Thursday, March 27, 2008

Luggage tell stories of incarceration in mental institution

The New York Times reviewed March 25 The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Dr. Peter Stastny. The book tells the stories of some of the patients at New York's Willard State Hospital, which closed in 1995, through the many personal items found in luggage in the hospital's attic.

Some of the luggage and its contents were displayed in an exhibit at the New York Public Library's Science, Industry and Business Library in midtown Manhattan. I saw the exhibit in January and found it to be powerful. Through the patients' personal items, one gets some insight into their lives before and during their time at Willard.

The NY Times liked the visual elements of the book, but not the writing: "The book’s photographs are transfixing: vibrant young adults newly admitted to the hospital in the grips of wild confusion turn into slack-jawed, dull-eyed (but sometimes quite rational) old men and women. The photographs, in fact, speak far louder and more clearly than the authors’ strident prose, for what could have been a uniquely affecting work proves to be almost unreadable."

The Lives They Left Behind exhibit is available online as well.