Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic” as Want to Read:
The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

3.66  ·  Rating details ·  2,831 ratings  ·  377 reviews
The Lives They Left Behind is a deeply moving testament to the human side of mental illness, and of the narrow margin which so often separates the sane from the mad.  It is a remarkable portrait, too, of the life of a psychiatric asylum--the sort of community in which, for better and for worse, hundreds of thousands of people lived out their lives.

More than four hundred ab
Hardcover, 205 pages
Published January 1st 2008 by Bellevue Literary Press
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Lives They Left Behind, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Lives They Left Behind

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
3.66  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,831 ratings  ·  377 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Diane S ☔
Dec 15, 2015 rated it liked it
3.5 Willard, a state institution in upstate New York was part of the self sufficient institutions that sparing up in the late 1800's. They existed by using patient labor to supply all their own needs. Once patient labor became illegal these huge institutions closed one by one. Over five hundred suitcases were left in the attic of Willard, possessions left by former patients and that is how this story came to be.

The author provides and overview of Willard, state institutions in general , what bro
Rebecca McNutt
This book is amazing, disturbing and somber but amazing all the same. Too often people afflicted with mental problems are just seen as "psychos", but this book shows the true lives of the human beings behind the stigma, and the fear they faced at the time.
This book had such potential. Willard was a state psychiatric hospital in the Finger Lakes region of New York that only recently closed. The suitcases of people who died or left without family were catalogued and studied in hopes of learning more about their owners - especially to try to gain insight into the lives they led prior to their psychiatric admission. Last names were changed to protect privacy - except if one looks at the multiple pictures included, several actual names can be seen. So ...more
Kevin Black
Sep 30, 2013 rated it did not like it
An MSW colleague of mine lent me this. Here is my note to her after I started reading it.


Dear _______,

I read the book you lent me about suitcases in an asylum’s attic, or at least I read about half of it. Unfortunately that was all I could stand. In case you are considering lending the book to others, especially students, I would like to share my thoughts on the book.

The authors have a stridently anti-psychiatry worldview, and do not admit their own biases.
Cindy Knoke
Dec 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
“The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic.” Darby Penny, Peter Stastny, Lisa Rinzler, Robert Whitaker.

When Willard State Hospital closed in 1995, after 125 years of continuous operation, 427 patient suitcases, filled with each patient’s personal belonging, were discovered, abandoned, in an attic. This interesting book attempts to bring to light the personal stories of the ten patients whose suitcases were found. The authors chose these specific suitcases because there wa
May 09, 2010 rated it it was ok
This was one of the most frustrating books I've ever read. The authors did a five-star job piecing together the lives of the people whose suitcases of belongings were left behind at Willard Hospital. The book is seriously marred, however, by a strange agenda: the authors seem to deny mental illness exists (except, strangely, for alcoholism and seizures). They want to attribute nearly all mental disorders to situational stressors, and bend over backward to apologize and rationalize away all indic ...more
Jun 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
This is a transfixing and deeply sad book, and its genesis is breathtaking: the discovery of hundreds of suitcases in an attic of the abandoned Willard State Hospital in New York, and taken to the New York State Museum. In "The Lives They Left Behind," the authors reconstruct the lives of ten of those suitcase owners, and not only is their research formidable, but the coherence of these narratives -- even in the face of gaps in the record, or myriad unanswered questions -- is ensured by the grea ...more
Mar 08, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: gave-up-on
I expected to really like this book; I thought the premise was fascinating. Unfortunately, what really did it for me was the authors' amateurish psychologizing and endless speculations about the patients' lives, both before they were hospitalized and while they were in the hospital, usually based on almost non-existent records. I had to wonder why they picked the ten individuals they did to write about; were they really the best they could come up with out of over 400 suitcases that were left be ...more
Oct 02, 2008 rated it it was ok
The individual narratives of patients lost forever to the asylum-based mental health system are moving & deeply disturbing. But the overall approach by the authors is far too biased to match the stories they're telling.

