Sunday, May 25, 2014

As promised...

the story that put the Willard Insane Asylum on the map is a 200 page book called The Lives They Left Behind; Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.  It's nonfiction and was  published in 2008...more than a decade after the hospital closed.  I first read about the book in an area magazine and pre-purchased copies for myself and my mother.  My mother worked for ARC when I was in high school in the late 1970's so I'd heard stories of Willard.   Living in the same general area as the hospital and working in the state court system leads me to have an additional awareness of the current facilities.  That, along with the looming abandoned buildings, would make anyone curious.

The book came about after the state closed the hospital and employees tidied up and emptied buildings that would be torn down. They stumbled upon 400 suitcases in an attic.  That discovery lead to a museum exhibit and the book.  The authors carefully researched the history of mental illness treatment in our country and the history of Willard.  They then put together this book detailing the lives of 10 of the suitcase owners. 

 Here is the book on a table in the Romulus Historical Society.

Also in the historical society are some of the placards that might be included in the exhibit as it travels from place to place. 

Sometimes a few facts are known about someone even though their suitcase was empty.

Josephine was from my immediate area.

Sometimes very little was known about a person but seeing a picture put next to a name and a few facts is still very moving.

One of the nurses answered a few questions people asked about this book and another one recently released, The Life She Left Behind by Maisey Yates.  Maisey's book is fiction but inspired by The Lives They Left Behind.  The nurses are understandably reluctant to endorse the books.  They feel that by focusing on a few unfortunate incidences the entire hospital is being defamed.  After all, they were only doing the best they could with the knowledge and resources available at the time.  One nurse was adamant  that these suitcases were not stored in the attic they were found.  She said that once a patient died their possessions were packed back up and stored away.  In my opinion, that isn't possible.  Some of the items would not have lasted the 30 or 40 or more years that patients were in the hospital.  Dresses and shoes would have long been worn out, tossed, or otherwise ruined.  Photographs and other prized processions would have deteriorated or been lost given the dormitory living situations. 

However it happened, finding these suitcases and saving them captured something that would have never been possible if patients were allowed to keep their possessions by their sides.  It is a very interesting book and well worth reading. It would make a great book club selection since it would surely inspire conversation.

On the stitching/sewing front....I am trying to create some order in my sewing room.  When that happens I will have some things to show.


1 comment:

  1. That does sound like an interesting book, Pam! I'll have to see if the library has it...

    Good luck with the sewing room organization--you never know what half-finished project you may come across :)