When the Willard Psychiatric Center in New York closed in 1995 after operating for 126 years as a state mental hospital, 400 suitcases were discovered in the attic. This luggage had belonged to men and women who were involuntarily admitted to the facility and, as the presence of the suitcases suggests, never left.
Opening the steamer trunks, cardboard boxes, and suitcases of people who lived 75 to 100 years ago revealed lives that hospitalization interrupted, and in many cases ended. The contents included letters, photographs, diaries, books, clothing, and religious items. There was evidence of careers: nurses’ collars, an army uniform, needlework, and photography equipment. The suitcases speak to their owners’ aspirations, accomplishments, and community connections, as well as to their loss and isolation.
An exhibit was created that sheds light on the history of mental health care in America through a series of these very personal images and stories, which tell of the many things that brought people there: poverty, displacement, physical illness, loss of loved ones, and guilt, and the many ways in which the psychiatric system failed those arbitrarily swept up in it.
The exhibit haunts me still. They were human beings not so different from me. “That could've happened to me,” I kept thinking. And that’s the point. What a fine line there is between mental anguish and mental illness. Stripped of their choice, voice, and freedom, we’re left with the contents of their suitcases to learn of their humanity and the lives they left behind.