Sunday, May 23, 2010

What would your suitcase say about you?

  I am fascinated by abandoned places. I can't really explain why; I'm certainly not adventurous enough to become an "urban explorer" myself, but I do like to hear some of the tales they tell, and of course see the photographs they take. My interest in this unusual hobby recently led me to a book entitled The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic.
  When Willard Psychiatric Center in New York state closed its doors in 1995 after nearly 130 years in operation, about 400 suitcases were discovered in one of the buildings on the property. Some of them appeared not to have been opened since the day their owners packed them for their trip to the asylum. From careful examination of the contents and many years of research this book was born, and it provides an absorbing account of the lives of ten of the hospital's patients.
  It is quite disconcerting to read about how quickly a person's life can unravel when they are faced with some great trauma. If an abandoned building produces feelings of melancholy in an observer, it is infinitely more tragic to read of people who were compelled by accident, illness or the death of a loved one to abandon the lives they led outside the mental institution. Worse yet is the possibility that life-long incarceration may not have even been necessary for some of these patients, and that their stay at Willard did them far more harm than good.
  I enjoyed this book, if you can use the word "enjoyed" for something that tells of so much suffering. I also got a chuckle out of a phrase frequently used by Willard doctors when making notes about their interviews with patients: "Lacks judgment and insight." If that is a marker of mental illness, they'd better start building more psychiatric centers.

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