Monday, October 27, 2014

Clara Taylor Burt and the Traveling Suitcase Exhibit, by Susan Kinsella

Clara Taylor, Emma Jane Carson Taylor
I was 7 years old when my mother asked me if I wanted to go to a funeral. It was for Grandpa Taylor’s older sister, Clara, she told me.

I was sure she had made a mistake. I had never heard of Grandpa having an older sister and, at 7, I was the oldest I had ever been and knew quite a lot. But I was curious so I said yes.

That funeral had a big impact on me, not least because it was mysterious. On the way there, Mom explained that Aunt Clara had spent many of her adult years in a mental hospital. I couldn’t imagine what that might have been like.

I remember that the woman in the casket looked old yet also sweet and even peaceful. I remember the skin on her face as smooth, not lined like many old people’s faces. I wished that I had known about her when she was alive and that I could have met her then.

Some people’s lives haunt you even if you never met them. There are several in our family like this. Aunt Ruth Baker is one whose brief life echoes down the years since her death in 1904, well over 100 years ago. She lives in the hearts of many of us who loved the people whose own hearts were broken when Ruth died at 14 from cardiac defects. My grandmother, Nancy Ethel, was only 17 as she held her dying sister in her arms.

Mildred Jane Taylor
Another whose memory still haunts our family is 6-year-old Mildred Taylor, whose death in 1907 from typhoid and scarlet fever devastated my Grandpa Taylor’s family. Twenty-year-old Clara, who had been like a mother to her little sister, was so traumatized that she suffered a schizophrenic break and stayed isolated in her room for a month. [See Aunt CB and Pat Herdeg's earlier blog story.] 

And now Aunt Clara's story haunts me – the same Clara who was devastated when her little sister Mildred died, the same Clara who lay so finally in that casket. I turn around in my mind what I know about her life and try to imagine what it might have felt like to her to live it. 

From reading her mother’s journals, I gather that Clara’s childhood and teen years, as the oldest girl in the family, consisted mostly of helping raise her younger siblings and teaming up with her mother to do heavy housework. Their method of house cleaning seemed to involve completely renovating one room after the other – moving all the furniture out, washing down the walls, refinishing floors, deep-cleaning heavy drapes, beating carpets, pasting up new wallpaper, repainting, on and on, until the whole house was eventually scoured and renewed – and then starting over and doing it all again.

The household demands on her were so heavy that Clara didn’t even get to finish high school. She did play piano for The Taylor Quartet (a quite popular local group formed by her father and brothers) and participated in church youth groups. Still, the littlest children in the family were probably one of her few bright spots of happiness. No wonder then, when her little sister died, she just couldn’t bear the anguish.

But Clara eventually took a six-month “household management” training course at what is now the Rochester Institute of Technology (and I am guessing that she probably had quite a bit from her younger life that she, herself, could have taught the instructors!). Then she established a dressmaking and millinery business, making clothes and hats in Batavia, New York.
Clara and Maurice, 1924

Clara married in 1923, when she was 36, quite late for those times. I hope she had some years of happiness then, but we know that they were far too brief. Her husband, Maurice Burt, left her after only a few years. [See more of Maurice's story here.] Traumatic as this must have been, my Grandma Taylor, who lived in Batavia and saw her often during that time, said she seemed to weather it as well as could be expected.

For the next two decades, she lived with her brother Leon, kept house for him and continued her sewing business. Always one of my mother’s favorite aunts, Clara charmed her nieces and nephews as the Taylor families visited back and forth for frequent gatherings and dinners. 

But by 1944, her family became increasingly concerned about Clara's mental health. She had begun to move into a fantasy world, declaring that she and her long-gone Maurice were FBI agents solving mysteries together.

Her father and brothers decided to have Leon take her by train to New York City to visit her younger sister, Florence, hoping that travel would help Clara back to a steadier balance. But, instead, she began lifting things from stores.

So on September 11, 1944, Florence’s husband Uncle George Doran and a neighbor brought Clara to Kings Park State Hospital on Long Island. Clara was under the impression that she was coming to this hospital as an act of charity, to be a “sunshine girl” for an hour and a half in order to cheer up lonely injured soldiers by reading to them or writing letters for them.

What must it have been like for Clara then when Uncle George and the neighbor left and it began to dawn on her that she was not going home with them, that she was suddenly stuck there, that she was the patient, not some lonely soldier? My stomach wrenches, imagining the shock and confusion she must have felt.

Five years later, she was transferred to Willard State Hospital in the town of Ovid, near Seneca Lake in central New York's Finger Lakes, as part of a state initiative to move psychiatric patients closer to their families. She died there in 1958.

Willard Attic Suitcases, by Lisa Rinzler
From the website The Lives They Left Behind
As Pat has written [see the ending of this earlier story here], Willard closed in 1995. But before it was demolished, someone doing a final walk-through pried open a locked door and revealed a forgotten attic preserving hundreds of suitcases. These represented the last connections that patients had to the “outside” world as they brought with them the belongings they loved most or thought they would need in whatever was to become their new life. Apparently once they were admitted to the hospital, they never saw these belongings again.

Two authors spent 10 years researching the lives of the people who had brought these suitcases, although Clara’s was not identified in this collection. (We can only imagine how Clara would have loved to help them with this real-life detective work!) Then they created a deeply moving and compassionate book, website and traveling Suitcase Exhibit, telling these patients’ stories. 

