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Living out of a Suitcase

Posted on Tuesday, December 03, 2013

If you had to pack your life into a single suitcase, what you would you bring?

With "The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic" (2008), authors Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, along with photographer Lisa Rinzler, brought to light a stark narrative of 20th century psychiatric care and gave voice to the stories of 10 people committed to the Willard State Hospital, as told through the contents of their suitcases.

Located near Ovid, N.Y., just across Seneca Lake from Geneva, the Willard State Hospital operated from 1869 to 1995. It was after the facility's closing that workers discovered hundreds of suitcases in the attic of one of the abandoned buildings. Much of the luggage-the last relics of the thousands of people admitted to the hospital-had been untouched for decades.

After the initial finding, the suitcases were stored in Albany until 1999, when Penney and Stastny rediscovered them. With Rinzler, they "spent several years immersed in the material and documentary remnants of these people's lives, forming relationships with them through the things they left behind," according to the exhibit's website.

In 2004, the New York State Museum opened the exhibit "Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic," which in its nine-month run attracted more than 600,000 visitors. Since 2006, a portable, 1,500 square-foot exhibit has allowed the suitcases to tour the country, "to bring the stories of the suitcase owners and a patient-centered view of the history of psychiatry to a wider audience."

In the fall of 2012, Assistant Professor of English Stephen Cope invited Penney, also a leader in the human rights movement for people with psychiatric disabilities, to campus to discuss "The Lives They Left Behind" with students.

When Cope invited Penney to return to campus in 2013, Penney mentioned the talk she was scheduled to deliver in Ithaca, where the exhibit would be on display at the Tompkins County Public Library.

"It occurred to me that, rather than bring her to campus, we could bring the students to her," Cope says.

That was when he and Assistant Professor of Psychology Brien Ashdown decided to incorporate the exhibit into their first-year Learning Community courses, which engage students in the subject of mental health from a variety of perspectives.

Students in Learning Communities take one or more courses together, live together on the same floor of a co-ed residence hall and attend some of the same lectures and field trips.

David Mapstone, Hobart assistant dean and director of the Learning Community program, says that the courses and activities are coordinated "so that students start to understand and appreciate that knowledge is holistic, and that learning can be experiential and can take place outside the formal classroom. In academia we cut up knowledge into these things called disciplines-and even more so into courses-but to fully understand the issues we need to think across and beyond these boundaries."

Cope and Ashdown-with the help of Mapstone, Assistant Professor of Psychology Dan Graham, Associate Professor of Education Mary Kelly and a faculty development grant from the Center for Teaching and Learning-are using the suitcase exhibit as a kind of common ground between their courses, as students study, through different lenses, the history, theory, practice, and stigma surrounding mental health.

In Cope's First-Year Seminar, "Am I Crazy?: Madness in History, Culture, and Science," he aims "to humanize some of the theoretical and historical issues we were discussing in class: the cultural and social definitions of mental illness, for instance, or the history of institutionalization (and de-institutionalization) in the United States."

The course is also an ongoing discussion forum for the rights and advocacy of people with disabilities and a chance "to familiarize students with the ways in which these issues and the debates they continue to inspire have been crucial to the cultural and social landscape of the region in which they've chosen to pursue their education," Cope says. "Because the primary representations of mental illness and mental disability in the United States are proffered by either a profoundly ill-informed popular culture (horror movies and the like) or the entrepreneurial interests of pharmaceutical corporations, I felt it to be vitally important that students be exposed to a very different perspective."

Ashdown's introductory psychology courses discuss similar issues.

"I wanted to give students the chance to experience the changes that have occurred in the way that our society views and treats mental illness," he says.

In October, students and faculty from the HWS psychology, English and education departments traveled to Ithaca to hear Penney's talk and visit the suitcases exhibit, an opportunity, Ashdown says, "to have a direct experience with the way mental illness was viewed and treated, to see how it is differently viewed today, and to realize that while many things have changed, many haven't-we still view mental illness, in many ways, the same way we did 100 years ago."

At the Tompkins County Public Library, they took in the exhibit, the photographs, notebooks, dishes, shoes, ice skates-the belongings of the people admitted to the Willard State Hospital-not to mention the suitcases themselves.

"The exhibit taps into the universal-ness of the suitcase," says Kelly. "It makes us think about what really defines who we are."

For Kelly, who is teaching courses this semester focused on education and disability, the exhibit was a "great opportunity to look at a historical perspective, to examine the historical context of institutionalization."

"What really enhanced my understanding of the mental hospital environment and treatments during the early- to mid-1900s was actually seeing the suitcases," says Cassidy Smith, who took Cope's seminar last fall and visited the exhibit this semester as part of Ashdown's Psychology 100 course. Seeing the patients' "closest objects" firsthand, she says, "formed more a personal connection to their stories. The photographs really stood out to me the most, because they depicted the patients families and lives before entering the hospital-everything that they had lost."

"I was really moved by the hand-crafted items in the suitcases," says Matty Carville '17, a student in Cope's seminar. "One of the patients had sewn baptismal gowns for her infant daughters who had sadly passed away shortly after birth, but she brought their gowns with her to Willard as a way to remember them."

"Certainly among the most moving objects for me are those that are most troubling," says Cope. "A letter from one of the patients in which he articulates his desire to be paid for the two-decades worth of labor that he provided for the facility as a gravedigger, and in which he asks for his ‘freedom' and for the contents of his suitcase to be returned to him, is very compelling to me, particularly since it was entered into his file as evidence of his illness."

Walking through the exhibit, Kelly says, "there's a brush, there's a photograph, there's a musical instrument, but as you circle back, you see the story, begin to make connections. They're objects but they have meaning. It's humanizing."

As a capstone to this segment of the course, students in Cope and Ashdown's Learning Community produce their own suitcases, "so as to have the immediate experience of identifying or attempting to represent themselves with objects, icons, or other ephemera such as those contained in the Willard suitcases," Cope says. 

In addition, students in his class produce narrative accounts of their peers' suitcases, "so they will be given the opportunity to play the role of historian or archivist as well as historical or archival subject."

Ashdown's psychology students, to accompany their suitcases, compose an essay "about their expectations for treatment and the ways that our understanding of mental illness and treatment has changed over the past 100 years," Ashdown says.

Suitcases will be exhibited at the First-Year Seminar Symposium, Tuesday, Dec. 3, at 6 p.m. in the Sanford and Geneva rooms of the Warren Hunting Smith Library.

They will also be on display beginning earlier that day in the library atrium and during the following times:

Tuesday, Dec. 3.........1 - 4 p.m.

Wednesday, Dec. 4.........1 - 4 p.m.

Thursday, Dec. 5.........10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 6.........1 - 5:30 p.m.

 


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