Jon Crispin's Notebook

Willard Tour / Cemetery / Names / Thoughts – Part 2

Posted in History, mental illness, psychiatric centers by joncrispin on 19/05/2015

(See part 1 here.)

It was interesting to me to find out that it was OMH itself that tracked down Lawrence Mocha’s distant relatives.  According to Mr. Allen, his office used every means possible to locate Lawrence’s family in order to get permission to release his surname, which in turn allowed his full name to be used on the plaque on the cemetery grounds.  In my conversation with Mr Allen, he explicitly said that surnames could be released if a representative of the family could vouch that there was no objection to releasing that name.  OMH would send documents that would need to be signed in order to guarantee family acceptance, but as in the case of Lawrence’s family, it would not need to be a direct descendent who signs those papers. (Lawrence did not appear to have any children.)  This is a huge development for any family members who seek information about relatives that lived in state Psychiatric Centers.  Again, massive credit goes to Colleen Spellecy and her group for getting OMH to move on this.  It would be naive for anyone to think that any of this would have ever happened without her hard work.  What was especially amazing to me was that towards the end of the ceremony, members of the committee read the actual names of over 100 patients who were buried at Willard.  And Colleen has a list of 500 more families that have agreed to the release of names.

After the ceremony I had a very nice chat with Anna Kern, whose father’s mother’s maiden name was Mocha, and if I am correct ,was a cousin of Lawrence.  She and her husband travelled from Minnesota to be at the ceremony, and  Anna was genuinely moved by the fact that people were acknowledging her long forgotten family member.  I was also able to introduce myself to Darby Penny whose work on the suitcases preceded my own access to the collection.  It was an interesting conversation, as our goals differ greatly, and I believe we have a fundamental disagreement about the role the state played in the treatment of people with conditions that led them to a life at Willard.  I think it is very obvious to anyone who views my work vis a vis hers what those differences are.  Darby’s book and site are worth checking out if you want to get an idea of her approach to the suitcases.

I was going to write a bit about my feelings of seeing so much attention focused on Willard, but I think I’ll save it for later, as I am still sorting it all out.  But I did want to mention something really great that happened as I was leaving to drive home.  Several weeks ago I was contacted by Clarissa B‘s niece Christine.  She was moved to get in touch after she stumbled across this site and realized that Clarissa was actually her aunt.  Somewhere in the comments on that post, someone wrote that it was a shame that people like Clarissa were forgotten.  Chris wanted to correct that idea.  What she told me was that even as a patient at Willard, Aunt Clarissa spent quite a lot of time visiting her family, especially during holidays.  As a child, Chris enjoyed seeing her, and it was important to her to let people know that she was decidedly not forgotten.  So just before getting into my car to head home, I read an email from Chris that she had taken the tour and was herself about to leave.  We managed to meet on the side of route 132A and have a lovely conversation.

One last thing I want to mention.  I am just a photographer who has been given an incredible opportunity to document the Willard Suitcases.  Though I have developed strong opinions about what Willard was all about, I work very hard to separate those feelings from my work as a photographer.  Mental illness is a hugely complex issue, and ultimately I have no interest in using my work to make a point about what the state did or didn’t do in regards to the people who lived at Willard.  I just hope that my photographs can give a little bit of life back to those folks, and allow them to be defined as something more than just people with a mental illness.  Thanks to all of you for following along, and giving me such incredible motivation and support.

5 Responses

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  1. zoe c. said, on 19/05/2015 at 2:44 pm

    Jon, thanks for this update on the tour. It’s wonderful to hear that progress is being made on releasing names and on Colleen and Lin’s work to seek recognition for those who lived and worked at Willard.

    • careofny said, on 19/05/2015 at 2:57 pm

      Yes that is very good news that things are starting to move in that direction. When I worked there in the Pines some families did visit. A lot didn’t! The patients only families were the staff. Having transferred to another facility wasn’t easy I had a lot of friends there both working and living there.

  2. marketing4introverts said, on 19/05/2015 at 4:45 pm

    There is mental illness on my mother’s side of the family. She had mental illness, so did her sister, her father, and one of her grandfathers. I probably realized my mother’s mental illness when I was about 11 of 12 but ours was not a disclosive family and we never once sat down to discuss what was happening… to all of us, because of my mother’s suffering. She came within inches of having to go to a mental hospital. My father didn’t know how to deal with all this, one way was to blame my sister and I for my mother’s frequent thunderstorm angers. He told me “If your mom goes into a mental hospital, you will not go to college.” After that, I let my mother “win” any argument we got into. Mental illness is hard, hard, hard on the people who suffer from it and for their families too. At a certain point I stopped trying to get mothering, or stability, or caring, or help from my mother. I realized if we were going to have a relationship at all, I would need to be giving those things to her. Following the Willard Suitcase Project that you are doing has been a gentle way for me to make a different level of peace with my mother’s memory. She did the best she could, but when your brain is not functioning properly it is very hard to hold on to a real felt sense of “who one is.” Thanks, Jon, for giving us, through the suitcase photographs, a glimpse of who ELSE these people were. Dhyan

  3. Sophie said, on 20/05/2015 at 1:29 pm

    I want to thank you for all the work that you have put into the “suitcase project”. I look at your site so often and always leave feeling comforted that these people are being remembered in this way. I do have a question for you about your comment about the different ways that you and Darby Penney view this. Of course you wouldn’t speak for her but I am wondering about how your view differs from hers. I have thought about your comment a lot since I read this post. Just curious. Thank you again so much for all your work.

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