The Chaos of Memories

There is a photographer, Jon Crispin, who has taken some arresting pictures of the suitcases belonging to crazy people. I’m talking about mentally ill patients incarcerated in the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane in New York State between the 1920s and the 1960s. When the hospital was converted into a prison in the mid-1990s, around 400 carrying cases of deceased patients were discovered in an attic. Recently, Crispin spent a year working to document the belongings of people who are now ghosts. Here are some of the 80-100 photos he has made so far.

Willard suitcase 1

These are marvelously textured snapshots of men’s and women’s lives. You can’t believe the things the photographer discovered, the objects he documented: from toothbrushes to dimestore snapshots to spools of thread. The beautiful and the banal hand in hand.

Willard suitcase 2

One person had a comprehensive set of woodworking tools. Another, a lengthy itemization of her elegant clothing. We have some idea about who these people were because patient records survived and because former Willard staffers worked in tandem with the New York State Museum to preserve the cache of luggage.

I’m especially moved by this project, having many friends and family members who might be a bit “teched,” you could say (myself included). In previous eras, all of us might be stigmatized and isolated in an asylum, with only a suitcase to our names.

Willard suitcase 3

The satchels and valises call to mind something the great German writer-philosopher-aesthete Walter Benjamin wrote  in “Unpacking My Library,” a famous essay about book collecting: Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. The collectors Benjamin had in mind were connoisseurs of fine volumes, leather-bound works worth thousands of dollars apiece. But his words apply as much I think to those who have fallen on hard times, people who build their very finite collections-in-a-suitcase inadvertently to some extent (what trinkets you wind up with at the end of the day) but deliberately, also (what you make every effort to keep, against all odds).

Willard suitcase 4

In collecting, on a bookshelf or in a suitcase, you yourself assign value to objects, you alone decide what is worthy. It’s a way of managing that “chaos of memories,” and it elucidates your character. I like something Crispin said in an interview with Collectors Weekly: “The suitcases themselves tell me everything I want to know about these people. I don’t really care if they were psychotic; I care that this woman did beautiful needlework.”

Willard suitcase 5

He told Slate in a recent article that the project wasn’t all ghastly: “Some of the stuff is funny. You see odd things: false teeth out of context, for example. It wasn’t all heavy-duty, serious stuff.  I think the pictures are successful because they do convey a sense of time and the struggle people had to deal with.” Some of the pictures will go an exhibit at the San Francisco Exploratorium on April 17.

To me, though, the sadness inherent in these carryalls brings to mind another, notorious image of abandoned suitcases – the ones at Auschwitz, now piled high in Block Five of the on-site museum, marked with victims’ names, telling their woesome story alongside shoes and a display of artificial limbs.

Auschwitz color suitcases

But, incongruously, the photos from Willard also call to mind a more immediate, recent, happy time, for me, when I was touring to talk about my novel and my suitcase was always packed beside my bed with what I needed to fly. Face wash, check, Kindle, check, laser pointer, check. I got a suitcase for my birthday after years of depending on a dilapidated duffel. The new green bag meant unexpected, exciting things might occur at any moment.

The people whose suitcases Crispin depicts weren’t going anyplace. What was in that luggage was their whole world.

Willard suitcase 6

Now, this blog is a kind of suitcase for me. In it I stash small and large things of some importance to me. And for a brief moment, sometimes, you pop the top open and have a look in. What would you like to see here? What interests you? Tell me outright in a comment and I’ll try to pack it.

4 Comments

Filed under Art, History, Jean Zimmerman, Photography

4 responses to “The Chaos of Memories

  1. You may know I collect old recipe pamphlets. I’ll share some of those sometime soon — just found a bunch more at a junk shop!

  2. ANN HOFFER

    Recently, I read about Susan Cain’s book, QUIET. Today I watched a video of her speech *The Power of Introverts* at last year’s TED conference (and Bill Gates lists it as one of his 13 favorite talks, ever); as she walked onstage, she carried a suitcase full of books, her grandfather’s. He’d been a respected and beloved rabbi for 62 years, drawing folks from great distances to hear him, so he’d had to *perform* every week, but he was so shy that he couldn’t make eye contact with his congregation.

    As she closed the speech, she recommended packing our own suitcases with the things we love, the objects and collections that represent who we are… aside from the musings in your blog, those stacks of books you’ve loved or you’ve selected because they appeal to you, and those wonderful, homespun yarns for knitting, what do YOU collect? Your eclectic PlayList and scads of thought-provoking, down-loaded images, your favorite movies… and recipes?

  3. Thanks for your comment and I’ll try to get to some of those things. My dog, by the way, is often cranky, but I love him anyway!

  4. Lori

    Part of the fun of reading your blog is seeing what you find important enough to put there. I feel like for the first time I have a friend who lives a long way away and lets me see what her world is like. At times it’s like visiting a foreign land. Sometimes I see something that I value as well in your blog.
    We all think that our lives are mundane and boring, but to anyone else our life details are interesting simply because they are not the same as theirs.
    You have a nice little dog. Sometimes I wonder what other pets you have had and how close you felt to them.
    For me, pets were precious family members, but they still had boundaries they had to abide by. They were not permitted to be mean or cranky. They had a job to do, as well: that of emotional support for family members.
    There are times when I wonder what your childhood was like and whether you were close to cousins or other relatives.
    These are the sorts of things I might like to see in your ‘box’.

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