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The Suitcase Project

with 3 comments

An incredible exhibit showcasing the sadness, injustices, and mistreatment of those impoverished, argumentative, socially unacceptable, and truly mentally ill but receiving no true medical treatment. Thousands of people entered Willards Psychiatric Center for help and very few left.

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.

Check dates and locations to visit the museum when it comes to your area. Please go to this unforgettable museum of forgotten humans. You can read and hear the letters, photographs, memories, and their feelings, all packed in stored suitcases they left behind.

Lives Long Lost
Forgotten Suitcases, Emotional Baggage

Thanks to Judy from the Irish-American mailing listserv for sending.


3 Responses

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  1. With my panic disorder and being bi-polar I have often feared being put in ‘state’ hospital. This just deepened my fear and sadness. You know these places exist but you never hear from the ‘patients.’


    July 26, 2008 at 6:20 pm

  2. Sounds like the 20’s and 30’s!!


    July 26, 2008 at 6:21 pm

  3. I would love to get the book.


    July 27, 2008 at 11:42 am

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