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The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic Paperback – January 1, 2009


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The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic + Ten Days in a Mad-House + Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press; Reprint edition (January 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1934137146
  • ISBN-13: 978-1934137147
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.9 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (125 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #63,663 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

When New York's 120-plus-year-old mental institution Willard State Hospital was closed down in 1995, New York Museum curator Craig Williams found a forgotten attic filled with suitcases belonging to former inmates. He informed Penney, co-editor of The Snail's Pace Review and a leading advocate of patients rights, who recognized the opportunity to salvage the memory of these institutionalized lives. She invited Stastny, a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker, to help her curate an exhibit on the find and write this book, which they dedicate to "the Willard suitcase owners, and to all others who have lived and died in mental institutions." What follows are profiles of 10 individual patients whose suitcase contents proved intriguing (there were 427 bags total), referencing their institutional record-including histories and session notes-as well as some on-the-ground research. A typical example is Ethel Smalls, who likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her husband's abuse; misdiagnosed and institutionalized against her will, she lived at Willard until her death in 1973. While the individual stories are necessarily sketchy, the cumulative effect is a powerful indictment of healthcare for the mentally ill. 25 color and 63 b&w photographs.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"A tour de force, a must-read for anyone concerned with social justice, human rights and historical reclamation." -- Laura Prescott, President and Founder of Sister Witness International Inc.

"Darby Penny and Peter Stastny turn remembrance into an act of alchemy." -- Kim Hopper, author of Reckoning with Homelessness

"Darby Penney and Peter Stastny have...reclaim[ed] these individuals from the nameless, faceless fate of being only 'mental patients.'" -- Judi Chamberlin, author of On Our Own

"No reader will walk away untouched by these compelling portraits...." -- Ronald Bassman, Ph.D., author of A Fight to Be: A Psychologist's Experience from Both Sides of the Locked Door. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

I found this to be a very interesting book.
Jillian
This book showed me a good view care for the mentally ill when most were living in state run institutions.
Jane Harrison
Too bad the authors don't have the same viewpoint.
Docarelle

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

107 of 121 people found the following review helpful By I. Detest-Neiklot, J.R. on July 18, 2009
Format: Paperback
I bought this book primarily thinking that it would be an even-handed exercise in sociology and amateur archaeology. As someone who really enjoys exploring abandoned buildings and postulating on the things people "leave behind" to be forgotten and then found again, I was really excited about the idea of finding out more about the lives of actual mental patients during the period of widespread institutionalization. Overall, my reaction to this book was mixed.

First of all, the authors of this book take a very strong anti-asylum tone. While it stands to reason that conditions in the asylums at the time were far from what would be considered acceptable today, no comparison is made nor information given as to how Willard compared to other asylums at the time. Furthermore, the authors shed very little light on the condition of psychology as it existed in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Other than arguing that a culture prevailed which encouraged a maintenance of the status quo in order for the hospitals to exploit the free labor of the patients, little insight is given (and even this argument is weakly made).

Another problem that I found with this book is that very little information is given on how the details of the lives of these people were acquired. While some of the information is explicitly drawn from the case files as well as interviews with workers at the asylum, the narratives are filled with holes in which the authors posit a number of intriguing, but unsupported theories. An example of this may be seen in a description of someone as being "close to her family" due to the fact that she had personal phone numbers in her possessions.
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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful By B. Bielen on August 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was gravely disappointed by this book. What could have been a unique, enlightening, and fascinating piece of work was simplified beyond belief, full of opinions instead of research, and really did far less justice to the individuals profiled than the author appeared to believe.

And...ok, this is an extreme pet peeve of mine...the editing was terrible. What it is lately about editing that has become so difficult? And we're not even talking about true editing, just simply making certain there are no typos and that form and grammar are correct. This was so poorly done it was painful to read.

I had looked forward to this book for some time, so I was very disappointed when I got through the first ten or so pages and realized it really wasn't for the thoughtful reader who wants solid research behind a story. No, it was a quick read for a non-critical thinker that likes to be hand-fed polemics.

Sorry.
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247 of 308 people found the following review helpful By Docarelle on February 22, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was excited about this book when I heard about it and looked forward to it eagerly. The idea behind it was absolutely brilliant. How wonderful would it be to have access to the possessions, writings, and records of the disenfranchised people who were committed to psychiatric facilities back in the "dark ages of psychiatry"? The writers made a claim that they researched intensively when writing this book; however, I was able to locate 15 errors in the first 50 pages without even looking twice. What happened to the "10 years of research"? The further I read, the more unsettled I became. The entire book was an exercise in blaming the mental health field for everything that ever happened to anyone with psychiatric issues, and, although the field frequently needs slapping, it needs an "eyes open" slapping instead of the blindfolded and repeated slam-crash-bang of a pinata stick.
The bottom line is this. Tell me the truth. Tell me upfront that you think that institutions stunk and that people were treated cruelly and that everyone was sick and blighted who was ever associated with the running of them. But don't take the lives of people who had pretty wretched lives to begin with and then use them to underscore your personal belief that psychiatry and institutions are bad and evil. That is bathos and victimization at its finest. No one who was "exhibited" in this book gave their permission for their lives and for the minutiae that made up their existence to be examined and cross-examined and interpreted so broadly. That is taking advantage of people with psychiatric issues and using them for your own purposes. That is what I object to. It's making a profit off of other people's misery and to that I object and will always object.
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46 of 58 people found the following review helpful By R. Bassman on January 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In this this extraordinary, groundbreaking book, the authors introduce us to buried treasure. From their belongings and hospital records, the "forgotten lives"of institutionalized mental patients are re-constructed. Not only do we become privy to the harsh environment in which they are forced to subsist, also we see their unique hopes and dreams - evidence that these mental patients are more like us than different. The profiles of the ten individuals are rendered with tenderness and sometimes a bit of humor, not at the patient's expense but rather at their keepers. At bottom and central, is the illumination of a dark period of our history that the authors point out remains relevant today. Most importantly, a reading will provoke feelings and generate a different way of thinking about how one tumbles into the role of life-long mental patient.
Ronald Bassman, PhD
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