The Willard Suitcase Exhibit: A Different Side

A few years back, I had read about the suitcases found in a mental institution attic. Late November of 2007, I was in the Library of Science and Business at Madison Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets (New York City). I saw the large billboard-like panels set up. They had mug shot-like photos on them of certain mental-facility patients along with a written synopsis of each one’s personal story and with superimposed photographs of very turn-of-the-century looking paperwork done by manual typewriter on regular, lined, writing paper which were the clinical notes of the ward staff . One male patient was reported to have answered “No” when literally asked by psychiatrists he thought he himself were “crazy.” A female patient was described by the hospital staff as “ugly.”

There were also photographs of various items that belonged to different patients. Items such as some knitted clothing for a baby, some spoons, a military badge, etc.

There was also an actual display of two of the suitcases that were found along with some of the genuine physical objects inside. These were in glass or Plexiglas enclosures or showcases. The artifacts included objects that appeared to have been from a different era; things not made anymore, things of a different design or material. The suitcases were the kind that used to exist in the early to mid 1900’s. The articles consisted of objects such as a shaving brush, a hair comb, a man’s shirt, a small towel, a wallet, some small sepia- toned photos that were taken by the type of camera that must have existed sometime well before the 1950’s, an unused bar of soap which was still neatly and securely contained in it’s original wrapper and which seemed to have been manufactured during the times of Franklin D. Roosevelt; shoes, a belt, etc.

One of the large boards had introductory words which explained that this “Suitcase Exhibit,” a.k.a. “The Lives They Left Behind,” was organized by The Community Consortum, an organization said to ”Promote citizenship and human rights,” and had been put together with the intent of presenting to the public, through some collaged photos, archived documents and some suitcase contents, the stories of a few of the people who long-ago, had been committed to the Willard Psychiatric Facility in Upstate New York which was constructed in the 1800’s and which closed down in the 1980’s. It was fascinating alright . To think that reportedly thousands of suitcases, some with articles inside which dated back to at least a century, had been discovered. It meant that there was something to be learned about the people who were in the Willard facility.

The exhibit presented various individuals’ stories. One was of a man who endured head injury, and who was noticed talking incoherently by his boss and therefore was put in Willard. Another was of one woman who had been a sister in a religious order before being sent away for mental problems. One African-American man was placed in Willard because he started shouting outside a restaurant in which he was served food on a broken plate. A woman who’s husband was violent, had to leave her spouse’s home, and eventually her children were taken by child-welfare authorities, and afterward the person whom she rented a room from alerted mental health officials because the woman stayed mostly indoors, isolated.

Some people’s personal backgrounds were a great mismatch with their eventual fate of long-term or permanent confinement in a mental ward, such as one woman who came from a wealthy family and who traveled the world before she was in her 30’s, but who was eventually committed after becoming interested in the occult. Another well-schooled, privileged young man from the Philippines who was politically involved in the Philippine-rights movement, and who also considered joining a religious order, began to hear voices, and afterward spent decades in Willard; The photograph of this one individual when he was a man of about 19, and the one of when he was past his 70’s and had spent far more than half his life in a mental ward, were astonishing. It was the difference between a long-dead corpse and a living human being.

All these facts were priorly-hidden and priorly-unknown information about people from various walks of life who had the misfortune of being institutionalized at a time when a landlord could petition to commit a tenant who has a disorganized home, or an employer can do the same to a slow worker. As far as the exhibit’s “perspective” there was mention of the Patients’ Rights Movement, and the Deinstutionalization Movement of the 1970’s, and the rhetorical questions were, ‘Why were some of these people committed for petty matters, or for displaying common emotions and behaviors such as being morose in one’s own place of residence, or complaining loudly in the street?’ It was stated that these people “Disappeared behind the walls” of Willard. So, the question was, ‘ How were thy treated? ‘

Furthermore some patients were said to have been put to work tending to a garden to grow food for all the residents. Some were put to make shoes to be sold so that the facility could have a means of financing itself, and some patients did laundry and janitorial work while some tended the hospital cemetery. Only in the 1970’s did the practice of having hospital patients work without being paid, stop.

