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Fiction featuring Care Experience

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What She Left Behind

Ellen Marie Wiseman (2)


The Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane is the setting for What She Left Behind (2014). Willard closed in 1995 and what most people know about the facility is that 429 suitcases were found in the attic during an inventory to determine what was worth keeping.

The employee who found the suitcases called the New York State Museum and the museum’s historians then “catalogued and wrapped every item in the suitcases which turned out to date from 1910 to 1965” (Purcell).

What Wiseman does in What She Left Behind is tell 2 stories, one of which is about Clara Cartwright who is confined to Willard after her father can no longer afford to keep her at a private institution. Clara’s suitcase is amongst those found in 1995 and it’s Isabelle Stone, or Izzy—a 17-year-old in foster care because her mother killed her father—who takes an interest in Clara’s story. As the novel unfolds, we find out why Clara—who is not insane—was locked up in Willard, what life was like for her there (including the various ‘treatments’ she was forced to undergo), and what happened to Clara’s child.

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