Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Asylum Left Behind

A battered and dusty suitcase is carefully opened to reveal neatly organized grooming tools; a hair, tooth, and nailbrush and one mirror all minty green and held by straps on the inside cover yellowed from age. Each item waits for an owner that will never return for them. The weathered tag on the case says “Freda B.”, and the suitcase was pulled from a closet at the now abandoned Willard Mental Asylum in New York State.

For photographer Jon Crispin, the objects left behind in this and other suitcases from the Asylum, offer viewers an invitation to imagine the confusing and stressful world encountered by individuals who lived there. A place mostly unseen and unremembered by a mainstream world lived alongside it, Willard represents one building in a much larger network of “insane asylums” that were an earlier attempt in our history to help people with severe mental illness. The thinking was that by bringing individuals to a place where they could receive specialized treatment, they could be “cured” and perhaps even released back to home when they improved. For most families needing help, institutionalization was the only option given. The problem was that for so many at the time, a cure would not be possible because of the misunderstanding of what mental illness was. The very act of separating individuals from their families and their communities only worsened individuals’ chance of recovery.

Crispin’s photo project includes commentary on his blog that includes descriptions of the contents found and speculations about the people that owned the cases collected. Many of the suitcases are owned by the State of New York now and have toured as part of the State Museum’s permanent collection. The works are important because they help to chronicle lives largely untold.

Did Freda brush her beautiful auburn hair while lingering at large windows framing the dayroom? Did family and friends visit often? Can you picture staff helping to celebrate her birthday helping to serve cake and ice-cream as other residents joined in singing “Happy Birthday”? Did someone take her picture and pin it up on a bulletin board to be admired?

The photographs invite us to ask many questions as we consider the possible circumstances that brought hundreds there. The work represents the unique capture of an important time in disability history that for so many ended so badly. Lobotomies, straight-jackets, shock treatments, and sensory deprivation chambers all marked the experiences that patients placed in these institutions endured.

Whether taken there against their will or voluntarily signed in, individuals with mental illness were prisoners of a system that controlled every aspect of their lives once inside. The atmosphere of oppression within the facilities was captured in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where head nurse Ratchet abused her power over patients in a system that lasted for decades.

In a case marked with the tattered tag, “Maude K.”, glycerin and ink were still in little bottles alongside paper and arts and crafts tools indicating the owner was a multi-talented artist. Cases belonging to “Raymond H” and “Clarissa Bennet” contained papers indicating previous travel to other institutions. Still others packed away lace and fabric for safe-keeping.

Our understanding of mental illness today seems worlds away from the institutions that marked a solution during the earlier part of this century. Yet saying that we’ve come a long way in treating mental illness doesn’t make up for the lives that were stolen from the patients who were kept there. Individuals with mental illness still struggle today to get the kinds of help they really need from a system that still thinks it knows best. Therapy and drugs might help enable recovery but creating a supportive community where diversity in thought and behavior are really valued is essential. Until we truly embrace the idea that individuals themselves must direct their own lives and choose their own supports, then we’ve really not moved forward nearly enough. The suitcases should be a constant reminder of where we’ve yet to go.

To read an article about Jon’s work, visit a recent NPR spot at

- Donna G.

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