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

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  3,333 ratings  ·  426 reviews
When Willard State Hospital closed its doors in 1995, after operating as one of New York State’s largest mental institutions for over 120 years, a forgotten attic filled with suitcases belonging to former patients was discovered. Using the possessions found in these suitcases along with institutional records and doctors’ notes from patient sessions, Darby Penney, a leading ...more
Paperback, 208 pages
Published January 1st 2009 by Bellevue Literary Press (first published January 1st 2008)
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Diane S ☔
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
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
“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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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 there'
Tami Bussing
Apr 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Jill Bowman
Jul 07, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
It was interesting learning about these people, the 10 suitcases that were chosen for this project but I was more interested in the running of the hospitals. I grew up near one of these State Hospitals and it was a fascinating place. I’ve come to learn - recently - that my grandmother (16 at the time), and my grandfather both worked there.
The authors delve pretty deeply into the lives of the patients they’ve profiled. Each could certainly have benefited from a more modern approach - though they
Aug 06, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Elizabeth Woods
Feb 27, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Having grown up approximately twenty miles from this hospital for mental patients, I was very pleased when my friend Jan lent me this book a couple weeks ago. It chronicles the lives of several patients who entered this institution in its 126-year history. The case studies are appalling and pathetically sad in their portrayal of these patients' lives through the personal effects found in their suitcases left behind at Willard. The authors paint a very negative picture of the care provided these ...more
Lori Anderson
May 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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  ·  review of another edition
"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
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
Jan 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Megan Hex
Jul 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jen Regnier
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  ·  review of another edition
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.
Sep 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So interesting but so sad. Really made me think about how mental illness is treated and how we really haven’t come very far.
Aug 27, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Amy Hornek
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
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
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
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
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