Sunday, June 28, 2009

Left Luggage

My parents had the oddest approach to photography, and to photographs in general. There are no pictures of my parents' wedding. (If there were any of my father's first wedding, I have no idea...but I doubt it.) There are no photographs of my bar-mitzvah. The photographs of my entire infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, and adolescence fill up most of one album. (By contrast, I remember having to buy a second album before Max's bris because we filled up the first one before the lad was eight days old.) As a child, I don't recall finding any of this strange or inexplicable. I vaguely recall my friend Andrew once showing me his parents' wedding album and me wondering why my own parents didn't seem to have one, but I can't recall if I asked my parents or, if I did, what they said. It was, as so much of childhood is for so many of us, just how things were, and it took years for me to notice that other people were, at least in this specific way, totally different from us.

I found myself revisiting this particular peculiarity of my parents' home as I read the article in the Science Times on Tuesday by Abigail Zuger, the medical doctor who reviewed the new book by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, which was published just recently by the Bellevue Literary Press. It was such an interesting piece! (I can't wait to read the book, but the article in the paper was plenty interesting enough. You can get the idea by looking here:

Take your time exploring the site too--it's really something!) It seems that when patients were committed to the Willard Psychiatric Center in Willard, New York (in the Finger Lakes region near Seneca Lake), many brought luggage with them that was then stored in some long forgotten storeroom for as long as the hospital remained open. (It closed finally in 1995.) Even when patients were discharged, it was often years or decades after they were admitted and many left everything behind when they re-entered the world; many died at Willard as well--almost half the 54,000 patients admitted during the 125 years that the facility remained open died there--and their effects, long forgotten by the time they passed away, continued to be stored there, sometimes for decades. Then when the facility closed, all these suitcases were suddenly discovered, then opened. It sounds uninteresting at first--what could be less fascinating than sifting through other people's luggage--but the stories that match the possessions somehow make the contents of the trunks and suitcases more like sacred relics, more like the artifacts of which their owner's life stories were a kind of elaborate midrash than just other people's stuff. Maybe I'm not expressing this right, but if you go to the site referenced above and read the stories of a few of the patients, you'll see just what I mean. (I personally found the stories of patients Frank, Lawrence and Ethel especially interesting. You'll find them by clicking on the "the suitcases" tab at the bottom of the 2nd screen.) After you visit the website, believe me that you'll want to read the book.

In the meantime, the whole idea of a trunk of things that somehow constitute the props that a mime playing any of us in a one-man or one-woman show about our lives would need adequately to tell the tale intrigues me. So used to stories filled with words, it fascinates me to imagine stories told with none at all. Music, of course, somehow has the ability to tell a story, even a complex one, without the use of language, but somehow imagining the story in question to be the story of one's life...and then trying to imagine how anyone could go about telling it without using words at all, only things--that is what I find so very interesting. What would anyone find in my trunk, I wonder. What would I bring with me...if I was leaving the big world for a much smaller one and wanted only to bring along things that adequately could suggest who I am and what I have become? What if I myself were facing an indefinite stay at a place like Willard, but had enough insight into how things were to realize that I needed to bring along enough pieces of my life to remind me of the man I have labored all these years to make myself into...even after I might only be able to conceive of that person in the third person? These questions--as unsettling as they are arresting--are the ones that the images at that website and in the paper, similar (I'm sure) to the ones in the book itself, have called up. They go to the most profound questions we can ask about ourselves, about the meaning of personhood and personality, about the relationship of reality to fantasy in the stories of our lives, about the possibility of conscious self-invention, of changing the course of one's life, of undertaking teshuvah in a mostly illusory world. (March 28, 2008)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.