No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

The Lives They Left Behind, by Penney & Stastny

This book is the result of investigating the possessions of institutionalized patients from Willard State (Mental) Hospital in New York. Possessions left, forgotten, in an attic for decades. In addition to the book, there is actually a very nice website with a fair amount of information and photos. The authors have done a great job sleuthing down the identities of the owners, and building up as much of a biography as is possible. Most of them were institutionalized in the first half of the 20th century, though a few lived on into the 60s and 70s. So collectively, they lived through treatment changes from 'warehousing', to occupational therapy, to shock therapy, to antipsychotic medicines.

The variety of stories is impressive. A Filipino who came to the US in 1907, an Italian lady who thought she was a princess, an African American veteran, and the guy who had a Jesus complex and also a Secret Service record for being arrested outside the White House, since he had an idea that he was married to President Truman's daughter.

A lot of it makes for very interesting reading. However, the book actually angered me quite a bit here and there. Now, I am probably the last person who needs to be convinced about the shortcomings and abuses in the treatment of the insane in the early 20th century. I wrote the book on it. OK, a book on it.

But author Darby Penney "is a national leader in the human rights movement for people with psychiatric disabilities" and this comes through as a real bias in the book. At every turn, she minimizes the very real mental problems these people had. Denial is not just a river in Egypt. I mean it's one thing to point out things that people at the time should have known, but Penney takes the hospital to task for keeping a person institutionalized merely for hearing voices, pointing out the existence of the Hearing Voices Movement, which takes it as a foundational point that "Hearing voices is not in itself a sign of mental illness." Not only is this anachronistic, but even today the HVM is a fringe movement at best in mental health.

Here's an illustrative excerpt:
[quotes are from medical observations of patient: Marie] "At times is assaultive," "usually remains alone," "smiles and responds when spoken to," "has a sexual trend." In December 1920, things seemed to take an even more bizarre turn. She began to claim that "there were live chickens inside her hatched from eggs she had eaten." Becoming more suspicious, especially about the food given to her, she took to scraping her bread carefully before eating it. And on March 24, 1922, she had a physical altercation with two female attendants, "pounding (one) severely" and nearly tearing the uniform off the other one, which landed her on a more 'secure' ward in Chapin Hall. We can't know what prompted this altercation, which was described as an 'assault' on the staff member. Such attacks are rarely unprovoked.

(My emphasis.) I mean, if someone gets pounded severely, surely that's an assault, with no need for scare quotes.

For the record, the Taint of Madness game stats for Willard State Hospital are: 94% survival rate (per year), 32% cure rate, 4% release rate. It looks about average for NY state, which was one of the better places to be in the country. The mismatch between the cure rate and release rate does support one main theme of the book -- that patients who seemed to no longer have significant symptoms were still kept institutionalized, rather than being released. but it's hard to trust the book's selective quotations. Just as another example, you can see where the focus of attention is in this sentence, "Aside from repeating psychopathological terms such as blocking, ideas of reference, paranoia, defective insight and judgment, and hallucinations, he was noted to be a good worker and more pleasant and agreeable than before."
Tags: anger, book, insanity

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