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.