A Finger Lakes landmark of sorts has garnered national attention recently, thanks to a dramatic exhibit and a new book. The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic focuses on patients of the former Willard Psychiatric Center near Ovid. The exhibit will be on display at the Cayuga Museum in Auburn from February 23 through April 20. A book by the same name, written by the exhibit’s curators, became available in January.
For those of us in the Finger Lakes who lived in the shadow of the state institution, the patients’ stories provide definition to the hazy/scary goings-on that most of us, thankfully, could only imagine.
An eerie discovery
In 1995, just before Willard Psychiatric Center closed, state workers and Willard staff scrambled to collect historical artifacts before the doors were locked for good. New York State Museum Curator Craig Williams traveled there from Albany hoping to find a nurse’s uniform, or possibly some antique furniture. In the attic of an abandoned building, he and two local workers discovered much more: a roomful of suitcases, 427 in all. They contained the belongings of former patients who had arrived there during the first half of the 20th century.
“Crates, trunks, hundreds of standard suitcases, doctors bags and many-shaped containers were all neatly arrayed under the watchful eyes of the pigeons who had come to join the lost souls and the worldly possessions,” writes Peter Stastny, MD, coauthor with Darby Penney, of The Lives They Left Behind. “For Beverly [Courtwright, who had worked at the center] and some others who saw it, this upper room exuded an unearthly air, a hovering presence of hundreds of souls or spirits attached to the many people who had handled and worn the items in those bags before they were packed, who had read the books, written in the diaries and looked into the mirrors they contained.”
Willard patients relinquished their possessions upon arrival; they were stored and then forgotten. More than half of the 50,000 patients treated at the institution lived out their days there.
Craig Williams transported all the suitcases to his museum’s warehouse. That’s where Penney, then director of recipient affairs at the New York State Office of Mental Health, and Stastny, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, encountered the luggage in 1999. They went through the suitcases, cross-referencing them with medical records, snapshots and correspondence. Piecing together the lives of just a small group of patients required extensive research over a period of several years. Their work, documented by photographer Lisa Rinzler, culminated in an exhibit called Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic, displayed at the New York State Museum in Albany in 2004.
The suitcase story spreads
A smaller version of the original exhibit has been paired with a website, SuitcaseExhibit.org, and is traveling the country. It was brought to Auburn by Options for Independence, an independent living center that helps people with disabilities in Cayuga and Seneca counties make their own decisions, pursue activities and become part of community life. Tracy Murphy, the center’s executive director, grew up near Willard in Waterloo. “There’s often such a stigma attached to people who live with the challenges of a mental health diagnosis,” she said. “We hope that by sponsoring this enlightening exhibit, it will dispel negative stereotypes and foster a community-wide dialog about these important issues.”
Using freestanding panels with text and photographs, and physical objects from the suitcases themselves, the exhibit tells the story of 10 of Willard’s patients. Over 600,000 visitors viewed the original exhibit in 2004, and 50,000 recently at the traveling version at the Madison Avenue Branch of the New York Public Library. What makes the display so alluring?
“The haunting thing about the suitcase owners is that it’s so easy to identify with them,” reported Newsweek magazine. They were real people derailed by circumstances that would derail anyone – the sudden death of a loved one, an abusive husband, severe pain and illness. Before Willard, as the suitcases attest, they led full lives.
One of the patients, Margaret Dunleavy, was sent to Willard in 1941 and died there 32 years later. A nurse in New York City, originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, Margaret had earned a nice living and enjoyed good friends, her own car and travel. But she was also plagued by physical ailments that included the effects of a head injury suffered when she was in nurse’s training. When a doctor concluded that her emotional problems overshadowed her physical complaints, he sent her to Willard when she was 48. With her, Margaret took all her earthly possessions packed into 18 suitcases, boxes and trunks. She had, by far, the largest accumulation of personal possessions among the suitcase owners.
“This unique exhibit simply appeals to visitors’ natural curiosity,” said Carrie N. Barrett, Cayuga Museum’s curator. They’re looking into other people’s suitcases after all, peeking into someone else’s private history.
She added: “It’s very powerful, especially for people in our area. It’s personal for those who still have strong recollections of Willard.”
by Tina Manzer
Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s in Waterloo, Tina Manzer heard adults talk about Willard in hushed tones, and playmates say, “You’re so crazy you belong in Willard!” without understanding what it meant.