Harris County archivist Sarah Canby Jackson mentioned the "Willard Suitcase Exhibit" at a meeting I attended last week. She told us the exhibit was based on the contents of a bunch of old suitcases found in the attic of a state psychiatric hospital in upstate New York, and my curiosity was stirred.The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, the full title of the exhibit, is also a book by Darby Penney and Peter Stasny, with photographs by Lisa Rinzler.
The online gallery introduces us to people whose personal liberties ended once they entered Willard Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. As we read through their biographies, we see that by today's standards many would not be institutionalized. One, Mr. Lawrence (#14956), was said to be restless, boisterous, and he sang too much. He spent fifty years of his life at Willard, and became the institution's gravedigger, dying there at age 90. Mrs. Ethel (#20756) was a seamstress who lost two children and seemed also to have lost her will to live. Her suitcase was full of examples of her beautiful needlework. To me it sounds like Willard became a secure place for her, for she worked in the laundry and was said to be "very social, over-talkative, neat and well-dressed." The biographies presented in the exhibit will break your heart, rich stories of a lives forever detoured by varying degrees of mental illness, melancholy or eccentricity.
I like it that the Willard Suitcase Exhibit includes pages such as the one that asks "Is it better today?" Yes, there are more pharmaceutical options today, and there are some rehabilitation programs. Today, persons with mental illness are likely to live in group homes or end up in jail. But overall, the exhibit concludes, we have a long way to go "toward a future in which the larger society will recognize the full humanity of people with psychiatric disabilities." Surely this haunting and eloquent exhibit created by the staff and curators of the New York State Museum has opened many eyes.
I had a friend, poet Albert Huffstickler, who in his retirement volunteered at the State Mental Hospital in Austin, Texas. He ran small poetry groups there. His poem below, which I once had the privilege of publishing in a literary magazine, forever stays in my consciousness. I think it makes a nice addendum to the Willard Suitcase Exhibit.
Reading at the State Mental Hospital
Sometimes they listen.
Sometimes they act out.
Sometimes they listen and act out.
But when they listen,
you can read anything. Nothing's too heavy:
they've been there.
And the scarred, emotion-ravaged faces
lift to you like broken, discarded flowers
and there's a stillness sometimes
lasting only for a fraction of a second maybe
but we're all the richer for it.
Then they get up and read their own stuff:
mostly moonjune, how I love you,
how I cried when you left.
One woman sang hers in a little-girl voice
and afterwards on break
she was still singing in the background,
a sad little voice that went on and on,
following me home and to bed
and into my sleep still singing
and I don't remember what the words were
but I think she was telling Life
that she forgave it
for what they had done to each other.
- reprinted from Arrowsmith, Issue # 3, 1995
Blue Face - block print by KAO