Thoughts on Books: The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic

Penney, D., P. Stastny, and L. Rinzier. (2008) The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic. New York, Bellevue Literary Press.

“This book is dedicated to the memories of the Willard Suitcase owners, and to all others who have lived and died in mental institutions.” — Darby Penney & Peter Statsny

I came across the Willard suitcases project’s website a few years ago thanks to another article which showcased some of the photos. That article, I am afraid, I have long since forgotten the link to and can now only speculate where it had been published. Nevertheless, the project had caught my imagination. 427 suitcases were wrapped in plastic as they had been found in one of Willard’s attics (a state mental hospital) and taken to the New York State Museum. These held the worldly possessions of patients who had lived and died at Willard.

The contents of the suitcases are both heartbreaking and riveting, leading one to question who this person was, how their illness cut their life short (or so it seems in many cases) and, more than once, made me say “There, but for Grace, go I.”

‘As jy weer in jou dagboek skryf

Onthou

Om die goue blaar te sien in die somerson’

When you write in your diary again

Remember

To see the golden leaf in the summer sun

When I saw the book on Kindle, I knew that I wanted to read it. It wasn’t because they were some “crazy” people locked away, but because I wanted to know about the people behind the suitcase, behind the facade that seem to still linger over a person as soon as they are diagnosed with mental illness of a kind that severely impacts their day-to-day lives. And, boy, did some of the stories hit close to home.

What really enthralled me about the book is that the stories of the patients were the stories, really, of the everyman who has, in many cases, just seen too much — too much death, too much loneliness. In many cases what could now be treated quite easily with some medication and psychotherapy/CBT was basically still untreatable — the medication and treatments in their infancy, so to speak.

We learn of people who sometimes flourished within the walls of Willard to become a person that lived as well as they could within the confines placed upon them. And yet, we see in this view of a lost generation of mental patients many of the same things that still haunt patients today. And you also realise how far a little empathy can go. Indeed, there, but for Grace, go I.

‘As jy weer in jou dagboek skryf

Onthou

Om in my oë te sien

Die son wat ek nou vir altyd bedek

Met swart vlinders’

When you write in your diary again

Remember

To see in my eyes

The sun that I now forever cover

With black butterflies

Extracts of “As jy weer skryf”, a poem by Ingrid Jonker, written in June 1964, and published in Kantelson in 1966, shortly after her suicide by drowning in July 1965 at Drieankerbaai, Cape Town at the age of 32.



Categories: Book review

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