Friends, this book was a difficult read. I cried. More than once. It's not for the faint of heart.
The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny is a collection of short biographies based on a few of the suitcases found in the attic of the Willard State Hospital (and cataloged and displayed in the Willard Suitcase Exhibit, which I wrote about several years ago). Each chapter reconstructs, from research the authors performed and from the contents of the suitcase found, the life and institutionalization of one Willard patient. For the most part, the patients are people who were committed to Willard in young or mid adulthood and remained there for the rest of their lives. Most of them lived at Willard for decades.
Each story is different, and none are "representative." The details are sketchy, and the stories are based largely on conjecture and guesses. This doesn't make the book any less powerful. Though each detail is heartbreaking in its own right, the common threads provide the real narrative here. The patients profiled rarely suffered from violent or dangerous psychosis. They were, for various reasons, "outsiders" in the societies in which they lived, and were institutionalized for often spurious reasons. Once at Willard, very few, if any, efforts were made to stabilize their conditions and return them to their lives. Many of them were not even given any sort of treatment. Rather, they were warehoused for years. They were, basically, erased. It's seriously one of the very saddest things I've ever contemplated.
That said, I do have to issue a warning about the book--it is, simply put, anti-psychology propaganda. The authors make no bones about their feelings not just about the practices of Willard and institutions like it in the 1800s and the first three-quarters of the 1900s, but about the current state of things as well. And while they make some good points, their analysis is anything but balanced. The book's afterward, using the stories presented as a case against modern psychiatry and medical practices, was a bit hard for someone as pro-psychotropic medication as you all know me to be to take. My suggestion is to read this book not as well-researched history (it's not), or an even-handed medical ethics argument (it's not), but as a collection of small, heart-breaking stories about the lives of people who never got to tell their stories themselves.