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This paper provides a review of the book The Lives They Left behind Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny. The paper touches upon the background of the book and focuses on the nature of the stories gathered in it. Firstly, it describes the way the authors organized the content. The paper discusses the materials used to outline the lives of the patients. Secondly, it provides the reader with information regarding the main characters of the book. Finally, the paper explains the meaning of the book based on its content and the stories, which arouse a mixture of feelings inside the reader's minds.

The Lives They Left Behind Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

The book written by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny tells a long story, which was born based on different facts. It is important to take into account its background to understand the books nature and the grounds for its publishing. The book is based on the real story of the Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York. The centre was closed in 1995; however, there were found more than 400 suitcases in the attic of the building. Craig Williams, a curator of the local museum, took all the boxes and suitcases to the museum to preserve things, which could speak for themselves. It was decided to learn more about the story of the psychiatric centre. A few years later, Williams had a chance to contact Darby Penney and mentioned suitcases during the conversation. Darby Penney was a psychiatrist at that time. In collaboration with Peter Stastny, a documentary filmmaker, it was decided to learn more about the lives of long-term patients and reclaim these facts in the work called The Lives They Left Behind Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic. In 2004, they created a website and published a book devoted to the patients of the mentioned centre, which gripped the attention of many critics and readers.

Willard was a closed state psychiatric centre in the Finger Lakes district of New York. The bags of the individuals who died or lived there without family were gathered and examined to learn as much as possible about their holders in an attempt to find out about the lives they had before their psychiatric confirmation. Last names were changed to ensure protection; however, if one looks at the different pictures incorporated, a few real names could be seen. These measures were taken to protect the rights of the patients and provide them with the required security. The book also aims at uncovering the abuses of the psychiatric framework both recorded in history and new ones. Even though the writers endeavoured to highlight the issues about the current psychiatric framework from the point of view of somebody who has worked inside it, the book unjustifiably criticizes it. It leaves no reader indifferent starting from serious critics and ending up with ordinary people.

The Lives They Left behind Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic is a profoundly moving demonstration of the human side of dysfunctional behaviour and the slender line, which so frequently divides the rational from the distraught. It is also a noteworthy picture of the life of a psychiatric refuge a kind of community in which an immense number of individuals spent their lives. More than four hundred deserted bags loaded with the patient's assets were discovered when Willard Psychiatric Center was shut in 1995 after 125 years of operation. The author's skilful analysis of the suitcases is contrasted with the composed record making a moving and decimating representation of the twentieth-century American psychiatric centre.

The book tells the story about the patients based on their belongings. Wealthier and more intricate lives than demonstrated by the facility doctors records rise out of a wide exhibition of belongings, letters to friends and family, photos of school mates and outside voyages, religious tracts, and initiating outfit, proficient photographic supplies, a sensitive hand-painted bone China teacup and saucer, etc.

The patients met on the pages of the book originate from limitlessly distinctive foundations: taught and unschooled, all-American and foreign. They are men and women of diverse races and ethnicities; among them, there is a British medical caretaker and an African-American WWII veteran. The most widely found diagnosis among these patients was dementia praecox, a psychiatric condition that later was called schizophrenia.

The book touches upon the personal tragedies of both new migrants and local conceived Americans adapting to numerous challenges in times of war and financial hardship. The fierceness of hopelessness that came about because of the ailment, loss of friends and family or work, as well as cases of listening to bodiless voices, were just a portion of the setbacks that put them on the way to the hospital and professional medical help from which most would never escape alive. Striving to evoke the interest in the lives of those kept in the hospital, the book uncovers the unlimited recorded deficiencies of a psychiatric framework that has yet to mend itself.


Penney and Stastny began from the huge amount of bags stored in the centre's attic. Patients used to come to the hospital with cases stuffed with their garments as well as other belongings that spoke about their owners telling about the life they had. Anyway, prisoners were not permitted to have these cases with them in the ward. Such things were not considered to be fitting into the institution's life; thus, the cases were taken from the patients often for a considerable period; in some cases, bags were in the attic for the rest of the patient's life. Tragically, those who entered Willard tended to stay there for whatever remains of their days. Underlining this, the book is the story of how mental wellbeing was managed in the Western world throughout the significant period of the twentieth century. Mental clinics operated more like spots where troubled individuals could find asylum and get help with their ailment, yet organizations regularly forever expelling individuals from the society. In the United States specifically, genetic counselling was influential for a great part of the century, and the crazy and rationally flawed were actually expelled from the gene pool for the period of their reproductive years.