In one far corner of the library, a small TV set was running a short documentary. A small sign near the TV explained that that the Willard patients are now dead, but the film shows individuals of today living in “congregate” facilities and who have issues with chemical imbalance, brain injury, depression, etc, and whom were explaining how their condition impacts their lives. Furthermore, “Had these persons been alive 50 years earlier, they might have been in asylums like Willard.” The film showed a stammering man talking sadly about how his parents outrightly expressed favoritism toward his brother more than to him, thus he grew up tormented. A woman spoke of her depression and it’s impact on her and her family’s lives. Two of the most curious, self-explained stories were that of an elder, dark-skinned, simple-minded man with slurred speech, who joked that since he was born in a stone house he had thus been “stoned” ever since, and he went on to say that he used to be a millionaire before his disability; Also there was that of a pitiful-looking, trembling, heavyset lady who spoke by a beach as she faced the camera. A Ferris Wheel’s lights shone in the semi-dark background of an amusement park for visual effect. The lady said she used to be a thin, beautiful model and used to have a singing career and performed at small parties, and other events, and as a child she met some famous people since her mother was a beauty-contest winner. I wondered if some of these people who were living lives on the fringes of society, had actually lived such above-average lives in their younger years or before their disability as they stated. Or, was it just their imagination? Perhaps they were metaphorically speaking. This was not specified in the short documentary, and the attempted standpoint that these persons are “no different from everyone else” was therefore, especially-lost.

What I noticed was that the film presented the accounts of individuals who can substantially reason, and relate their hardships on camera. They seemed to know that their personal stories were being chronicled on film for presentation to the world, or to an audience, and they seemed to essentially know that some attempt at having everyone else better-understand them and others like them was the objective, but, as far as what all this was supposed to accomplish, well, it seemed there was just the element of self-defeating logic. Of course these few individuals with psychological problems can’t possibly represent the situations of all psychiatric cases and it appeared to me to be an injustice at least, and a deception at most that these people were being made to appear as if they do exemplify all people with psychological problems. What about those who are so afflicted by any given psychosis that they don’t realize it? There was an inherent implied meaning to this “Suitcase Exhibit” that there are people who want help but the rest of the world is uncompromising, uncaring and unresponsive.

The epilogue to this short film stated that, many mental patients live around the Atlantic City boardwalk. It was not clear to me if homeless, jobless and sick people are just wandering the area sleeping on benches and eating out of garbage cans, or if there is some community of patients who occupy apartments, or adult living facilities, and are assisted by social services.

It did occur to me that though this entire exhibit was a genuine and needed reminder of how anyone’s life can become marginalized there was a reference point that was unaccounted for. This exhibit was political through the use of sentimentality, and thus it was one-sided.

Strictly from what I could observe, there was no mention of any evidence of outright abuse at Willard. Patients were not put to fight each other while the nurses made wagers. Patients were not beaten, chained and starved. It was even stated that some patients who were sent to Willard were sent to a better place from almshouses where they definitely werewere mistreated. One photograph within the exhibit that I noticed showed the inside of one of Willard’s patient rooms, early 1900’s-like, but with a clean and neatly-kept bed; walls without paint chips; and a small lamp to read by. Private. No rats, no filthy bedpan. It wasn’t a dark, jail cell with no room to stand up. In fact it could be described as hotel-quality accommodations though perhaps thrifty, but that is according to today’s standards. When Willard was constructed, there weren’t the conveniences and luxuries of today such as Internet access, cable TV, computer games, etc. How many homeless people of today would want a place to stay in which they don’t have to share a broken-down bunk bed, or sleep on a filthy mat on a filthy floor in a crowded warehouse-like shelter in which they have to smell the odor of many other unclean bodies as well as fear being attacked, or robbed or harassed? The greatest apparent injustices at Willard were that, as stated in one documented case, a dpatient’snt’s body was used for science, probably without patient’snt’s own consent, and likely, this was one of various other such incidents; Also in other instances some other patients were heavily medicated when they did not need to be. Still, one archived document stated that Willard doctors believed one patient did not need medication and thus did not administer it, and also, some Willard doctors fairly concluded that some patients did not belong institutionalized. One man was given the choice of leaving after he spent years at Willard, but he said that he would have no other place to go and would not know how to just start his life in normal society.

