Hat tip to Karolina Waclawiak, assistant editor at The Believer and one of our beloved guest posters for this fascinating online exhibit devoted to images by photographer Lisa Rinzler of suitcases (and their contents) left behind at Willard Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes region.
I lived for a year near Seneca Lake, where the hospital operated for more than a century (1869-1995), and it is lovely, haunting place that always reminded me, vaguely of Twin Peaks.
When the facility closed, workers uncovered 427 trunks, suitcases, satchels and crates in the attic of one of the buildings. It appeared many of them remained unopened since the patients (or family members) originally packed them for their hospital stay.
The stories of each suitcase, each patient, is a tale of mental health history but also those kind of universal tales of people whose circumstances limit their options, whose yearnings exceed those acceptable by their era, whose families abandon them or whom life treats with alarming cruelty.
But you almost don’t need the narratives provide (though they are unbearably poignant–many in need of help who never received any therapeutic treatment, and many who didn’t seem to need to be there at all, such as one young man, Roderigo, institutionalized from the age of 29 after a bout of depression. A note in his case file, written more than 50 years into his 64-year stay, says “years of institutionalization appears to be a mistake… as this man appears in perfect mental condition”).
The items themselves carry so much of the story. The intricately embroidered baby booties, penny arcade photos, the delicate lady’s tea-cup, a pair of ice skates. You can tell the story; somehow you know it.