Two young women, born sixty years apart, cross paths in almost amazing coincidences. When your resources are books – when you never speak to people who are in the institutions, as staff or as patients, your characters can not breathe. Otherwise they will be like pressed flowers, sharing a similar fate. Clara, the daughter of well-to-do parents is pledged to a young man of promise. In other words, her marriage was pre-arranged. Instead, she falls for attractive, handsome Bruno, an Italian immigrant whose family crafts shoes. He is plain-spoken; unsophisticated. Ethan is the man her parents have chosen …sophisticated, but more importantly, very, very wealthy.Izzy is the 20th century Clara, who has suffered loss and death, and been moved from foster home to foster home, lamenting that she doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. When she moves yet again to a school where name-calling and teasing reign, she fears the worst. When the other girls learn she is an orphan, they torment her with ugly talk. They tell her that her mother is in prison for killing her father, an out-of-control wannabee who abused wife and children.In a questionable decision, the new foster parents bring Izzy to work at their museum on a study of the now defunct mental hospital, a project which both fascinates and frightens Izzy.Stereotypes are, of course, fictional beings, so much like paper dolls that they take us by surprise, and if taken to extremes they weigh too heavily upon the reader. Izzy finds out the details of the crime which sent her mother to prison. She learns what life is like in a state mental hospital. She is led to believe that her mother may still be alive. She gets absolutely no help in sorting out her sad home life.
Author Ellen Marie Wiseman is a superb storyteller, who indicates her sources, several weighty books on life in the state institution. The problem with using books is that the characters may be flat, like pressed flowers, all having similar range of emotions. One wishes she had conversed with some current staff or patients from the state facilities.
As a former mental health worker in a state hospital, I did see horrible practices, but the decision was made, thank goodness, to “close the swamp.” The dismantling of the sturdy, filthy old buildings took time.
Wiseman trips lightly over sexual abuse, starvation, and girls enduring pregnancy without treatment. This is not a light topic. Either you write about it deeply, or you write briefly but respectfully. This is the tip of the iceberg. When persons with mental illness were treated like naughty children, the “caregivers” worked for the paycheck only. They frightened the patients.
In What She Left Behind, all the doctors seem to act like perverts, and there is no one to talk to. When Clara’s father sent her to the hospital, he thought he was punishing her, perhaps that she would snap out of her stubbornness, but she did not. She became more determined to speak up, to speak out for others, to roam the hallways looking for signs of life, hoping that her estranged mother would be in the shadows. Many of the caregivers were simple people, capable of following orders but intimidated by the doctors and nurses. Some of the doctors were blatantly inappropriate, but some few were professional, caring practitioners.
Ellen Marie Wiseman’s book is a serious, rich, thorough novel, and she states that her purpose is to address what it feels like to be imprisoned by your parents in a mental hospital. And she has done that – superbly. Besides those women who folded into themselves, others fought their caregivers, and some died. Even those girls who had no mental illness could not help but fall apart in this dismal setting.
I strongly recommend this fine, elegantly crafted novel, to those who work in healthcare or in social work. For novelists, it is a treat full of excellent writing. This critical topic confronts people in our own time, and we need to prevent abuse from destroying fragile souls.