The Dodd Family
Willard State Hospital
by, Darby Penny, Peter Stastny, Lisa Rinzler, Robert Whitaker.
When Willard State Hospital closed in 1995, after 125 years of continuous operation, 427 patient suitcases, filled with patient’s personal belonging, were discovered, abandoned, in an attic.
This interesting book attempts to bring to light the personal stories of ten of these patients whose suitcases were intensely studied. The authors chose these specific suitcases because there were a lot of personal notes and materials in each of these ten suitcases, that provided the authors with enough data, combined with patient records and charts, to try to reconstruct these ten people’s lives.
This is a fascinating book about these people’s lives and about the hospital itself. The authors are incredibly patient detectives, who tease out a great deal of facts and details from these suitcases, chart notes, and interviews with hospital staff members, many retired. They locate living relatives of the deceased patients and also interview them whenever possible. The reader feels as if one is reading a riveting detective story x 10, but it is non-fiction, which makes it all the more remarkable.
The “The Willard Asylum for the Insane,” opened in Ovid, New York in 1896. It closed in 1995. 54,000 people were committed to Willard during its 126 years of operation. Most patients stayed at Willard for an average of 30 years. One woman for example, arrived 1899, and died 77 years later in the hospital at the age of 100. Half the patients who entered the facility died there.
Many of the people who were admitted to Willard would not meet the criteria for involuntary hospitalization today. Many were immigrants, who had experienced a series of major stresses in their lives such as the death of a spouse, loss of a job, poverty, homelessness, one woman was regularly beaten by her spouse. There was a nun who left her order and had nowhere else to go. And of course, many patients did have major psychiatric disorders.
Today most of these people, if lucky enough to be able to GET treatment, would receive short-term treatment on an outpatient basis, living in board and care homes. Or they might live on their own with case management, or as quite often occurs, they would live on the streets with no medication or treatment at all, either because services are unavailable, or patients are non-compliant. Many mentally ill people today, who could be helped by a short stay in a psychiatric hospital, therapy, and medication, are unable to receive these services and end up living on our streets (Barton, C. 2006).
What makes this book so interesting, is not these grim statistics, but the detective work the writers embark on to tell the stories of these people’s incredible lives. Who were these people who were left behind and forgotten? Where did they come from? Why were they left here for so long? What was their story?
The bulk of the book examines these people lives and answers these questions, and it is a riveting read. You will find yourself drawn into to these people’s lives and experiences, taken back to the times they lived, and you will see their experience through their eyes. This is a major accomplishment on the part of these four authors. The authors, one of whom is a psychiatrist, and another a journalist and advocate for the mentally ill, are all exceedingly patient, master-detectives.
The suitcase project eventually became an exhibit, that traveled around the country and I have included the following link for you to see. It gives an idea of how interesting and compelling this book is.
(Photo Source: The Suitcase Project: The Lives They Left Behind).
Not the Royal kind…
But the real kind?
How about lesser visited Eleuthera?
The fried conch is to die for……
The beaches are pink and warm in January
The island is beautiful
So, why not, visit Eleuthera?
It’s not that far from you.
Neil White was a supremely successful southern business man, first a reporter, than a publisher, with a beautiful wife, lovely children, gorgeous homes and a yacht. He was a leader in the business community, contributed to many charities, and was an elite philanthropist, who traveled the world in high style.
White’s world came crashing down when he was arrested for kiting million dollar checks and committing financial fraud by the FBI. White was sentenced to 18 months incarceration in Carville Louisiana, a picturesque, verdant, small, community in Louisiana.
It was not until White arrived at the locus of his incarceration, that he realized he was to serve his time in the nation’s only remaining Leprosorium, for people who were disfigured by Hansens disease. Many of the people in the facility had contracted the disease as children and were living out their entire lives in Carville, to protect them from the cruelties of the outside world. Most had been there for decades.
Other white-collar criminal types were also incarcerated at Carville. One was new White’s roomy, a Russian born physician and pharmacist, convicted of Medicare fraud for using an compound banned by the FDA, but quite effective for weight loss. He estimated that he had billed Medicaid between $15-$37 million for these useful services. He was sentenced to 15 years in Carville. He was an very interesting man.
At White’s first prisoner group meeting upon his arrival, led, of course, by a priest, another newly arrived con-man criminal, tells the priest group leader, that he didn’t want to “become no leopard.”
Shortly after this first fun group orientation, White receives notification that his wife has, understandably, filed for divorce.
So starts this absolutely incredible memoir. It’s reminded me in some ways of Thomas Mann’s, “Magic Mountain,” except that Mann’s sanatorium was in a TB Asylum in Switzerland, not in a Leprosorium in Louisiana.
White is an astoundingly good writer, and he strips himself raw in this memoir, examining himself and his life. He enters the leprosorium, an arrogant and self-involved man, and he leaves it profoundly changed by the experience.
The book is not a depressing read. It is incredible, at times uplifting, sometimes tragically sad, but also moving. It is, of course, also true.
The residents the reader meets who live in the Carville facility seem to exist in an alternate universe, separate entirely from our world and ways. The reality of people sequestered away for their entire lives for a treatable, manageable, disease is heartbreaking. More so when you consider the separations and horrific losses this would have necessitated earlier in their lives. By the time White enters the facility most of the permanent residents had lived there for decades. This was their home.
