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Community News
Hospital's Attic Reveals Pieces Of Lives Left Behind
Psychiatric News
Volume 41 Number 21 page 14-14

Objects and documents belonging to long-term residents of a now-shuttered psychiatric hospital form a museum exhibit that gives visitors insight into the patients' lives.

Old family photographs. A few dishes wrapped in newspaper. A baby's nightgown. Letters from home.

The bits and pieces of lives of residents of New York's Willard State Hospital, packed into suitcases and hidden away in the hospital attic, were brought to light again in an exhibition on view in September at the offices of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Rockville, Md. The exhibit, “The Lives They Left Behind,” is scheduled to travel around the United States for at least another two years.

“You don't often see the perspective of people who were institutionalized then,” said exhibition co-curator Darby Penney, M.L.S., president of the Community Consortium, an advocacy group for people with psychiatric disablilities.

The exhibit's origins date back to 1995, when Willard Psychiatric Center (as it was finally known) in New York's Finger Lakes region closed down. Staff members found 400 suitcases tucked away on wooden racks and sent them to the New York State Museum in Albany.

Beginning in 1999, Penney, then director of recipient affairs at the New York State Office of Mental Health, and Peter Stastny, M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, studied a selected group of the suitcases.

Using hospital records, they examined the patients' medical records and correspondence, combed through the snapshots, and tracked down patients' relatives and former hospital employees. They also read transcriptions of intake interviews, a chance to hear an echo of each person's voice.

Photographer Lisa Rinzler documented the artifacts, gravesites, and former homes of the patients. The traveling exhibit is a briefer version of one displayed at the New York State Museum in 2004.

The patients brought these trunks with them on arrival, but they were not permitted to keep them in their rooms. Exactly why they couldn't keep their trunks or the personal treasures they contained in their rooms is not known, said Penney. Thus, the items in the exhibit reflect the patients' lives prior to their hospitalization.

Once placed in storage, the suitcases were forgotten over the decades that their owners stayed at Willard.

Ethel was a seamstress who spent 43 years in Willard, working part time in the laundry and making quilts and baby booties in her spare time. Herman's seizures led doctors to send him to Willard, and 35 years inside probably made him depressed and uncommunicative before he died in 1965. Dymytro was a Nazi slave-camp survivor from the Ukraine who underwent 20 electroconvulsive therapy sessions and finished one painting every day for years. Margaret was a Scottish immigrant, a nurse who served in World War I. A history of tuberculosis, compounded by emotional problems, led to her commitment in 1941. She received no psychotherapy, only Thorazine.

Many of these people would be unlikely to need long-term inpatient treatment today, giving added poignancy to the exhibit.

“We tried to put the focus on the psychiatric history of that time,” said Penney. She and Stastny are collaborating on a related book that will be published next fall.

“The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic” was designed and produced by the Exhibition Alliance.

More images and information about the exhibit are posted at<www.suitcaseexhibit.org>.

1 Suitcases filled with the belongings of earlier lives of patients at Willard State Hospital in upstate New York form the basis of the exhibit.

3 Sophia's early death during a miscarriage was said to set her husband, Dymytro, on the path to mental illness. As part of his rehabilitation, he began painting and turned out one picture a day—many of village scenes of his native Ukraine 5 —for years.

6 These books and photographs belonged to Madeline. She went from the unemployment lines in the Depression to voluntary commitment to long-term involuntary commitment at Willard. Given antipsychotic drugs in the 1950s despite her objections, she developed tardive dyskinesia and spent the rest of her life in institutions.

Margaret was an immigrant nurse from Scotland. She was sent to Willard in 1941, where she remained for 32 years. The teacup 2, medical charts 4, and small photos 7 belonged to her.

Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
1 Suitcases filled with the belongings of earlier lives of patients at Willard State Hospital in upstate New York form the basis of the exhibit.
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
Margaret was an immigrant nurse from Scotland. She was sent to Willard in 1941, where she remained for 32 years. The teacup 2, medical charts 4, and small photos 7 belonged to her.
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
Margaret was an immigrant nurse from Scotland. She was sent to Willard in 1941, where she remained for 32 years. The teacup 2, medical charts 4, and small photos 7 belonged to her.
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
3 Sophia's early death during a miscarriage was said to set her husband, Dymytro, on the path to mental illness. As part of his rehabilitation, he began painting and turned out one picture a day—many of village scenes of his native Ukraine 5 —for years.
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
6 These books and photographs belonged to Madeline. She went from the unemployment lines in the Depression to voluntary commitment to long-term involuntary commitment at Willard. Given antipsychotic drugs in the 1950s despite her objections, she developed tardive dyskinesia and spent the rest of her life in institutions.
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
Margaret was an immigrant nurse from Scotland. She was sent to Willard in 1941, where she remained for 32 years. The teacup 2, medical charts 4, and small photos 7 belonged to her.
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
1 Suitcases filled with the belongings of earlier lives of patients at Willard State Hospital in upstate New York form the basis of the exhibit.
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
Margaret was an immigrant nurse from Scotland. She was sent to Willard in 1941, where she remained for 32 years. The teacup 2, medical charts 4, and small photos 7 belonged to her.
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
Margaret was an immigrant nurse from Scotland. She was sent to Willard in 1941, where she remained for 32 years. The teacup 2, medical charts 4, and small photos 7 belonged to her.
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
3 Sophia's early death during a miscarriage was said to set her husband, Dymytro, on the path to mental illness. As part of his rehabilitation, he began painting and turned out one picture a day—many of village scenes of his native Ukraine 5 —for years.
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
6 These books and photographs belonged to Madeline. She went from the unemployment lines in the Depression to voluntary commitment to long-term involuntary commitment at Willard. Given antipsychotic drugs in the 1950s despite her objections, she developed tardive dyskinesia and spent the rest of her life in institutions.
Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump
Margaret was an immigrant nurse from Scotland. She was sent to Willard in 1941, where she remained for 32 years. The teacup 2, medical charts 4, and small photos 7 belonged to her.

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