Monday, January 14, 2008

Ethel Smalls' suitcase

Riding home on the commuter train tonight, an article in today's Globe & Mail captured my attention. In the Review section, Simon Houpt's "New York Diary" focused on a new exhibit at the Science, Business and Industry Library in New York. Unfortunately, it is "premium content" & not available to the casual reader :( (and in any case, links on this site are generally only active for about a week) but there were a few passages in it that I found so riveting, I copied them here to share with you.

The article opens by saying:
"One morning in the summer of 1930, a 40-year-old woman by the name of Ethel Smalls took to her bed in the upstate New York village of Freeville and refused to get up. Her landlady, with whom she had been locked in a minor dispute, called the authorities."
The doctor found Ethel to be "generally run down but not psychologically impaired." Nevertheless, citing her use of vulgar language toward the landlady, a judge had Ethel committed to the nearby Willard State Hospital on Seneca Lake near Rochester. In a medical note in her file, someone observed that Ethel "is a manic of rather sarcastic type, who is inclined to pout and grumble and find fault" -- "(That is to say, a typical New Yorker)," writes Houpt.

"What was her illness?" writes Houpt.
"Today, we might call it common trauma: She had suffered through 22 years of an abusive marriage, two miscarriages and the premature deaths of two of her infants. She probably just needed a good long rest and time with a sensitive therapist."
Instead, she spent the next 40 years (40 years!!) at Willard, until her death in 1973 at age 83.

A few years after Willard closed in 1995, a New York State Museum cutator pried open the door to an abandoned attic and found 427 (!!) suitcases that once belonged to the hospital's residents -- including Ethel's. Ethel's belongings, along with those of several other residents, are now displayed in an exhibit derived from that discovery, called "The Lives They Left Behind." The suitcase that Ethel brought with her to the hospital
"held a half-dozen pieces of silver flatware, a Bible and some delicate examples of her work as a seamstress: a baby's white dress, a baby's cotton flannel nightgown, a knitted baby's cap trimmed with pink ribbon and a pair of booties."
Many of Willard's patients, of course, were truly ill, but some, like Ethel, were simply people that society didn't know how else to handle. Need I tell you how deeply I was affected by reading about Ethel -- with her many lost babies, abusive husband, and suitcase full of lovingly stitched baby clothes? It was all I could do not to cry then & there on the train. And I've been thinking about her ever since. There but for the grace of God and about 70 years difference in attitudes toward mental health go I.

I know that just about all of us, from time to time, feel misunderstood by the people around us, and yes, there are days when I feel like I'm going out of my mind. I've even consulted a therapist from time to time. But so far, nobody's tried to commit me to an insane asylum. At least, not yet...

Edited to add: I did a little Googling today & came up with a site about the exhibit -- including photos of Ethel & the contents of her suitcase. Also a Newsday article about it.


  1. that is such a sad, haunting story. I'm sure I would have been crying on the train...

    I imagine we are definitely not the first generation to be misunderstood about loss and infertility. maybe just the first with all the available high-tech options yet still can't seem to make it work... ~luna

  2. Yes, this strikes me upon re-reading so many novels and histories: the description of a woman as hysterical or troublesome or depressive, with a very brief mention of childlessness, stillbirth, or death of a child. So many people could not or did not make the connection!

  3. What a sad and poignant story - thank goodness we've come a long way from those days when grieving over pg loss or IF would've meant you were crazy. Of course, we have a long way still to go -- too many people still have no cognizance as to how deep that grief can be.

  4. It is so sad that society likes to categorize us like that. As I give myself some needed isolation these days, I thank God that I am able to without having someone point at me and call me crazy. If only everyone had a better idea of how devastating pregnancy loss is...

  5. Oh dear God, this is horrifying... I can't believe this post isn't all over the blogosphere by now.
    I'm having a giantic realization right now about how validated I really am despite my current feelings of isolation.

  6. Thank you for posting that. Actually, thank you for all your posts. What troubles me is that I wonder how far we have actually come? As the above poster says, we have a long way still to go...

  7. Fortunately none of us has been institutionalized! I'm guessing blogging wouldn't be allowed in the padded walled rooms, and, well, I'd have missed you all in a big, big way!

    Ditto on how far we still need to go. My infertility writing was described yesterday as a bit too didactic. I plan to dig into that one in an upcoming post.

  8. Oh my G-d, this is such a haunting story. Especially knowing that she was there for 40 years. 40 years!

  9. Wow.

    I always thought it was a fine line between sanity and insanity, but this really makes you think . . .

    How unjust.

  10. What a sad story. It really makes you think about the past and if anyone living in it actually had feelings!