Read the Interviews with former Willard inmates
Between 1999 and 2003, the Consumer/Survivor/Ex-patient Oral History Project
collected more than 200 oral history interviews with former psychiatric patients and staff in New York State. The project staff, former psychiatric patients trained in oral history techniques, had the recorded interviews transcribed, and both tapes and transcripts are on deposit at the New York State Archives
, where they are available to researchers, scholars, and anyone wishing to learn more about the personal experiences of people involved in the mental health system.
Among those we spoke to were former staff and inmates at Willard; the excerpts from their interviews express a range of experiences and interpretations of life and work at the facility. The interviews with former Willard inmates were conducted by Jeanne Dumont, Ph.D., during 2000-2001. The staff audio interviews presented here were recorded by Darby Penney and Steven Periard in 2003.
Audio excerpts from staff interviews describe the working conditions and daily routines at the hospital from the 1950s-1970s. Laverne Dratt, R.N., a former Director of Nursing, describes conditions in the North Wing of Chapin Hall when he first began working there as an attendant in 1958. He also graphically describes the seclusion room, and walks us through a typical night shift on the North Wing.
Nancy Jaycot Caniff , a retired occupational therapist, talks about patients and treatments during the 1950s, including her observations about people who were lobotomized, typhoid patients kept in suspended cages, and what was called "The Blitz" - people lined up for repeated courses of electroshock.
Marie Schmidt, R.N., describes a special unit set up for visually impaired patients in the 1970s, and tells the story of one man mistakenly hospitalized for 30 years. She also talks about the benefits and drawbacks of working in a facility and in a small village where all the staff knew each other's families and were involved in each other's lives.
Donna Cerza, R.N., talks about her life as a student nurse at Willard in the early 1970s, while Gail Christiansen, R.N., describes the development of "Retreatment Units" in 1962, an effort to re-engage long-term patients who had received only custodial care for years.
Excerpts for the oral history transcripts of former Willard inmates cover the years from the 1940s to the 1980s; these individuals asked that only their first names be used. Jessica was born at Willard in 1946, when her mother was an inmate there. She talks about her mother's recollections of the facility in the 1940s and 50s, as well as her own experience in the 1970s. Nancy also had a parent who spent many years in the psychiatric system, and describes what he went through as well as her hospitalizations at Willard and other facilities.
Barbara's story includes extensive childhood trauma, and she discusses both the negatives and positives of her time at Willard; how her childhood trauma and her rape while in the hospital were ignored, and how a sympathetic therapist helped her learn how to take charge of her own life. Al talks about the emotional difficulties that led to him dropping out of high school, his experience with medications that he felt interfered with his recovery, and the small things that can make life on the ward tolerable or insufferable.