Overall, even though indefinitely placing people in a facility such as Willard was far from a perfect system, it does not warrant the reverse-injustice that the so-calldeinstutionalizationtion movement resulted in.So, people used to be committed for merely shouting in public? For being misunderstood at work? For staying at home too much? While this could be said to be a matter of how late 1800s to early 1900’s America did not have a concept of individual rights nor did it have a great tolerance of harmless incidents of disorderly conduct or odd behavior, it could be also said that it served the purpose of precaution. If Willard patients were “oppressed” because they were cut off from freedoms that people in the outside world had; if they were not allowed to smoke cigarettes, or drink beer, or play cards and gamble, or look at pornography, then that is, or was, a small trade off, or it might have been. The fact is that an asylum or mental facility is a place for people who just don’t have any niche in a society in which people have to have their mental capacities intact and be able to basically interact and function for the purposes of holding a job, for the purposes of being responsible in public; and, in a common and general sense, for the purposes of being able to not infringe on the common good.

What about situations of this day and age in which, say, a college student barges in a dormitory and shoots his classmates and afterward it is learned that the student, months ago had been shouting threats on campus to other students but no one was concerned because now-a-days this is considered free speech, and/ or it would have been considered “overreacting” to have called police or mental- health professionals since all young people go through stages and say cruel things to other young people and furthermore “most” don’t take things too far? Do the selected, extreme examples of people who were exiled behind Willard’s walls for practically nothing, really represent the majority of the people committed there over the decades? Does it genuinely mean that most people ever placed in any institution are merely very unfortunate people who were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time and being too noticeable and that there was just some nosy people taking things too seriously or the “behavior police” were trying to make sure everyone acts exactly alike? Are most people who have ever been institutionalized “ultimate victims”?

Unfair as it could be said to be, it could also be said that putting people away who displayed anger or confusion nevertheless was a safeguard. Today the scenario is reversed.

The assumption here was that all psychologically-afflicted people cannot and never have benefited from being institutionalized. The fact is that many mental patients are not even aware where they are, or what day it is, and they cannot just be “taught” to keep a bank account, or prepare a meal, or meet with a social worker. Some are more than disorganized, they can be dangerous. Unfortunately certain well meaning but misguided people have made it politically incorrect to talk about psychologically sick people as a threat, but even if mentally ill people would not harm others, it has disastrousrous to mentally ill people themselves to have created a system in which there needs to be extreme and blatant evidence that a person is dangerous to himself or herself and to others so as to have a person forced into treatment or into an institution.

When tde-institutionalizationtion movement began, patients were literally let out of mental wards immediately. Incoherent people were released into the cold streets, some wearing only slippers and gowns, or in their pajamas, and without any money or any instruction on how to start a new life. The plan was to free people from seclusion and have them exist in society doing what everyone else does, such as learn a trade, go on a job interview, rent an apartment, buy groceries, go to libraries and study, visit a park and enjoy the wonderful sights and sounds of the world at large, and live independently with some monitoring and help from social workers, but this did not happen. Some mental patients were abruptly taken off of the medications that they had been receiving so as to be sent directly outside. For many years afterward, there was a social phenomenon in which “homeless” became a concept as never before in modern America. Mentally-ill people in numbers as never before, began to roam streets, and made their home on park benches, or under bridges, and ate discarded food off the floor, or begged for cigarettes, small change and partially-eaten candy and gum from passersby. Socioeconomic factors were such that vagrancy became a greater and more complex problem than it was during the times of the Great Depression, and what this meant was that mentally-ill people who were being sent out in the streets from hospitals , or psychiatric wards in droves were now among criminals, former prisoners, substance abusers, aundermotivatedated people of society, and of course things got to be so that even criminally-insane people were not kept in asylums or “forced” to take medication or undergo therapy.

There are a lot of people whom, even if they were born before the 1970’s cannot now recall a time when it was unusual to see groups of disheveled people sleeping on subway grates so as to get some warmth, or pushing stolen shopping carts full of possessions and junk.

