Dreams and Suitcases

It was a chilly afternoon in April 1995, just weeks before the Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York was set to close for good. Two staffers, Beverly Courtwright and Lisa Hoffman, were racing to salvage pieces of Willard's 126-year history when they came across a long-forgotten attic room in one of the buildings. Peering inside, they saw the slanting rays of the sun streaming through the windows, revealing wooden racks filled with hundreds of dusty old suitcases, steamer trunks, footlockers and leather bags—the property of former patients who'd arrived in the first half of the century. Courtwright wanted to leave, feeling that they had disturbed a gravesite. But Hoffman was intrigued. Who were the owners? Where had they come from? Over the ensuing weeks, researchers began opening the cases and cataloging their contents—photos, books, wedding albums, silver spoons, military uniforms—things that had been taken from the patients on arrival, never to be returned. "I felt these lives needed closure," says Hoffman. "These patients didn't even have relatives to claim their things when they died."

If recognition represents closure, 10 of these patients have finally found it. Next month their stories will be published in a book—"The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic" by researcher Darby Penney and psychiatrist Peter Stastny of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the writers who pieced together the patients' stories. It was a painstaking task, matching faded names on luggage tags with medical charts and patient records. But the result is a fascinating, though somewhat academic, glimpse into a closed world, where "incurables" were sent as a last resort, with no expectation that they would ever return to society.

The haunting thing about the suitcase owners is that it's so easy to identify with them. Perhaps they had a predisposition to mental illness. But many were hardworking men and women who seemed to be coping until they suffered setbacks—job losses, physical abuse, diseases, deaths in the family—that apparently triggered a downward spiral. One, Ethel S., had just divorced her alcoholic, abusive husband in 1930 when her landlady reported her to the authorities. Ethel, who had also lost two infant children, packed an embroidered christening gown and hand-knitted baby cap in her luggage. Dmytre Z., an immigrant from Ukraine, had survived a Nazi labor camp, only to crumble after his wife bled to death during a miscarriage. A craftsman, he had presented a scale model of the wooden church in his hometown to President Harry Truman as a gift of gratitude in 1950. His luggage included patterns for making toy animals, cr?che figures and a doll's carriage. Granted, the patients displayed some odd behavior. Gravedigger Lawrence M. was "praying, claiming to hear the voice of God and seeing the angels," as one medical report put it—and Dmytre tried to propose to Margaret Truman, the president's daughter, after his wife's death. But if they were alive today, it's hard to imagine that the three of them would have been locked up for 43, 24 and 50 years, respectively.

The irony is that Willard represented progress. On its opening day in 1869, four patients arrived, one of them in a box resembling a large chicken crate—an indication of just how poorly people with mental problems were treated then. Another had reportedly been chained to the walls of a poorhouse in Hudson, N.Y., for 10 years. Willard offered them life in a rural, if institutional, setting. Spread across 600 acres in New York's Finger Lakes region, it included a farm, a dairy, a bakery, a blacksmith shop and workshops for making shoes, clothing, soap and brooms. For a place filled with "lunatics," it was curiously dependent on the unpaid labor of patients. Only the violent and debilitated were permanently confined to locked wards. Still, many people received misguided therapies. Dmytre was given 20 electroshock treatments, though they failed to help.

Like many former asylums, Willard has changed with the times. Today it houses drug-abusing parolees, while psychiatric patients have moved out. But the authors argue that many mental patients have traded one set of problems for another. Though people can often recover with the right support, getting that support remains a huge issue. Many have been released from hospitals, only to end up in nursing homes, jails or on the streets. As Penney sees it, significant improvements will come only when patients with mental problems are viewed not as dangerous misfits but as real people, with lives, careers, dreams—and suitcases.