FAST FORWARD TO 2013. San Francisco’s Exploratorium, the quirky science museum that pioneered the kinds of hands-on interactive exhibits that the best modern science museums all design today, moved into new quarters on a pier jutting into San Francisco Bay. I was shocked, yet also fascinated, to learn that it featured a new temporary display of some of the Suitcase Exhibit from New York's Willard State Hospital. Early this summer, I visited the new museum for the first time.

I headed straight for the Suitcase Exhibit, where I found not only some of the Willard suitcases and their belongings, but also some of the hospital’s furniture as part of a larger exhibit challenging visitors to contemplate questions about mental health and its treatment. Given our family connection to Willard through Clara, it was a deeply poignant experience for me.

I entered the exhibit through an entrance that recreated an unfinished attic space. Cubbyholes along the walls housed opened trunks and suitcases, with thought-provoking displays of their contents. Outside each cubbyhole was a sign that gave us some background on the suitcase’s owner and asked us to ponder their diagnosis and treatment. Some patients, like Clara, seemed truly in need of ongoing mental health care. Others, however, seem to have been confined only because they were poor, alone, immigrants, depressed as a result of traumatic life blows, didn’t speak English, or somehow seemed “odd” enough that those around them were uncomfortable.

The belongings that they brought were fascinating. Some had whole wardrobes of fancy clothes. Others used their suitcase space instead for books. Some brought musical instruments. Many brought treasured photographs. Some had packed the tools of their trade. Some appeared to be expecting to go on vacation. Others seemed to know that where they were going would be for the rest of their lives.


How unsettling, then, to see these belongings now, the last connections to these people’s pre-hospital lives. It felt as though these were objects saved from a tragic shipwreck. Perhaps in some ways they were. Whatever state of mind these men and women arrived in when they came to the door at Willard, their suitcases carried the sum of their lives as they understood them up to that day. Yet once through that door, it appears that they were stripped of their previous lives and transformed into “patients.” Their suitcases were shipped off to a locked attic. Their previous identities, the memories and dreams they had so carefully packed, disappeared from their lives as well.

How did poor Clara adjust to this new, abrupt break with her former life? Did she panic? Did she fight it? Did she eventually make friends in this new place? Did she ever come to feel that it was home? Many of the owners of these forsaken suitcases were at Willard during the same years as Clara. She must have known them, and many of them almost certainly would have known her.

The Exploratorium’s corridor of attic cubbyholes opens into a room with institutional furniture from Willard. These red leather upholstered chairs . . . Would Clara recognize them if she were here with me today? Did she sit in this exact chair, drumming her fingers on the worn armrest and tapping one foot impatiently while waiting to see a doctor?

And this utilitarian table . . . Did she sit at it, maybe even in one of these exact chairs, perhaps sewing a piece of clothing? My mother says Clara was wonderful at all kinds of sewing and craft projects. We have the remnants of a gorgeous velvet patchwork quilt that Clara made from soft and elegant fabrics. Someday we will make it whole again. 

Could Clara have worked on small sewing projects at these tables? Or could she have sat here with people she considered friends? Maybe done a puzzle together? Maybe played a game? Maybe complained about the food in the cafeteria?

In this room in the museum, you can lift an old telephone receiver and listen to audio descriptions of life at Willard by people who had worked there, often the third generation in their family to do so.

Towards the end of the exhibit, there is a poster that attempts to give some context to these memories from a mental hospital. It notes that doctors at the time (up through the 1950s) had no knowledge of neurophysiology. It continues:

They also had limited understanding of the psychological harms caused by trauma or poverty. At the time, psychotherapy was new and finding its way. There were no effective medications, and mental illness was commonly understood to be a defect of will or character. People often came to Willard from poorhouses, where they were sometimes kept in chains. And doctors were each responsible for hundreds of patients.

It goes on to note that many patients were diagnosed with “dementia praecox,” as was our Clara. This was an early term for what we now call schizophrenia. And then the poster adds this, titled as a “Note on what is never noted”:

Although it was a hard place to work and a difficult place to live, Willard had many aspects of an intentional community. The institutional records and memories of those who lived and worked there show an often dedicated and mutually supportive staff, patients who looked out for each other, and compassionate relationships that made possible the survival of the human spirit, even in extreme circumstances. These are all part of what happened, too.

I pray that Clara experienced some of that sense of compassionate community. Coming from a harsh and isolated rural farming childhood in upstate New York and then experiencing severe losses in her adult life, she deserved an older age freed from demands and troubles. I hope that that look of peace on her face that I remember from the first and last time I ever saw her was something that she had come to experience in this place she had unwillingly been forced to call home.


Pat said...


What a tremendous amount of work and research you have done! Thank you so much.

I have wanted to see this exhibit ever since I learned of it (and wrote the blog story about it), so at least until I DO get to see it somewhere around the country, I can feel that I have 'felt' a part of it through your writing.

Yes, Clara and Mildred and Leon--all ancestors we wish we knew, but at least we know a bit of their histories.

Thanks for again bringing alive our past relatives!

Wonderful pictures, also.


Evelyn, said...

Sue, a wonderful article on Aunt Clara at Willard. The tie-in with the Traveling Suitcase Exhibit makes it all the more meaningful. Your pictures added another dimension to your writing.

I never met Aunt Clara but heard Bryant often tell about how she taught him to bake and that she made him the chef’s hat and apron to do it in.