Sure it is a matter of time, place, perspective as well as paradox. Maybe some Willard patients were not insane, but it is unrealistic to merely judge the social policies of decades ago with our contemporary “human-rights” mentality. At the turn of he century people with very different problems were often warehoused together. Society did not recognize domestic violence much. There were few or no services for people who could not stay in their homes. There weren’t anger-management counselors. Psychotic or unreasonable behaviors such as the hoarding of useless items, or compulsively washing hands or counting change, were not as recognized or as addressed by the psychiatric world. Lifestyle coaches did not exist to help people put their thoughts, emotions, goals, clutter, and lives together, nor was there official or extensive knowledge about what today is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for which going to a therapist or joining a support group might be of help without having to commit a person to a mental ward, or having to administer strong drugs, or having to diagnose a person as “crazy.”

There have always been those who are a step away from disaster. In the past it had been most notably women whom had never learned job skills in the expectation that a spouse would always support them. Also, there have been those who lost a job and did not have enough savings so as to pay the rent, and people who’s only living relative had died and there is no other next-of-kin to stay with. Many decades ago, one due course for persons with no family or friends to turn to, was to be committed or be out in the streets. Being out in the streets automatically meant that one should be committed.

The message of “The Lives They Left Behind” was in the context of civil rights, and individual rights , but it was not a completely good thing that people with mental problems were given the right to so-called, self-determination. Today, there are a lot of people who are homeless and dirty and hungry and helpless because there is a legal system in place so that it is hard to have a person put away unless he or she wants to be, or demands to be. Sometimes it is hard for a person to be committed even if he or she absolutely wants to be. The reasoning has come to be, “nothing can be done if they did not kill anyone.” Being in the streets, unclean, in rags, eating discarded food from the floor, getting victimized by other violent street people, and having severe medical and psychiatric problems would eventually happen to anyone who does not have a home, or job; few exceptions. Such a sight was not as expected anytime before de-institutionalization, but now it is . Is this the way it ought to be?

And as if things were not complicated enough, part of the reason why there are homeless people and why there are so-called advocates who fight against locking up the mentally ill, is due to vested interests. Certain people will support keeping mentally ill persons “free” from government or civic intervention, or forced treatment because it would be a cost to taxpayers to make institutionalization a system in which mentally unstable people and some plain lazy people get free meals, and room and board, even entertainment such as movies, books, games, gym (etc) all free, and and don’t forget that the mentally ill may not be forbidden from accessing porn sites on computer or smoking cigarettes because the government can’t impose “morality” on a vulnerable population such as psychiatriac patients some of whom are also retarded or have ADD and have a special political status regarding the fact that people with ”disabilities” must not be pawns of the moral police just because they are such an available consensus for the government to use “mind control” on. Of course, no mental patient is to be put to work even cleaning his or her own room since making patients work to earn their keep is unethical. You should be able to get the picture.

To look at it with a general amount of reason, even though it might not have been the ideal system, the patients at Willard were made to benefit themselves and their fellow patients, and the facility. Who can really say? What is wrong with having a mental patient grow his or her own food in a garden? Maybe if some Willard patients were to have lived to compare and comment on the mental-health system of today and that of Willard in the late 1800’s , they would have said that at least they were not making a home in a cardboard box outside of a church , or on top of a subway grate; and Willard patients had practical activities to do. I would not know if the Willard facility was entirely or partly at the taxpayer expense, but I personally don’t see anything inherently wrong with having instutionalized patients be productive so that they develop some living skills and job skills and keep from being aimless and also keep from being a total economic burden on society. There is an unaddressed matter here in that mentally-ill, or instutionalized people are treated as if they don’t need to feel that they are serving a purpose. A big problem with today’s homeless mentally-ill people is they have no organized lifestyle in which they get up in the morning to do something significant with their time. Inactivity is harmful to psychologically-vulnerable people. If putting mentally ill people to do some substantial work is treating them like juveniles who can’t make decisions for themselves, then it is only worse to treat them with such kid gloves that they are not held accountable for their own upkeep and that of the institution which houses them, as responsible adults ought to be.

Presenting the pitiful story of the discovered suitcases and the people who should have had it better, seems to have a useless principle if the message is that mentally-ill people should have freedom and “not be punished.” If the person who is pulling a milk crate full of garbage, and who is living outside in the harsh weather in rags and with blisters and sores all over his or her swollen limbs is not being punished, then we have created a world in which “cures” are worse than the disease.