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.
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.
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.