The book basically contends that its subjects were never really mentally ill, just tossed into Willard State Hospital because they didn't fit within societal norms -- and kept there until death because their labor was essential to the hospital's low-cost survival. Certainly th
Tami Bussing
Apr 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Thoughtful and empathetic, well written and organized, tells the story behind ten people lost to Willard State Hospital. From an outside perspective with personal effects left in the sanitarium, lost lives are found and memorialized with the care and attention they were denied during the decades they were locked up, many unjustly.
Oct 03, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: non-fiction
This book was such a disappointment! I was hoping for a factual account of these people’s lives and a look into what it was like in state run hospitals in the early to mid 1900’s. They knew the story they wanted to tell and were not going to let pesky things like facts ruin it. Here is a quick summary of the book. None of these people were really ill, but any problems they did have were misunderstood and could have been easily taken care of without the evil staff at the hospitals. The staffs at ...more
Aug 06, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book is just heartbreaking. While second guessing the diagnosis of a patient you have never met is usually questionable, the authors take what records remain extant along with the suitcases holding what personal belongings they contained and piece together life stories that shine a bright light on an ugly era in mental health care. It makes your stomach churn to think about what happened to these people, and you can't help wondering at the motivations of those whose decisions set them or ke ...more
Lori Anderson
May 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
This work of non-fiction is quite incredible in its scope and the amount of research that went into it. Darby Penney, a national leader in the human rights movement for people with psychiatric disabilities, and Peter Stastny, a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker, took on this extraordinary project.

In 1995, after 126 years of operation, the Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York was closed. It had been home to 54,000 people. While the closing of the facility was taking place, over 40
Andrea Dowd
Oct 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing
"The Lives They Left Behind" looks at one state mental hospital and it's history by selecting 10 former patients who's belongings were left behind either after their death or after the deinstitutionalization that occurred in the 70s. The author's helped to rescue over 25,000 pieces of luggage left behind and discovered amazing history long ignored.

By choosing 10 individuals, they were able to give them a context amid the horrific and sad history of mental health in the U.S. "The Lives They Left
Aug 05, 2009 added it
Horrible book, and I didn't finish it. The historical part is somewhat interesting--how in the early 1900s people who were admitted to psychiatric hospitals were kept for life (many for 40+ years!!)--however rather than analyzing why was done and how the understanding of mental illness has changed over time, the authors approached the topic from the perceptive that there is no such thing as mental illness, that it is perfectly normal to hear voices, and that because many people committed in the ...more
Missy Ivey
What an amazing story of the lives of 10 people who ended up in the Willard Asylum in Ovid, New York, which ran from 1869 to 1995. When the facility was closed in 1995, four hundred and twenty-seven suitcases were discovered in the attic. Researchers got permission to those suitcases and their medical records, as long as they agreed to change their names to protect the patient’s identities. In this book, the first names are real, but the last names are not.

I absolutely loved how the research and
Jan 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
After a number of old suitcases were found in the attic of Willard Asylum in New York, what was salvageable went into a museum. The authors chose 10 suitcases with enough artifacts in them to collect data on the individuals themselves.

I thought this was a very interesting study and effort to bring these people to light. It does not delve into the abuses of the asylum itself or how the patients were treated. This large institution was run by the patients themselves, as it seemed to help with thei
Mar 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
I’m not exactly sure how I stumbled across this book but it was fascinating! Amazing how the authors could piece together the lives of those committed to Willard Psychiatric Center through the contents of their forgotten suitcases. Especially interesting to me since the ex-hospital is “local”. - within a couple of hours drive from home.
Feb 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Normally I don’t read memoirs or non fiction because it just drags along with clutter. But this one was pretty amazing and very interesting. I took a long time to read it and spend time really getting a better understanding of how mental health was handled over the years. Some parts of it made me want to curl up and cry for these people.
Jul 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Granting humanity to even a few who were locked away in a state asylum is a great idea. Several residents' lives are discussed with care. The author isn't a fan of medication, which is occasionally annoying, but it's a minor quibble with an otherwise important work
Jen Regnier
Mar 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Favorite Quote from The Lives They Left Behind by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny:

"Something inside me takes all the good."
Frank Coles, Willard Psychiatric Center Patient
kami e. zittle
Jan 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Very interesting & sad. I found how scary it was in the early years in the mental health world. It has much improved, but still has a long way to go. I am always reminded that everyone has a story.
Aug 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. The subject matter was fascinating, and the authors provide important food for thought on the state of mental health care in the U.S. It is disturbing and depressing to think about the many thousands of individuals who spent their lives in these cold, sterile (and frightening) mental hospitals where they never actually received treatment but were essentially being held to 1) provide free labor for the hospital and 2) keep them out of society.

