Darby Penney, Who Crusaded for Better Psychiatric Care, Dies at 68
The New York Times
By Alex Vadukul
Dec. 21, 2021
She shed light on marginalized people’s lives by examining the contents of suitcases left in the attic of a psychiatric hospital. She went on to become a prominent activist.
In 1995, the old Willard Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York was closed down, and hundreds of dusty trunks and suitcases that belonged to deceased patients were found in an attic. Many of those patients had never left Willard, which opened in 1869, their lives concluding in unmarked graves in its cemetery.
Much like those graves, this trove of objects was destined to be forgotten. But that changed when a crusading New York State Office of Mental Health worker named Darby Penney learned of its existence.
To Ms. Penney, the contents of these suitcases were a portal into the lives of those who had been cruelly marginalized by the early-20th-century mental health care system — people who, perhaps because of an off-key outburst at the wrong place or the wrong time, ended up involuntarily at places like the now-abandoned Willard.
Ms. Penney teamed up with a psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Stastny, and a photographer, Lisa Rinzler, to unravel the clues within the suitcases. As she scoured the belongings and studied Willard’s medical records, she began tracing the tragic contours of the lives tied to them.
There was Madeline (identified, like many others, only by her first name), an affluent Frenchwoman who fell into poverty during the Great Depression and went on to believe that she possessed telepathic powers. Her belongings included books of poetry and papers from her time as a student at the Sorbonne in Paris.
There was Frank, a Brooklyn man committed to Willard — in the town of Ovid, on Lake Seneca — in 1946 after he had become enraged that food was served to him on a chipped plate. His suitcase held a blue jacket, photos and a starter pistol.
And there was Lawrence, who arrived in 1918 claiming to hear God; he left behind shaving mugs, suspenders and a pair of black dress shoes. Lawrence became Willard’s gravedigger, carving out plots for his fellow patients, and at age 90 he was buried in one, too.
In 2004, the efforts of Ms. Penney and her team resulted in an immersive show at the New York State Museum called “Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic.” Objects from the Willard trunks were presented with portraits and information that vividly told the stories of the patients who once owned them. Its success led to a traveling exhibition as well as a book, “The Lives They Left Behind,” and the show later found a home at the Museum of Disability History in Buffalo.
Ms. Penney died on Oct. 11 in a hospice in Albany — a death not widely reported at the time. She was 68. Her sister Darcy Litt said the cause was cancer.
“The history of mental health is almost always told by psychiatrists and hardly ever by patients or through patients’ lives,” Ms. Penney said in an interview with The New York Times in 2007. “A lot of these folks happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and said the wrong thing to the wrong person.”
Ms. Penney, who struggled with depression and said she had a psychiatric history, went on to become a prominent activist in the mental health community.
She advocated for patients to have more choice and autonomy about their treatments; she railed against involuntary commitment; and she developed peer support networks that stressed the value of the expertise of individuals with psychiatric histories.
Ms. Penney left her state job in 2003 to pursue her activism with less constraint, but one reason she joined the New York State Office of Mental Health in the 1980s was to effect change from within the system. At a statewide advisory committee meeting early on, she encountered activists who were former patients, and the experience proved revelatory.
“I looked around the room and realized that I was one of them, not one of the bureaucratic ‘suits,’” she said. “That was the beginning of my education as an ex-patient activist.”
She became director of recipient affairs in the early 1990s, responsible for representing the perspectives of ex-patients in policy decisions. A decade later, as the director of historical projects, she worked to document the history of mental health services by collecting oral testimonies from current and former patients.
“Darby felt that being in the system wasn’t always the best place for a patient to be,” said Celia Brown, a friend and fellow activist. “That can be a place where they’re not listened to and are just told to take their meds. She believed the system could be damaging, and she believed that people have a right to be their full selves.”
In 2005, when the Petra Foundation, which champions social justice efforts, recognized Ms. Penney’s work by naming her a fellow, she elaborated on her mission.
“The entire public mental health system in America rests on the threat of force and coercion,” she said. “Those of us fighting for the rights of mental patients are part of the broader social justice movement.”
Darby Jeanne Penney was born on Dec. 10, 1952, in Oceanside, N.Y., on Long Island, to Arthur and Audrey (Stiefel) Penney. Her mother was a preschool teacher, her father a civil engineer.
Darby was spurred to activism as a teenager, marching for women’s rights and protesting the Vietnam War. She studied writing and literature at Empire State College and obtained a Master of Library Science from the University at Albany, both part of the State University of New York. She married Kenneth Denberg in 1988.
In her 50s, Ms. Penney began working for Advocates for Human Potential, a behavioral health care research and consulting firm. She was also heavily involved with advocacy organizations like the International Network Towards Alternatives and Rights-Based Supports, the Community Consortium and the National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy.
In addition to her sister Darcy, she is survived by another sister, Melissa; a brother, Merritt; and her mother. Her husband died three years ago.
As she grew older, the Willard project loomed large in Ms. Penney’s life.
She hosted presentations that recounted the tale of the suitcases. Her home office was cluttered with her old research papers. And she remained committed to dignifying Willard’s unmarked graves with names.
After her book came out, a band of activists in the Finger Lakes region began lobbying to place names on the graves. They had a breakthrough in 2015 when the state permitted them to install a memorial for the Willard graveyard keeper, whose full name was Lawrence Mocha. Ms. Penney spoke at the unveiling ceremony, and a plaque bearing his name was affixed to a boulder that sits where his work shed once stood.
“In his half-century as a Willard patient,” it read, “Lawrence dug over 1,500 graves of his fellow patients, who are buried in this cemetery, that they might have a final resting place, long after the world had forgotten them.”