More than four hundred abandoned suitcases filled with patients’ belongings were found when Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995 after 125 years of operation. They are skillfully examined here and compared to the written record to create a moving—and devastating—group portrait of twentieth-century American psychiatric care.
The Lives They Left Behind is a deeply moving testament to the human side of mental illness, and of the narrow margin which so often separates the sane from the mad. It is a remarkable portrait, too, of the life of a psychiatric asylum--the sort of community in which, for better and for worse, hundreds of thousands of people lived out their lives. Darby Penney and Peter Stastny's careful historical (almost archaeological) and biographical reconstructions give us unique insight into these lives which would otherwise be lost and, indeed, unimaginable to the rest of us.” (Oliver Sacks, M.D., Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, Columbia University Artist, and author of Musicophilia)
“The haunting thing about the suitcase owners is that it’s so easy to identify with them.” (Newsweek)
“In their poignant detail the items helped rescue these individuals from the dark sprawl of anonymity.” (The New York Times)
“[The authors] spent 10 years piecing together…the lives these patients lived before they were nightmarishly stripped of their identities.” (Newsday)
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Not suitable as an audiobook
I would recommend the book, but not the audiobook. The book is a compassionate history of Willard psychiatric hospital "inmates" in the early 20th century based on what the researchers found in the suitcases the patients left behind. I knew there were several pictures in the book which couldn't be included in the audiobook but I didn't anticipate how tedious it would be to listen to all the files being read out.
It is saddening and infuriating at the same time to listen to all the individuall stories ultimately being reduced to one single narrative: in a mental institution like Willard, the individual stories, skills and personalities of the patients didn't (don't) count. I love how the authors did not only re-iterate the facts they found out about the patients but also put them in a wider context, detailing the history of mental health treatment and its current status.
The performance was okay, Alex Paul is a good reader and has a pleasant voice. His performance wasn't outstanding in any way but the material didn't lend itself to show off the skill of the narrator.
In a way it was, because the book is so moving, but I still wish I had bought the paperback instead of the audiobook.
- Vivian Sternwood