Monday, December 9, 2013

Book Review – The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastney is an interesting book.  This is a history book about the Willard Psychiatric Hospital in New York.  The story behind the book is just as interesting.

The short version of the story behind the book is that the Willard Psychiatric Hospital, once one of the largest state hospitals in New York, closed in 1995.  It had been open for 125 years and saw literally a million or more patients in its history.  Before some of the buildings were torn down, the New York State Historical Society was allowed to go through the buildings.  Two former employees took historians to an attic where personal belongings had been stored.  In that attic they found rows of suitcases.  The suitcases were carefully lined up awaiting their owners.  Through years of work by historians afterward, the stories behind many of the suitcases were pieced together.  This story was first turned into an exhibit at the New York State Historical Society.  This book followed.

In this book, the authors tell the tales of ten of the suitcase owners.  They selected a sample of suitcases that were fairly representative of the more than four hundred they found.  Most of the stories are tragic.  Knowing that the suitcases never left Willard Hospital, one can conclude what happened to the owners.

This is a fascinating snapshot look at the history of mental health care in the United States in the not so distant past.  It is pretty frank, a bit brutal at times, and an amazing testament to the human ability to survive despite the odds.  I would put this one fairly high up on your list of books to read.  Yes.  It is a history book.  But it doesn't read like one.  It’s almost as if reading diary or journal entries at times.  Don’t miss this one.

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