History Under Fire

A psychiatrist, Jeffrey Geller, has done a hatchet job on Darby Penney’s and Peter Stasny’s The Lives They Left Behind in an online book review. It would seem that he must have felt his profession was under attack in some ways in this volume. After praising the authors’ for saving the suitcases in the attic of the hospital from destruction, he expresses the view that the authors’ wouldn’t allow the subjects of their book a chance to speak for themselves.

Considering that without this slim volume the only clues that those lives existed at all would be the bare brick walls of New York’s Willard State Hospital I find Dr. Geller’s criticisms a tad excessive and somewhat ridiculous. I have no assurance that if Dr. Geller had not come across these suitcases himself he would not have had them trashed without a second thought. His begrudged admiration of the efforts Darby Penney and Peter Stasny made to do something with those artifacts comes only after the fact. Those lives would have been completely silent if nobody had made the effort to save their remnants and give those remnants expression.

Dr. Geller has 3 primary criticisms to make of this book in his review. He felt 1. the authors’ ideological views were inflammatory, 2. their history was ‘revisionist’, and 3. the authors’ efforts were less than successful at the task they had set for themselves. This task was that of making some kind of coherent whole out of the shattered and scattered remnants of each individual life they had to deal with.

If the authors had offered a noncritical apologists version of the mental health system and its history, I don’t think Dr. Geller would have had a problem with them. On the other hand, if the authors had held that view, these lives would have been relinquished to the junk heap of lost and forgotten voiceless nonentities that don’t ever make the light of day. This history, after all, includes lobotomies, sterilization abuse, and other horrific procedures of dubious treatment value. The lives and personalities of these people typically met a complete rupture at the hospital door. It was up to the authors to shed some light on the records pertaining to these personalities hospitalization at Willard had more or less effectively wiped off the face of the earth. As for the third criticism, I thought Penney and Strasny did admirably considering the material at their disposal.

Although I had not seen the hospital museum exhibit, I have visited the website, I have seen a presentation by Darby Penney on the museum exhibit, and I have a copy of the book. Certainly the views of the authors have had an influence on the way their subjects’ lives were presented to the public. I think this will always be unavoidable. Books don’t get written without authors, and authors bring their own opinions and concerns with them. It is my opinion though that this book gives us a very real glimpse into the real personalities who were the subjects of this book. I don’t think any intelligent person would have a problem distinguishing the opinions of the authors from a glimpse into the lives of the subjects of this book. The individuality of each of the subjects of the book in fact shines through the words of the authors, and is readily discernable. These people come back to life in the pages of this book, the way the deceased do in photograph albums and scrapbooks, and I challenge people unfamiliar with the book to read The Lives They Left Behind, and to discover the secret humanity of some of these people long kept hidden behind hospital walls.

I think perhaps the book could have used a little more material from its subjects lives, and a little less commentary from its authors, but that’s about it. I would have liked to have seen the book delve just a little deeper into the character of each of the people under scrutiny. I would have liked to have read more poetry, journal entries, letters, and seen more photographs, perhaps postcards, and even examples of artwork. Of course, this depends on what kind of material remained in the suitcases, and that they existed, that they were found, and that they were archived is a wonder in itself. Darby Penney and Peter Strasny deserve much praise for bringing the evidence of these lives, these stifled and crushed potentialities, to the attention of the general public.

Related websites: The Willard Suitcase Exhibit

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2 Responses

  1. I was held and treated in Willard in the early1970’s. I thank Darby and Peter for humanizing my fellow inmates.

  2. Yes, definitely. I think the way mental patients were treated in life and death is comparable to that of African American slaves in the American antebellum south in that the slave owners were out to destroy every trace of their previous life on the African continent. Here the ruse is that its being done for the protection of the patient when the concern is actually with guarding the reputation of the patient’s family. There’s a human being under there somewhere, and here’s a rare instance of that humanity being uncovered. My glass is raised to Darby Penney and Peter Stasny for uncovering these rare remaining traces of that humanity.

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