Review: The Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online

I tripped across a site called “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic.”

The Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995 after 127 years of operation. When staff members tried to preserve historic artifacts, they tripped upon a hidden door that contained nearly 400 suitcases of institutionalized patients who had died in the center, never able to reclaim their belongings and return home. Whose families were never found. In this online exhibit, the history and also the contents of 9 suitcases are displayed and the individuals honored.

I cried.

Staff members selected these 9 suitcases for further study – learning the lives of these individuals, why they had been hospitalized. The personal items they brought with them; items important to them -reflecting their rich lives before being committed. It is both intensely sad but also an honor sharing the photographs of these individuals, reading their medical histories, and viewing their personal suitcase items – a complex picture of their experiences, friends, family and goals is revealed.

A camera. Photos of family. Books. Army discharge papers. A baby’s shoe. Even mundane items like china wrapped carefully in newspaper. Never to be unwrapped.

Nearly half of those admitted to the institution died there.

It is both interesting and sad to see how these individuals were treated – how they were diagnosed based on presenting symptoms. Or never diagnosed at all. Mostly, patients admitted were classified based on their ability to work.

It is incomprehensible to wonder how they would be treated in today’s environment – where perhaps therapy and medication could have allowed them to lead normal lives. Instead of 50 or 60 years of institutionalization that provided supportive care with little-to-no therapy.

The journey for one man through the mental health system began when he created a disruption outside a restaurant after being served food on a broken plate. He spent two-thirds of his life institutionalized.

The story of Sister Marie (Theresa) is especially troubling to me. Upon her entrance to the institution, her religious background as an ordained nun was discounted; denied. As “a figment of her imagination.” The harsh life she experienced in the institution, for 30 years, led to her behavior as “noise, resistive, ugly and delusional.” As a result of her treatment, the characterization of her behavior and the denial of her past, she retreated into alternate personalities.

While Theresa was not sexually abused or abused in any way as a child, in the second half of her life she experienced enough denial, disdain and trauma to bring about severe dissociation to help her cope until her death of physical ailments.

She could have lived a full and productive life. Except for the misconceptions and social resistance to mental illness.

Visit the online Exhibit here.

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4 Comments»

  Scott wrote @

Quite fascinating. Did you buy the book?

  emilylonelygirl wrote @

Hi Scott

The book is in my shopping cart as we speak!

What is hard to get my hands around is that most of these folks are essentially normal by our standards today. What makes me cry is that case where the woman was denied her past and ended up dissociating in the end to deal with what they did to her. They CAUSED her to run away in her mind.

While presenting the stories honors them in a way, their suitcases hammer home their stolen lives.

Cami

  Jackie wrote @

Interesting comment Cami. But weren’t our lives stolen at one point too. I agree with you about the tragedy that the woman became DID later in life which I think would be much harder to live that way. I know no other way to live, but in that woman’s early life she did. I suggest it would be difficult as if one had sight most of their life and then lost their vision. Tragic as well.

  emilylonelygirl wrote @

…or to suddenly be able to see many different viewpoints or angles of vision at the same time.

Cami


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