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

Darby Penney, M.L.S., and Peter Stastny, M.D.

When Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995, staff discovered 400 patients’ suitcases in an abandoned attic. A selection of these suitcases, and the lives of the people who owned them, were the subject of a 5-year study by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, M.D., resulting in a major exhibit at the New York State Museum. The project also produced a traveling exhibit - now housed at the Museum of Disability History in Buffalo, NY, a website and a book, The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic (Bellevue Literary Press, 2008).

This presentation uses photos of suitcase contents, the suitcase owners, and material from hospital records to challenge common stereotypes of mental patients by depicting the lives of these people in all their complexity and individuality. The suitcases’ contents - letters, diaries, photographs, household goods, personal mementos - speak to aspirations and accomplishments, and to loss and isolation. The presentation depicts the history of the public mental health system in New York State through the lives of people who experienced it, and concludes with a discussion about how the system has changed- or failed to change- regarding specific public policy topics since the late 19th-early 20th century, when the suitcase owners were committed to Willard.

Learning Goal:

  • Present results of a qualitative study of the lives of state hospital inmates whose suitcases were discovered when the facility closed.

Learning Objectives:

Participants will:

  • Learn that the history of psychiatry from the perspectives of those committed to institutions tells a different story than the “official” history.
  • Learn about the rich pre-institutional lives of several people committed to Willard State Hospital in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.
  • Be able to compare and contrast the lives of the suitcase owners before and after their institutionalization.
  • Be able to compare and contrast the effects of mental health public policy on the lives of people committed during the late 19th-early 20th centuries with the effects of today’s public mental health system.