In the early 1800s, Quakers in York, England developed an alternative form of care for people in mental and emotional distress. Before the Quaker’s “moral therapy,” Benjamin Rush and other prominent colonial physicians bled their patients and kept them tightly bound in a “tranquilizer chair” for long, long hours. Their goal? To make even the most difficult patient “gentle and submissive.” The Quakers knew they didn’t know why people suffered in the throes of madness, but they knew these mad and insane people were still “brethren” and deserved to be treated humanely. They built a small retreat in the country, treating their patients with kindness and providing them with shelter, food, and companionship. Historians note that more than 50 percent were discharged within a year and researchers report that 58 percent of those discharged never returned to a hospital again.
Enter Dorothea Dix lobbing for state legislatures to build government asylums to provide care for those who needed it, and once these asylums were opened, cities and towns dumped all sorts of people there. Mental hospitals grew more and more crowded, and staff more and more overworked. The years encompassing 1900 to 1950 were dark, unimaginable times for the field of mental health.
Over the course of its 126 years of operation, the Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York housed over 54,00 people, its last patient transferred to another facility in 1995. Years later, 427 suitcases were discovered in the attic of a building there, and Darby Penney and Peter Stastny selected 10 suitcases and set about reconstructing the lives of the 10 people who brought those suitcases with them when they came to live at Willard. Why? Stastny and Penney knew that these 10 individuals never had the chance to tell their stories outside the context and confines of psychiatry. “Regardless of what might have troubled them, we were struck by the sundering of who they were as people from who they became as mental patients.” Penney and Stastny bring these 10 people to life in a book titled The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic.
I found this book years ago while researching a book I have in the wings, and I was reminded of it this morning when Angela emailed me a link to a recent post about a photographer who has done a documentary in photos of the suitcases left behind at Willard. It seems the mentally ill equivalent to the oft-asked question as to what would you grab should your house catch on fire. What did they bring with them when they crossed this threshold?
Nancy is more of a mental disability, but I still wonder what she might pack. Magazines, probably. She searches for magazines like a flea searches for a furry animal. She really doesn’t own much, and what she does own (clothes, bracelets, necklaces, dolls) she’s not deeply attached to. She does like a good watch and a tape player, though. We take her a new watch every time we visit, and Donn, if you’re reading this, she’s asking for a new tape player again this year, and as usual, I promised you’d send her one. You’re welcome.
Nancy is my developmentally disabled sister-in-law, Nancy,
and I am Jeanne, the woman who flat-out loves her.
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