Friday, November 14, 2014

What She Left Behind - Ellen Marie Wiseman

What She Left Behind is a heart-wrenching story that takes its roots from the actual incident of historians finding suitcases left behind in an attic space at a decrepit mental institution in New York state.  The Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane was operated from 1869 until 1995 when it was closed. It was a massive complex during its heyday, housing chronically insane and feeble-minded patients. The complex had its own farm, shoe shops, sewing facilities, kitchens, et cetera and was a model for mental health care during the Progressive Era. Of course, the Progressive era also was a time when psychiatric care was all wrapped up in the eugenics movement, the move to intensive drug therapy, extreme forms of brain research, and a host of controversial therapies like electroshock and water therapies. UGH. The Great Depression and changes within mental health and government funding, however, created a warehouse mentality within the care system - a recipe for neglect, abuse, and worse. UGH.

Enter this book. Ellen Marie Wiseman penned a fictional account of one patient who is admitted in the 1920's, after defying her father's strict edicts. Upon refusing to marry the man he has picked for her, young Clara is admitted to a sanatarium near her New York City home. The forced admission is a punishment by her father, an attempt to cow her into submission and away from her 'hysterical' behavior. When the stock market crashes and her father falls on hard economic times, he can no longer pay her fees at the sanatarium. Rather than have her released, he relinquishes her to the state mental health system and she is shuttled off to Willard Asylum. There begins a truly horrific experience - physical abuse, forced medication, isolation and sensory deprivation, a pregnancy (her beloved child with her true love) and birth that ends in having her child removed from her care, and on and on... UGH. How messed up were human rights laws and the mental health system at that time, huh?

A parallel story is also told in this novel. It centers on Izzy, a young woman who has grown up in foster care. She is about to graduate from high school and out of foster care when she is settled with a couple in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. Her foster parents are involved in a historical investigation of Willard Asylum and Izzy accompanies them on forays to examine and catalogue the suitcases found in attic space at Willard Asylum. Izzy stumbles upon Clara's trunk and the journal that is inside it. The plot thickens.

This was a hard book to put down, but I had to at some of the particularly emotional points. The thought of the level of loneliness and fear going through Clara AND Izzy was, at times, overwhelming to me.  I always returned to the book, though, as I needed to know how two systems of government intervention - mental health and foster care- would deal with these two likeable characters.

One leaves this book with a goodly amount of righteous rage that people could EVER be treated so poorly in this country, that women were EVER so under the thumb of parents and spouses that they could be packed away into hospitals and asylums without so much as a legal or medical review, that children in the foster care system can be left untreated and passed from one family to the next with shoddy oversight and so-so treatment for traumas that have gotten them into the system in the first place. UGH.

A good read, but an emotional read ... after this one, I need a read that's really light and fluffy.

I'll leave this post with some links ... if you're at all curious about Willard Asylum and the suitcase project ...

Willard Asylum Photos -

Willard Suitcases Project -


  1. Started reading your review of: What She Left Behind and kept on reading the following three reviews. Very interesting, edifying writes ... and well written, to boot! Thanks, Susan.

  2. I stopped by your blog to see your Saturday Snapshots and decided to check out this review. I'm sure glad I did! This sounds like a fascinating book, especially since it is based on true events. I'll definitely read this story.