I did have a few problems
Apr 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This book is an eye-opening and disturbing look into the world of mental health hospitals. From their beginnings in the well-considered British Quaker "moral therapy" treatments (that worked), United States mental hospitals became warehouses for people who were homeless, in crisis, had a language barrier or merely cursed at someone.

This story begins with an attic full of suitcases at the former Willard State Hospital in upstate New York. They contained the belongings of patients/inmates, most of
Feb 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Having been a social worker in state mental hospitals, perhaps this book interested me more than the average person. However, I think it was fascinating to hear about these ten people who appeared to be having normal lives, which, for different reasons were ripped away forever. Thankfully, mental health care has changed much since most of these people were admitted and lived, but much still needs to be addressed and this book is certainly a talking point.
Apr 29, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was very excited to read this book. Growing up near a state hospital, I was intrigued when we took walks on the grounds and peered through the broken windows. I longed to know the stories of the people who lived there. The authors of this book delve into the lives of ten residents of the Willard State Hospital in New York after examining suitcases salvaged from the attic of the hospital. The premise is exciting, but the stories seemed poorly researched. There were some historical errors, espec ...more
Betsy Bailey
Feb 26, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2012, history, nonfiction
In spite of its flaws, I liked this book. As long as I kept the author's controversial biases in mind, I came away feeling more educated about early 20th century state mental hospitals and how they were run. I had no idea they were self-sufficient entities that relied so heavily on patient labor. I was expecting more detail and insight into the stories and lives of the 10 people featured in this book, but I did enjoy the peek of their lives and circumstances that was provided. Fascinating, as we ...more
Feb 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Willard State Hospital for the Insane operated in upstate New York from 1869 - 1995. When the hospital closed and was being cleared out, 400 abandoned suitcases were discovered stored in one of the condemned buildings. These rescued suitcases revealed the private lives of many patients. The authors selected a number of these patients and have told their stories with great empathy. (Often many of these patients, once "cured", had no where to go and stayed on becoming apathetic and dependent - one ...more
"They were just doing their jobs..."
"They didn't know any better..."
"It was a difficult time in the country..."

It sounds like I'm getting ready to dive in to the Nuremberg defense, doesn't it? Sadly, the excuses provided by the Nazis and those provided by the doctors/nurses working in asylums in the early 1900's are almost interchangeable. And, after having read multiple negative reviews of this book, it is clear that the mistreatment of others by those in a superior position will simply continu
Jan 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
Although this was an excellent, fascinating read, it was also a hard one. My heart broke for these patients who spent decades at Willard Psychiatric Center, reduced to a few forgotten items in suitcases in an attic.

I applaud the authors for giving these patients a new voice and making the effort to tell their stories. The overuse of medication was appalling; the cheap labor was abused; patients were kept there long beyond the time when they could have been reintegrated into society at some leve
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
  • Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945
  • The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States
  • Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital
  • The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
  • Ghostly Ruins: America's Forgotten Architecture
  • Crazy All the Time: On The Psych Ward of Bellevue Hospital
  • Agnes's Jacket: A Psychologist's Search for the Meanings of Madness
  • Danger to Self: On the Front Line with an ER Psychiatrist
  • Angelhead: My Brother's Descent into Madness
  • Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill
  • ...Or Not to Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes
  • Mad, Bad, and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors
  • Bedlam: London and its Mad
  • November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide
  • Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism
  • The Mütter Museum: Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia
  • Life Inside
See similar books…
“When you identify hearing voices with illness and try to kill the voices with neuroleptic medication, you just miss the personal problems that lay at the roots of hearing voices—and you will not help the person solving those problems. You just make a chronic patient.” 2 likes
“If people treat a cemetery like trash, it’s a good indication of how they feel about the people buried there and those who are still receiving services,” she said.” 1 likes
More quotes…