners were a representative sample of the people sent to Willard. Our work is a narrative social history based on the the suitcase contents and medical records of a handful of people whose suitcases happened not to be thrown out. Why criticize our book for not being something other than what it was?

    • Shala Howell says:

      Oh dear, I didn’t mean that as a criticism. I wrote that in response to all the Goodreads reviewers who seemed to be surprised that in opening a book titled “The Lives They Left Behind” they didn’t encounter a scientifically rigorous social study, but rather an exploration of the lives of 10 people who all somehow ended up in the same mental institution. I see setting expectations for readers as part of the job of a reviewer, and if someone is looking for a scientifically rigorous study, your book isn’t the place to go, as doing a scientific study was never your intention in the first place. I’ve added in a sentence to clarify that your approach doesn’t bother me.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. And thank you for writing this book.

      • Darby Penney says:

        Thanks, I really appreciate your clarification, Shala… and thanks again for y9our kind words about our work.

  2. Mark Saglian says:

    Good evening. Wanted to reach out for some advice. I have an Aunt who was hospitalized at the Buffalo State Asylum from 1891 – 1893. My Aunt Sadie McMullen was charged with murder in 1890 and was later acquitted at trial narrowly escaping the Electric Chair. It’s an incredibly powerful story which reads like a Gothic novel. I have been searching for her for nearly twenty years with no success and sadly, no help from OMH. As a former degree’d mental health clinician with nearly twenty years experience, I know that her Discharge Summary likely contains information as to where she was headed once she was released. I have requested access to her patient files in the New York State Archives only to be rebuffed. My family and I have been trying to bring a measure of closure on this and quite frankly OMH’s stance has left us shattered. I am reaching out in the hope that you might have some suggestions on how to better address this with the people in Albany as it seems that you had a great deal of access to the information on the patients at Willard. Thank you. (as a side note, I have another family member who is buried in an unmarked grave at Willard – a Civil War veteran with no marker)

    • Shala Howell says:

      What an amazing story. I wish you luck in your search. Unfortunately, there’s not much I can do personally to help as I don’t have contacts in the New York State Archives or OMH. You might have better luck if you contact Darby Penny at The Community Consortium ( She’s the one who wrote the book on Willard, and has all the access. I merely reviewed her book for this post.

      Alternatively, Jon Crispin has been photographing the contents of the suitcases the patients at Willard left behind for his blog at Jon Crispin’s Notebook: He may have some useful contacts as well.

      Good luck!

      PS. I’d love to learn more about your aunt. Her story sounds fascinating!

      • Darby Penney says:

        Shala, thanks for your suggestion. Unfortunately, we do not have any access to patient records from other facilities in NY, and we only had access to the few from Willard that we used in our book after going through a researcher’s request with the Office of Mental Health’s Institutional Review Board. These records are protected under NYS privacy laws, which are stricter than HIPAA’s and are not available, even to family members, unfortunately.

    • Darby Penney says:

      Hi Mark, unfortunately, OMH has completely stonewalled family members trying to access records. NYS’s MH law has standards that they interpret to mean that these records are sealed in perpetuity. It’s really a problem, and there is no quick solution in sight.

  3. Mark Saglian says:

    Shala – Thank you for responding. I’m hoping that Darby sees this and responds. It’s been heartbreaking. I’ve managed to locate every person that figures in the tragedy with the exception of my Aunt. I’ve visited the graves of the victims and even located her defense attorney who lies buried in an unmarked grave on Los Angeles where he died in 1911 (that was a really hard find).

    I’m including a link to an article that Artvoice ran a few years back. I provided the author with some last minute information and some photographs I was able to find. It’s a terrible story but it’s also one of redemption. What I’ve learned is through all of this is that the choices of our ancestors send ripples across the generations. I likely would not have become a child and family therapist had it not been for the life that my Aunt endured – a life I never even knew about until 1998. My Aunt had a horrible life and but for the kindness of the Hayes family and of the Buffalo State Asylum, she’d have never known any compassion at all. That’s the message that I want to get across to OMH. I want to be able to stand at the place where she is buried and say a prayer and whisper to her that she isn’t forgotten. I know that sounds melodramatic, but in many ways I became who I became in part because of what she lived through. That whispered prayer? I owe her that.


    • Darby Penney says:

      I wish I had some useful information to offer. I find OMH’s policy on access to records shameful and heartless. I think the only way to change the policy is to amend the law. Several of us tried to do that last session and didn’t get very far. Maybe next year we can rally more people to make a larger effort.

      • Mark Saglian says:

        You can count me in on this. This is a bit of a personal crusade for me, yes but I also hold a Master’s Degree in Mental Health and working as a Child and Family Therapist/Clinical Supervisor for nearly 20 years. I DO have an appreciation for client/patient confidentiality but as a clinician we always worked to reunite families whenever we could. I am looking to re-unite with a long, lost family member – even if it is in spirit only. To me this is similar in many ways to a child trying to find his/her birth parents. I am who I am today because of those who came before me and I want to someday find my Aunt so that I can visit the place where to rests to let her know that she isn’t forgotten. I know I’m preaching to the choir here – just needed to get that off my chest. Have a wonderful weekend and thank you very much for caring.

      • Darby Penney says:

        I agree, it is similar to a child trying to find their birth parents. I’m glad you’re interested in pursuing a change in the law; I think it’s the only way to get OMH to act differently. Although, as we discussed, getting the local media to publicize it as a “human interest” story is a possible way to shame them into doing the right thing!

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.