What would you take with you?

If you were committed to a psychiatric institution, unsure if you’d ever return to the life you knew before, what would you take with you?

This is how the Collector’s Weekly’s article called Abandoned Suitcases Reveal Private Lives of Insane Asylum Patients starts. A very provocative question indeed.

In this era, I think most people would pack a smartphone, a laptop, a notebook, a couple of pens. Toiletries. A book or two (or a kindle).

Take a look into the past through the looking glass of this interesting article and see what people brought with them from the turn of the century till the closing of the asylum in the mid-90’s. Beautiful head dresses. Fancy shoes. Leather-working tools. Neddlework tools. Expensive perfume bottles from Paris.

Anna’s suitcase. Love the shoes. I have a similar pair but in offwhite

It makes me very sad to think about those poor people who were thrown in there (sometimes just for being gay) never to be thought of again. A lot of them died there and were buried in the backyard cemetery because their families couldn’t be bothered to come and take them home for a proper burial.

The photographs in the article were all taken by Jon Crispin. Interesting enough, the identities of the patients who owned the suitcases are concealed by the state of New York,  and denied even to living relatives.

As Crispin puts it

I’m still trying to figure out how I can name these people, because I think it dehumanizes them even more not to. People who’ve been in mental institutions themselves have said, “Your project is very moving to me, but I’m very disappointed that you have to obscure names.” I think the stigma of mental illness has evolved from something shameful to something that’s much more medical and much more accepted. It just happens to people.

Dmytre’s suitcase. He brought a picture of his wedding and the flowers his bride carried

Hunter Oatman-Stanford, the writer of article says something that I find very sad but interesting:

Each suitcase offers a glimpse into the life of a unique individual, living in an era when those with mental disorders and disabilities were not only stigmatized but also isolated from society.

I know we’ve come a long way from those days. But the stigma persists, perhaps morphed into a different shape.  But people with mental illnesses are still isolated from society, only that in a different way.

Oh, well. At least most of us don’t have our families throwing us away to never be heard of again.

Regardless, it is nice that people like Jon Crispin care to tell those stories through beautiful photographs.  Take the time to read the article. It is quite nice.

Wish I could be in San Francisco next Spring for the opening of the exhibit of the Willard Asylum suitcases along with the photographs.

23 thoughts on “What would you take with you?

  1. No Blog Intended says:

    Interesting project. Sometimes, I like to have a small insight in other people’s lives, especially when those people aren’t the boring regular onces, but those who seemed to be different, in whatever way.

  2. saradraws says:

    What a provacative question and what a fascinating project. I would also love to see the exhibition.. What would I take? Pictures of my loved ones, sketch books and pencils, a camera, a book to write in, books to read. Maybe fabric scraps to make a quilt. It would be interesting to see how well I would do without a computer…

    • SummerSolsticeGirl says:

      Yes, I find it fascinating too. I think that if I was being committed to an asylum of the insane and they took my laptop away from me, then that for sure would warrant my stay there cause it would certainly drive me insane

      • purpleowltree1234 says:

        They took cell/mobile phones away from all patients in the last private hospital I was in. I felt like I’d lost my prosthetic brain. It took me almost the whole two week stay to withdraw. Arrrgh!

          • purpleowltree1234 says:

            I had been warned prior to admission that they’d do this. So I took in my laptop with a USB modem I could still go online with. But I’d forgotten to write down my friends’ phone numbers before I went in. So I made about seven wrong-number calls trying to reach a friend and eventually gave up. I never did remember her number. Usually my phone remembers for me and I don’t have to dial it. :)

    • purpleowltree1234 says:

      They don’t let you take a camera- or even your cell phone with a camera- into most psych wards/ institutions. They don’t want legal action if patients are photographed while they are very unwell, or with evidence that person or those people in the photo were in a psych ward. Especially in upmarket private hospitals where celebrities sometimes go.

  3. Sid Dunnebacke says:

    My first reaction was that, duh!, I’d take my daughter and my cat. But then it occurred to me maybe they wouldn’t really want to be there. Shoot. Interesting question, though – and I don’t have a (real) answer.

  4. purpleowltree1234 says:

    Toiletries including soap and comb, laptop, drawing pens and lots of drawing paper, about five different tops and three pants including the one I’m wearing, a dress, underwear X 7 just in case, $20 in cash, scarf, jacket, bras, toy for each active child alter, few kids’ story books, USB modem, a little laundry soap powder in case the hospital is out of it, a box of non-sandpaper kleenexes, and my closest friends’ and family’s and workers’ phone numbers. This is my standard list. :o)
    love from Rach.

    • SummerSolsticeGirl says:

      You know what I find interesting, that most of us will take drawing pens and lots of drawing paper/sketch book. It looks like my list and yours are very similar :)

      Love back! It’s good to hear from you

      • purpleowltree1234 says:

        I feel so bad that I’ve been absent from your Blog! I love visiting your world here. I have so much to catch up on.
        How is Jazz Cat Jay with his teeth out? How is your son?? How’s your daughter? How’s your gorgeous human man whom I miss seeing around too?
        Love you!
        Love from Rach.

        • SummerSolsticeGirl says:

          Oh please don’t. I know how hard it is. I also was absent from yours and all others. This past three months were particularly difficult but things are starting to get better.

          Jay is doing very well. He doesn’t seem to miss his tooth much. Satchie is as crazy as usual. My daughter is working like crazy and very tired so she’s very much looking forward to the Holiday break. My son, he’s still in Colombia, still wanting and trying to come back to Canada. But he doesn’t want to leave his girlfriend behind. As for Fred, unfortunately we’re not together anymore (his decision). He’s struggling with his mental illness and that makes me very sad.

          Thanks for asking! <3

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