Monday, December 3, 2007

The Willard Suitcases

Photograph of an attic filled with what looks like old bunk beds lining each side of the attic. There are suitcases piled on the When Willard Psychiatric Center in New York's Finger Lakes closed in 1995, workers discovered hundreds of suitcases in the attic of the abandoned building. Many of them appeared untouched since their owners packed them decades earlier before entering the institution.

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...

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... shut away from society that wanted to distance itself from people it considered insane. Why did most of these suitcase owners outlive their days at Willard? What about friends and families? Are the circumstance today better than they were for psychiatric patients during the first half of the 20th century.

So opens the powerful Willard Suitcase Exhibit. It's not an easy place to visit. It has apparently been up for a while. My friend, Jane, directed me there this morning, I have been unable to think of little else today.

There was no getting out. Any life they knew before was over. From the day they entered Willard, their labor was exploited, their connection with the outside world severed, their very personhood stripped.

My heart is heavy having just left the site. It chronicles the lives of the owners of the suitcases. Peering into someone's suitcase is being a voyeur. I had invaded someone's personal space. I was violating their privacy.

Yet, these people, from the moment they packed those suitcases, lost any right to a private life, for the rest of their lives.

There are suitcases for:

  • Sister Marie Ursuline, #15468 lived at Willard for more than 30 years, after peripheral involvement in a church scandal and depression.
  • Mr. Lawrence, # 14956 who lived there more than 50 years after a head injury. He was the unpaid gravedigger who, upon his death, was buried in an unmarked grave.
  • Roderigo, #15902, survived 72 years at Willard. In the 1960s, someone wrote this observation in his file, "Years of institutionalization appear to have been a mistake, as far as duration, this man appears in perfect mental condition now."
  • And, unfortunately, many more.

Willard Psychiatric Hospital is in upstate New York, about 65 miles from Syracuse. After it closed in 1995, the curator of the New York State Museum drove there thinking he'd grab some old furniture or a nurses uniform, some small artifacts. What he found was over 400 suitcases, untouched for decades; four hundred lives, frozen in time, packed up in the attic of an abandoned building. From 1869 until it closed, over 50,000 people sojourned at Willard.

Why couldn't they keep their suitcases? What was so terrible about having a little something of their own? Apparently, plenty. In institutions, order is the rule. Not unlike the army they break you down until you re-emerge, remade in their image. You walk when they say walk, eat when they say eat, sleep when they say sleep. It's called ''hospitalism'' or ''social breakdown syndrome.'' Symptoms include apathy, withdrawal, and the loss of social skills. The difference between basic training in the Army and basic training in a state run hospital is that in the army, you get the opportunity to leave.

It is heartbreaking to wander through this online exhibit. Others have ventured through before me. Grace, at What if No One is Watching, wrote a very personal response that also raises the issues of gender, class, and race. If you haven't already, read it here.

Is it better today?

The human suffering illustrated by the lives of the suitcase owners continues today, often differing more in form than in substance from the lives of mental patients a century ago. Thousands are admitted to hospitals daily for treatment of emotional distress, often cause or aggravated by social conditions. If hospital stays are considerably shorter today, cue to aggressive use of medications and the service limitations of HMOs, the are no more marked by recovery than in the days of large state hospitals like Willard.

Hell no, it's not better! How many more people will be abused, how many more lives ruined, how many more unmarked graves, will we have to endure until all our people are free?



The Willard Suitcase Online Exhibit. What They Left Behind:
Suitcases from an insane asylum tell of lives long lost. Gonnerman, Jennifer . Village Voice, 1-28/2-3-2004.
State Psychiatry Hospitals forced to Change or Close. Sobel, Dava. New York Times, 2-10-1981


ms.cripchick said...

this was really sombering, especially knowing that we haven't changed that much and these things can very much happens. things like nazi concentration camps, you can say "we learned from that, won't do it again" (hopefully) but THIS, the attitudes that allow for the institutionalization of millions is so prevelant in our society that is scary. really scary.

Eric Stott said...

Probably these suitcases weren't forcibly removed as much as stored- there's evidence that individuals removed from and added things to their luggage, using them as a sort of file box. Unfortunately institutional life imposed a uniformity on these people, the personal possesions they could keep in their immediate living area were limited (and there may have been some good reasons- but will we ever know?)