Saturday, November 10, 2012

Asylum Suitcases

Dubbahdee sent along an article about a cache of suitcases from the 1910's-60's found abandoned in an attic at an asylum for the insane in NY.  When patients died, the staff had not destroyed the limited personal belongings, but kept them stored away against a day of relatives claiming them. (The Collector's Weekly general site it wa found on is interesting in itself.)

Some findings are poignant, some puzzling, many quite predictable.  The 1960's predate my direct experience of state hospitals (though I did tour one in 1968), but when I started at NHH in 1978, there were many patients and staff who had been there for years, and many of the objects around dated from that time.  The photos had a familiarity.

It put me in mind of the James Thurber short story The Night The Bed Fell - the era, and all that talk about attics, and Thurber's dementing grandfather is a somewhat loose connection, but I think you can follow it.  The story was a favorite in our family, and I read it aloud to the boys several times.

You might wonder why I bring up putting eccentric grandfathers away, or into attics at all as I myself age, but I am safe for the present.  Our particular attic can only be reached with great difficulty, and through a small opening. I do keep a wary eye out at times, and have sudden reasons to worry more about being set out on an ice floe.

As a final, full-circle irony, the link to the story is school based, and has a quiz following.  But the quiz is for another Thurber short "The Man and The Unicorn" by mistake.  And the second story is entirely appropriate to where this whole discussion started.


Erin said...

A favorite of mine as well (thanks to you, I'm sure). I always read it aloud in conjunction with "The Dog that Bit People" in my sophomores' text books. More than a few actually got & appreciated Thurber's humor this year, which is better than I usually fare. I don't know if it's this generation in particular (with Will Farrell and SNL dominating their humor exposure) or if Thurber is better appreciated in general by the seasoning of life experiences.

james said...

One thing that came up in the comments was a lament on the number of people who should have been institutionalized but aren't. Is that something that should be expanded? We know some of the problems and abuses, but I've no feel for the number who need it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

james, I am as well placed as anyone to answer that, and I just don't know. What is the value of living semi-independently, having coffee when you want, solving your own day-to-day problems, choosing your own companions? In one sense it would seem enormous, and we would want to preserve it as much as possible. Yet even quite competent people choose against that in small ways all the time, signing up for package tours or social events run by others.

Next, what are we to think about people who don't handle the freedom well, who are always taken advantage of, or run out of money, or keep having systems collapse around them? Do we rescue, support, ignore? And what of those who try to get into hospitals and be cared for? Should we figure they know best and let them? Should we develop less expensive "asylum" housing?

When we institutionalise only for dangerousness, including self-dangerousness, what is the cost of false positives? False negatives? The law tries to make all of these clean decisions of fairness and rights. But they are cultural decisions to the root.

Dubbahdee said...

What I found especially poignant about these photos is the sense of lost past. It was not enough, apparently, to give up your freedom of movement or freedom of choice. These residents seem to have had their identities taken and locked away.

Why have them go through this exercise at all? The suitcases clearly weren't returned or available. They were simply locked up. Each carefully self-curated exhibit of a life hidden in the storage room. Each personally select set of physical memories buried in an unmarked attic grave.

Was it that by giving them some hope of carrying tokens of their lives into the institution that they would be pacified and enter quietly and willingly without fuss? I imagine the slowly emerging twilight of despair as they would wonder what happened to their suitcases and they realized that their old life and any physical connection to it was severed forever. I wept for these people.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't know that they were put away until after they died. Some of the items seem to have been handled on an ongoing basis.

We used to have a "Box Room" which held personal belongings not in their rooms. The rooms were not entirely secure when they were away from them, and we generally did not allow locked trunks for security reasons (though there were situations where that did occur).

Sometimes the patient seemed to care not at all, nor recognise, and we would use the suitcase contents to try and awake some memory of life outside the hospital. Some were too damaged. Not too many. Most could hold at least something in mind. Families would send things in - weddings of nieces, Christmas get-togethers. Mixed results.

Dubbahdee said...

Interesting. Obviously you have infinitely more direct experience with these things than I have. Yet I specifically looked in the text in the article for indications that these things were available to the residents -- I didn't find any. I suppose that would be the fault of the writer. He simply left out that detail, perhaps being unaware of it himself.

Well anyway -- good. It is pleasant when, on occasion, one's worst suspicions turn out to be exactly that and no more.

I can also see how the collection may have seemed rather workaday to you in comparison to my view as an outsider -- a suitcase tourist, if you will. I still find that when I consider the thought process involved in making decisions about what to bring and what to leave -- it's still quite affecting. And I don't consider myself a sentimental person.

jaed said...

For whatever it's worth, I had a very similar reaction - imagining the gradual realization that they would never see their possessions again, and they'd never leave. "There’s a cemetery on the grounds, and most of these patients were buried right there."... immured for life. It horrifies me.