Like so many others who have discovered that an ancestor was an inmate at Willard, I read the book The Lives They Left Behind Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny in order to learn what life was like living inside the asylum. I contacted Ms. Penney to ask if my great-grandmother’s suitcase was found in the attic. It wasn’t. The authors were given permission to research the medical records of twelve patients and were allowed to use patient photographs in the book using factitious names. Since I am a descendent of a patient, I assumed that I would be able to receive a copy of my great-grandmother’s medical records and photographs. I was wrong. I learned that I have no right to this information unless my primary care physician needs the health records to diagnose or treat a condition. This explanation was given to me in a letter by the Commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health. It makes no sense to me considering that my great-grandmother has been dead for eighty-four years. I wonder if a diagnosis that was made eighty-four years ago would even be relevant today. My point is this: I want to know what happened to my great-grandmother. I want to learn her diagnosis and read about her experiences in a state hospital.
Ms. Penney is a national leader in the human rights movement for people with psychiatric disabilities. In an email I asked her, “When did the state hospitals go bad?” Her reply was, “It never went bad. Western society’s methods of dealing with people in mental and emotional distress have always been based on punishment and segregation. Anyone who is locked up against their will and kept in isolation is being treated poorly, to my mind.” Ms. Penney and the NYS Archives have the list of the former suitcase owners. Even though it is not a medical record it cannot be released to the public because it would identify former patients. You may contact Ms. Penney to inquire about your ancestor’s suitcase at: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit The Lives They Left Behind Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic Website.
Willard Asylum Cemetery (Veterans Names) Military Section, Seneca County, NY:
Jon Crispin’s Notebook – Willard Suitcases: