I need to remember that when I'm in a rather tenuous mood to begin with, I should probably stay away from the heartbreaking books. Unfortunately, I didn't keep that in mind when I read The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.
This was another book that arrived on my library hold list with me having no remembrance of having requested it or where I first heard about it, which is always a surreal experience to begin with. It is a completely unique little book; the authors became interested in the suitcases and personal belongings of long-term inmates of the Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York. Included are pictures of the contents of those suitcases (which were recovered years after their owners died, in the attic of the hospital), as well as the admission photographs of the people to whom the suitcases belonged.
Believe me when I say: You did not want to be committed to a psychiatric hospital in the early and mid-twentieth century. (A scary epilogue points out that it would be best to avoid that these days as well.) Ten individuals are profiled here, and many of them spent decades in the hospital, as treatment was not as important as warehousing. And the majority of the people profiled here were not crazy, screaming, violent inmates. One was a trained nurse whose descent into instability was preceded by the early death of her parents, her immigration to America, numerous stressful health problems, and her bosses' insistence that she change personal doctors, because the doctor she liked was judged to be too far away for her to visit. Despite the fact that her admitting doctor at Willard found her to be "pleasant, agreeable, and correctly oriented," she was diagnosed with "dementia praecox, paranoid" and committed. Thirty-two years later she would die there.
Oh, it's a sad book. And history at its finest. Someone thought the suitcases were worth saving; someone else took the care to document their content. And then these authors came along to construct personal stories from the belongings and the records. Completely uncommercial and enlightening. Stpehen Ambrose, all you other glorifiers of war history that's commercially successful, bow before your true historian masters.