The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny is a book that depicts the lives of ten individuals who were patients in Willard State Hospital (a mental institution). This is a work of non-fiction.
Their lives are portrayed through items uncovered in suitcases…suitcases uncovered in an attic. Each suitcase belonged to one of the patients written about. Some contained personal items, some contained clothes, some contained
I found it to be interesting on some levels, and somewhat lacking on other levels. The authors stated they did extensive research, not only regarding the items in the suitcases, but also through records, interviews, psychiatric sessions, etc., yet, for me, the result is bland.
I did find that the act of using patients as a form of labor, free labor at that, on a regular basis (sometimes daily), was not only intrusive and unhealthy, but also found it to be unethical in its forced situation. I felt it fostered keeping those very individuals within the walls of Willard State Hospital. The authors claim (and it could very well be true), that one specific individual could have left, as they were no longer a hindrance to themselves or society. They decided they wanted to stay, and did so, continuing to exercise free labor for the mental institution.
Considering the resources and the social stigmas of the time period/s, the authors still seemed to underplay the system as a whole. It was as if the authors were trying to prove that the individuals did not, in fact, need psychiatric help, when the records state otherwise. For me, their depictions lack dimension, and border on an almost exaggerated version of stories in the book.
For me, the authors were apparent in their distrust of, and dislike for the system within the Willard walls. Yet, they did not compare Willard to other state mental institutions, as far as recovery, recuperation, structure, standards and practices. They seemed to demean the practices of the time period, going back 70 years or more. Granted, some of it might not have been the normal standards, yet much of it was, according to the psychiatric norms of the time. The authors did not seem to be able to empathize with the situations and individuals they wrote about. Rather, they seemed to deny that mental illness is a reality, and they seemed to infer that those individuals written about did not belong in Willard. It is possible some were committed who didn’t belong there. We hear horror stories all of the time about family members committing their spouse, child, etc., in order to gain control of resources, or in order to remove them from their lives. It happens, unfortunately.
And, if we look at how far psychiatry has come, it doesn’t really seem that it has evolved very much at all. Unfortunately, mental illness is still frowned upon by a great majority of society. Psychiatry is often seen as unnecessary, and the defining factors of mental illness do not seem to be taken seriously, at times. It is a real conflict within society.
I found The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital to be a book that lacks in dimension and conciseness. For me, the overall book’s format was simplistic, not very straight forward, and I finished it, as difficult as it was, with a feeling of blandness over the writing.
The lack of understanding of psychiatry and individual cases was evident, for me, in the presentation of the individual stories. It was almost as if they were writing a thesis, not a book of non-fiction. They found suitcases, looked inside them, formed stories, stating they did extensive research, yet, nothing seemed realistic, for me. I was disappointed in what could have been an informative and educational read on social stigmas, psychiatry and mental illness.