More on the Willard Suitcase Exhibition

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I can't get the Willard Suitcase Exhibition out of my head. I even dreamed about it last night. So this post will contain "spoilers," as it were, and I highly recommend you click the link and take a look for yourself before you read it.

I have a great big family, and, as is often the case, it comes with lots of family lore. Stories about the time Uncle X said that and Grandma Y did this and all that. I have an inordinate fondness for these stories, both because of their personal connection to my family and because I love me some history, especially oral history. One story has always really bothered me, though. My maternal grandfather's eldest sister, Edna, gave birth to twins, I think in the 40s, and "lost her mind." I don't know what exactly "lost her mind" means in this case--could have been post-partum depression, could have been something else. Edna was institutionalized and eventually given a lobotomy. As far as I know, she died in the state mental hospital. She never got to mother her babies. She never got to make her own decisions. She lost her freedom, and then she lost part of her brain.

I thought about her a lot while I was looking through the Willard suitcase pictures. What might her suitcase have contained? Pictures of her kids (she had older children as well as the twins)? Of her siblings (there were eight)? Her parents (already dead by this time)? Who spoke for her? When she was first committed, did she have any idea that she was never going to have the opportunity to return to her old life?

And did she really need to be committed at all? Was what she suffered from what we now know as post-partum depression, which, Tom Cruise's rantings aside, is a fairly common medical condition in women who have recently given birth and has several possible courses of treatment, none of which involve locking someone up and cutting out part of their brain? Even if she had something more rare--schitzophrenia, say--was she a danger to herself or anyone else? And even if she was, how much of a danger do you need to be before it's a legitimate choice to lock you up and throw away the key? Or give you a lobotomy?

The written about the people who owned the suitcases found in the attic of Willard Psychiatric Center portray people who had similar stories to my great-aunt Edna's, though none of them were given lobotomies. None of them sound all that "crazy," yet all of them spent decades, usually more than half of their lives, in locked mental wards without recourse. Some of them were "odd" their whole lives, others had reactions to tragedies that were considered inappropriate. Many of them were immigrants, and there were clear language barriers. Everything was taken from these people, from the suitcases that laid untouched in an attic for half a century or more to the very basic human right of free will. Very few of them were treated, and those who were were given electroshock "therapy" and high doses of drugs that did things to their brains that were not dissimilar to what a knife did to Edna's. In many cases, it seemed as if treatment was a ruse at best--they were being punished, in a way so severe that even at the time prisoners got better treatment. And punished for what? Very few of them were violent. Punished for thinking differently?

I don't think it's a coincidence that of the nine people portrayed in the online suitcase exhibition, six were immigrants to New York at the time of their admission to Willard and another was African-American. Nor do I think it's chance that seven of them came from working-class backgrounds. I am surprised only four of them are women. What we choose to define as "mentally ill" both in the first half of the last century, when the suitcase owners came to Willard, and now, is heavily influenced by race, class, and gender. We live in a society that wants to regulate the thoughts of people whom we do not trust to think "right" for themselves. In the commentary for the online museum, it says. "In the medical records, one finds no indication that any of [the suitcase owners] thought that their confinement at Willard was warranted, or that they benefited from being there." Most people came to Willard via a court order, and more than half of them left in a casket, after a stay averaging over 30 years. And what about my aunt Edna? Did she think her confinement was warranted? Did she want them to cut out part of her brain to make her more compliant? Somehow I doubt it.

I find this infuriating, but also, as I said yesterday, really frightening on a personal level. The instances that precipitated the suitcase owners' commitment to Willard seem so...common. Unemployment, death of a loved one, things that can do happen to anybody. And were their reactions all different than mine would have been, or will be, in similar circumstances? How am I to know that having a child wouldn't cause me to "lose my mind" just like Aunt Edna did? And if I did, would I be allowed to speak for myself? Would anyone speak for me? What would be in my suitcase?

2 Comments

Thanks for posting the link to that...I spent a long time looking at it yesterday. Did you check out the audio clips? I guess some of the patients there (but not the ones whose suitcases were displayed) WERE lobotomized, and one of the former nurses talks about that. There are also bits about the seclusion rooms, "typhoid cages," and "the blitz" (shock therapy). Pretty interesting, scary stuff. It struck me also that of the people whose suitcases were displayed, most of them seemed decidedly NOT in need of being there. I wondered how much of that was what they chose to display, and how much was simply the proportion of people there who actually had good reason to be there.

Grace, I was so moved by your reflections on your aunt's experience in response to your reading the suitcase website. So many thousands of people endured that experience unecessarily. And Jess, I just wanted to let you know that the only criteria we used to select the people to include in our study was that they had suitcases with a lot of rich material, which made it easier to understand something about who they were before they were institutionalized.

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