When the volume of the world around us is ear-splitting, the silence of the stigma we face daily, is deafening. It is proven with the way we treat those that have suffered before us. By the looks we avert and the absence of our questions. The disregard we pass on to the past. Who were these people? What were their lives like? What were their names?
Questions that Jon Crispin and his amazing website Willard Suitcases makes us pause and think about. Questions that need to be asked and in some small way, answered. Willard Suitcases is a record of these people's lives through the contents of their personal suitcases. With four hundred suitcases ranging from 1910 to the 1960's it is an open and honest depiction into the lives of the patients that called Willard Psychiatric Center home.
A few days ago I stumbled upon Jon Crispin's work and realized that he had held a mirror to my face. What I found there was something that not only could I not turn away from but needed to see. It is a window into the past. The past of people much like me and you. People that suffered from the silence of stigma and in many ways, although they are long gone from this earth, still suffer from the affects of it. I saw these people through the eyes of an amazing photographer who showed us their lovingly packed away belongings, the little bits and pieces of their forgotten lives, the soft whispers of their past. I saw their talents as an artist, a leather worker, a budding author, an academic. I saw their dreams and their faces smiling back at me in black and white and sepia tones. At some point, unbeknownst to myself, these pictures of simple suitcases filled with their clandestine contents stopped being something to view out of curiousity and became something very personal to me. I read some of their thoughts, gathered minute traces of their lives, and in doing so found myself lying there somewhere beneath the satin shoes, little carved terriers, books written in German, old records, letters written by loved ones, blackened shoe polish, matching Bakelite hair brushes, and brightly colored embroidery string. These patients were not silent ghosts that lurked the halls invisible and forgotten. They were people. They were you and me. I could have been them if I were born in their time. One of those suitcases could have been mine...One of those notebooks could have had my name scrawled across the top in pencil.
Difference being, that my full name can be printed and photographed and their's can not. Not because they weren't real people. Not because they aren't worthy of such an overlooked privilege, but because they were mental patients and because of the New York patient privacy laws, their full names are forever redacted. Many of them have numbers on their tombstones instead of names as if their lives did not matter. As if they did not have talents, loved ones, aspirations, or dreams. As if they were simply cogs in a wheel. Nondescript. Unmentionable. Undesirables, graceless, faceless and nameless because they suffered. Their voices, or in this case names, remain silent. Much like the creator and photographer of the Willard Suitcases site, I feel this is unacceptable.
Their names matter.
The sterilization and sanitation of the ignored and forgotten has become all too familiar. The turning of a blind eye to things we do not understand or the shame we dole out onto things that make us feel uncomfortable. These hauntingly beautiful photos speak of a person's life as the individual. Not just as the inmates of an asylum scrubbed raw and washed clean only to become indiscernible from each other. These people had families, friends, lives, and dreams. Lives that don't simply disappear just because they were institutionalized. Having lived in Willard Psychiatric Center in no way makes them any less remarkable, less talented, or less human than anyone else.
I applaud Jon Crispin and his site for giving these people their dignity and individuality back and for showing us the humanity the world has stripped away from them for far too long. For showing us the human face behind the diagnoses. For reminding people that mental illness sufferers are not any less unique and individual than anyone else.
Their names should be allowed to be said, printed, and remembered. They deserve to be heard in death as they should have been in life. They should have their names on their grave markers above their bodies. They deserve to be seen. We have to stand not just for their names but by their names because it is not just taking a stand for these remarkable people, it is taking a stand for all of those that came before them and for all of us that have come after. They deserve better.
I have never been to New York. I have never visited Willard, but that doesn't change my opinion on doing what is right. These remarkable people deserve to be recognized for the people they were and the lives that they lived and should not be allowed to fade away from history slowly and deliberately, simply because they suffered from mental illness.
Please take a a few minutes to look at Jon Crispin's site Willard Suitcases and leave him a message of support for his remarkable work in keeping these people's memories alive and in the public eye.
And if the story of these people has touched you in any way, please check out these links to help support the cause of giving back these wonderful souls the rights to their names.
For a more detailed look at Willard Psychiatric Center and it's suitcases story click here to purchase:
The Lives They Left Behind:Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney.
For more information and updates on what is being done to restore the name rights to the former patients of Willard Psychiatric Center, please check out The Willard Cemetery Memorial Project.
For New York residents that want to get involved, Legislation for The Willard Cemetery Memorial Project.
For more information on the patients of Willard Psychiatric Center, check out The Inmates of Willard by Linda S. Stuhler and a link to her book The Inmates of Willard 1870-1900 a Genealogy Resource.
Their names matter. They always did, and they always will.