Darby Penney, A life very well lived…

Joel Dvoskin

Thank you for sharing the incredibly sad news of Darby‘s passing. For years, our offices were very close to each other. I can’t count the number of times Darby charged into my office, often in tears of rage, after an executive meeting or to complain about decisions made by OMH leadership. Many other times, her mission was to not-so–gently let me know about my own failures to make the right decisions, and to give me a chance to correct them.

For a very long time, the professions of psychiatry and psychology paid little or misguided attention to the question of trauma. Almost single-handedly, Darby advocated, insisted, and educated us in the harm we were inadvertently inflicting on the people we were supposed to be helping by failing to understand this fundamental truth. As a psychologist, I was trained to tell people what was wrong with them. Darby taught me that the first and most important question we should ask is, “What has happened to you?” I learned more about trauma and its effect on human beings from Darby than I learned during my entire graduate education.

Darby was an expert at policy, and taught anyone who would listen that policy is always personal.

Her “Suitcase” project was a piece of artistic, poetic, and educational genius that touched the hearts of people whose over-educated brains couldn’t - or wouldn’t - seem to understand that “protecting” people by taking away their lives was profoundly wrong.

Some of my favorite memories of Darby were listening to her read her poems. Like her, her poetry was at once kind and fierce, enraged and loving, gentle and tough, courageous and vulnerable, and always incredibly thoughtful and honest.

It is impossible to exaggerate the positive effect that Darby Penney has had and will continue to have on mental health systems in New York and across the country. As she would quickly point out, the changes so far have been grossly insufficient. But her courage and dignity have been passed on to many other people who will continue her work.

A life very well lived.