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The book tells the stories of ten detainees of Willard represented by their belongings, which filled the bag of each patient. Those patients were neither sick individuals, as a reader would possibly comprehend, nor much of the time they received professional medical assistance to get rid of their psychological non-stability. Mainly, the patients were sane but because of the events, which happened in their lives, they needed to be under the supervision of doctors, who could take care of their health. The book tells about the lives of different people. The ten patients told about in the book include Rodrigo Logan, an immigrant from the Philippines, Therese Lehner, a woman from the Dominican Republic, Margaret Dunleavy, a former nurse, Herman Graham from the inpatient care centre at Craig Colony, Dmytro Zarchuck. Among them, there was also a WWII refugee from Ukraine, Frank Coles, an African-American veteran, Madeline Cartier, a teacher from France, and Irma Medina, who had issues with her former employer. However, the book focuses on the lives of the two patients who remained within the walls of the centre for the longest period. These patients became representatives of the Wallard centre.

Lawrence Marek is one of the centre's patients who stayed there for more than fifty years. He died in 1968 being ninety years old. He was not mentally sick in the traditional understanding. Being a worker from a little town in Austria, Lawrence Marek ended up being socially baffled in the United States; when he began to question his long-held Christian confidence, the entire structure of his life started to unwind. Marek was obviously not crazy; he was simply significantly troubled, yet this was sufficient for the powers to transfer him to Willard. He received no therapeutic medicine at Willard in any case. As the years passed by, it turned into his home, and he arrived at the point where he would not like to leave the place. The foundation came to depend on him because he turned into their unpaid gravedigger, a position he held for more than thirty years. Mareks tan calfskin bag, with the initials "L.M." carved onto it, contained his wretched accumulation of individual things: garments, shoes, and shaving apparatus.

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Further, the book goes on to tell the story of another patient, whose suitcase was among those found in the attic. Ethel Smalls entered Willard at forty years of age and stayed there until she died at the age of eighty-three in 1973. Mrs Smalls had to face a sequence of tragedies in a brief period of time: both her newborn babies died; afterwards, her father passed away because of cancer. Not long after this, her alcoholic spouse, who had abused her for years, abandoned her and left her alone to go through all difficulties almost with no cash. There is no wonder that Mrs Smalls fell into a deep depression. It is a common human reaction to life's traumas, especially among women; thus, Mrs Smalls was regarded to be insane and was confessed to Willard. Her bag recounts the story of the little comforts she attempted to clutch in her awful life: a family Bible, pictures of her youngsters and, the most touching of all, affectionately created homemade child clothes.

Lawrence Marek and Ethel Smalls were only two of the 54,000 patients who passed through Willard State Hospitals entryway throughout its 126 years of operation. Practically 18,000 of them died there, and more than 5,000 were buried in the graveyard tended by Marek. Not many of these individuals had a serious emotional sickness. The authors state that there were many reasons for patients to ask for professional help. The diversity of causes proves that people were greatly affected by society and had some concerns since life challenged them. However, most of the patients were sane and could become a part of the community again. However, for some reasons, they stayed in the city until passing away because of age. In most cases, patients decided to stay within the walls of the centre, because they did not want to come back to reality. They chose to live in their own world full of fantasy.

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The book tells only a portion of the human stories behind the facts of the many individuals who passed through Willard. Penney and Stastny construct their storyline around the bags found in the attic of the centre. Their work is moving and takes a breath of both critics and common readers. The most frightful pictures originated from the state archive; the photos taken by Lisa Rinzler were also used to represent the content. There is no person left indifferent after reading the book. It is impossible to stay disinterested after digging into the lives of those, who became a part of the history hidden in the attic. Investigation of the suitcases helped to uncover those stories and tell about the Willard patients to the world.

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