At times, similar to when reading Mann’s Magic Mountain, I felt the residents sense of safety, their adjustment to their completely removed sanctuary, even if it meant they were outcasts.
After all, don’t most people feel like a bit of an outcast at some time or another in their life?
Shakespeare certainly did. He wrote Sonnet 29 about it:
“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.”
But then he remembers, no matter how outcast he might be in “fortune and in men’s eye’s,” he is not an outcast …..
“For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
Something similar to this occurs in this book . Some of the people in the sanctuary, form bonds of friendship, respect and emotional attachment to each other, that results in an unexpected community, that is quite moving to read about.
In fact, later when I learned they might move the residents out of the only home they had known for many decades, I became quite upset, thinking you can’t rob these people who have suffered too much, of their only sanctuary.
White forms a close friendship with Ella Bounds, an 88 year old black woman and double amputee, who contracted leprosy as a child. She is a dignified and impressive person, who clearly had a powerful effect on White, as she does on the reader. There are more people and stories here that will at times humor you, possibly anger you, definitely surprise you, but in the end, move you profoundly.
White leaves after eighteen months, a changed person, and the reader is a better person also, for having read this book.
For more reading on the history of the Carville Facility and the current location of the present facility, please see:
Memorial to Those Who Perished in Struthof.
I have a long standing interest in the history of WWII and the European Resistance Movement. I have read extensively on the subject, visited The Holocaust Museum in the US and toured Dachau in Germany.
In 2010 we visited Obersalzburg where we visited the site of Hitler’s Bavarian residence, Berghof, and his house, the Eagle’s Nest. Hitler rarely visited Eagle’s Nest because he was a severe acrophobe. There is a museum very worth visiting about the Third Reich in Oberslazburg. Goring, Speer and Borman also had residences nearby.
We visited Obersalzburg on a freezing cold October morning, which seemed appropriate for what we were seeing and experiencing. It was a little difficult to find the site as there were very minimal road signs to indicate the way. The most remarkable thing about Hitler’s Berghof is the extensive underground redoubt system he constructed. Goring had one also. These underground bunkers had extensive tunnels with elevators, air shafts, multiple interconnected underground rooms, some with chandeliers, storage facilities and a location for snipers to kill anyone entering the pass. Hitler planned this as a place to hide, fight, and win his last battles. What struck me most forcefully in Hitler’s redoubt was the true insanity of the man and his followers. He literally thought that if he was losing the war, he could live for an extended time frame underground with his loyal followers. This is a surreal place, and if you are in Salzburg, I recommend you visit. We need to understand this type of insanity so we can better recognize it when it rears it’s ugly head.
Hitler’s Underground Redoubt
I also wanted while in Alsace to visit Struthof, which is a lesser-known concentration camp that housed many members of the European Resistance. So on another unseasonably cold day in July the subsequent year, we made the journey over the picturesque mountains and forests of Alsace to Struthof.
First, some facts about this camp.
Struthof Concentration Camp is located in Alsace France, thirty-one miles southwest of Strasbourg. This camp housed many members of the European Resistance, mostly from France, Norway and the Netherlands. An estimated 7000 prisoners were from the French resistance alone. Many communist resisters were incarcerated in this camp, along with Gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. An estimated 52,000 people were incarcerated here with a death rate of approximately 40% of total inmates, or 22,000 people. The youngest inmate was eleven years old and the oldest was seventy-eight. (source: http://www.struthof.fr)
Struthof was “one of the most murderous camps of the Nazi system.” (www.struthof.fr) Prisoners were used in forced labor for the Nazis. Medical experiments were conducted onsite by Nazi Physicians from the Reich University of Strasbourg, mostly on Gypsy prisoners. It contained a gas chamber. The medical experimentation rooms are still there and are quite distressing to see. Most disturbing of all to me were the pens where prisoners who were selected for special punishments were kept for extended periods. They resemble dog pens in a pet store, prisoners could sit in them but not lie down or stand, as they were just over 3×3′ in size. If Devil’s Island was malevolent, which it was, the evil in this place and in Dachau is non-describable by me.
It is worthwhile when visiting Europe to take time to visit some of these places. It leaves a strong impression and will to stand up for what is humane all over the world. Estimates vary but between 11.5-17 million people were killed in The Holocaust during WWII. Jews, (Roma) Gypsys, Russians, Poles, Slavs, allied military personnel, people of conscience, intellectuals, dissenters, Christians, homosexuals, members of the resistance, handicapped people, the list goes on and on (See references for source information regarding statistics.) My uncle was in a POW camp in Europe after he was shot down in a mission over Germany. He was an Air Force Navigator. 3.5 million POW’s were estimated to have been killed in these camps. WWII would eventually claim the lives of more than 62 million people. This is most likely an under representation because there are not accurate counts of the dead in China (whole towns were obliterated) and Russia where countless millions of souls perished.
(Please see link below for discussion of latest population statistics on the war as they do vary, but contemporary consensus seems to be that numbers are under-reported.)
Visiting Struthof is difficult and disturbing, but important, in that we need to remember and honor all those who perished in this terrible war.
A Mosaic of Victims: Non Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis. Ed: Michael Berenbaum. NYU Press. 2000.
Ellis, John. World War II: A Statistical Survey, Facts on File. 1993.
Niewyk, Donald. The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust. Columbia University Press, 2000.