Do you recall exploring the attic in your home, or that of an elderly relative? As for me, it was a fascinating adventure as a kid to come across all kinds of treasures.
The is what this book is about. But the attic is not located in a private home. In The Lives They Left Behind (2008), the authors Darby Penney and Peter Stastny and photographer, Liza Rinzker were given permission to explore the attic of Willard State Hospital in upstate New York.
The hospital, New York’s largest mental institution, had been in operation for 120 years when it was closed in 1995. It housed over 54,000 patients over time. Patients who did not fit in their homes or society for one reason or another were sent there. They may have been seen as troublesome, maybe lonely, or suffering from depression. In other words, anything that set these souls apart from what is considered “normal”. Maybe they did not belong there at all.
The book is filled with photographs of what discovered in the attic. In the over 400 suitcases/trunks left behind, were found the meager belongings of those patients.
The researchers selected 10 suitcases to examine. The results can be found between the pages of The Lives They Left Behind.
This title is an interesting book and worth the time it takes to read. It is not written to entertain, but to enlighten and inform readers. I am not the least bit sorry I spent time with the 10 residents. They were brought back to life via their possessions and photos.
NB: Please, please read the entire prologue first. It is packed with information that will be of help when you meet the patients, each with stories of their own.
The Lost Girls of Willowbrook (2022) by Ellen Marie Wiseman is a fictional telling on a topic similar to The Lives They Left Behind.
Identical twin sisters, Sage and Rosemary were very close. At the same time these two young girls very different. Rose was considered mentally disturbed. As a result, she was taken to Willowbrook when she was age 10. But that is not what Sage grew up believing.
Their mother was killed in an automobile accident. The girls were left to be raised by their stepfather Alan, a man who does not want to care for Rosemary because he feels she is too much trouble. He had her placed in Willowbrook to save him the trouble of raising a child with special needs. But, Alan told Sage that Rosemary had died.
Sage and Rosemary were very close and losing Rose left an empty space in Sage’s life. It is not until Sage turns 16 that she learns that Rose did not die, but was placed not that far away, in a special hospital. Sage, like others, grew up thinking Willowbrook was just an urban legend that parents could threaten their kids if they were being bad.
Learning that Willowbrook was a very real place, Sage begins her own investigation without telling anyone what she is up to. She finds a way to get on a bus that goes directly to Willowbrook. She does not tell anyone what she is headed. This is the point in the book where her adventure really takes off for both Sage and you as the reader. Buckle up! It is quite a ride!
NB: Willowbrook is, or was, a real place located on Staten Island. It made the news in the 1970’s when Geraldo Rivera did an expose on Willowbrook. If you want to learn more just Google “Willowbrook”.