history / society / neglect
The Suitcase Exhibit was born from the chance discovery of personal possessions in the attics of Willard Psychiatric Center in New York's Finger Lakes when it closed in 1995
Workers discovered hundreds of suitcases in the attic of an abandoned building. Many of them appeared untouched since their owners packed them decades earlier before entering the institution.
State Museum Curator Craig Williams brought the suitcases to the Museum's storage facilities. He contacted Darby Penney and Peter Stastny bringing the suitcases to their attention.
They, in turn made the effort to once again breathe life into the spirit of those souls long neglected after their hospitalized imprisonment ~ for warehousing is nothing less than that - imprisonment. A website memorializing those souls whose lives were unjustly frozen when confined into long-term institutional custodial placement speaks to what they found:
The suitcases and their contents bear witness to the rich, complex lives their owners lived prior to being committed to Willard. They speak about aspirations, accomplishments, community connections, but also about loss and isolation. From the clothing and personal objects left behind, we can gain some understanding of who these people were before they disappeared behind hospital walls. We can picture their jobs and careers, see them driving cars, playing sports, studying, writing, and traveling the world. We can imagine their families and friends. But we can also see their lives coming apart due to unemployment, the death of a loved one, loneliness, poverty, or some other catastrophic event.
The suitcases and the life stories of the people who owned them raise questions that are difficult to confront. Why were these people committed to this institution, and why did so many stay for so long? How were they treated? What was it like to spend years in a mental institution, shut away from a society that wanted to distance itself from people it considered insane? Why did most of these suitcase owners live out their days at Willard? What about their friends and families? Are the circumstances today any better than they were for psychiatric patients during the first half of the 20th century?
The project has included: an intensive study by Peter, Darby and the photographer Lisa Rinzler; a major exhibit at the New York State Museum viewed by more than 600,000 people in 2004; a portable traveling version of the exhibit, on tour since 2006; and a book, The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny. It was published in hardcover by Bellevue Literary Press in January 2008, featuring Lisa's wonderful photographs along with historical photos. The paperback version was released in November 2008.
Would that this was an isolated phenomenon, but it isn't. For well over a century people who died in mental hospitals across the North American continent were buried in unmarked, sometimes numbered graves. The "conventional wisdom
" of the mental illness treating establishment erroneously believed that being labeled "insane" was so shameful that people identities were masked, hidden, rendered confidential
Too bad the perpetrators of this gruesome myth could not see - indeed they still cannot see - that the real shame here is to hide from society the lives of these souls captured and confined and put away in psychiatric facilities.
This injustice is still done today, albeit more subtly - it is now called "STIGMA
" but, in truth, stigma's face is still irrational prejudice and bigotry held against those of us who get labelled as mentally ill.
Labels: abandonment, abuse, anonymity, bearing witness, mental hospitals, psychiatric survivors, warehousing