|From "Asylum: Inside the Closed Walls of State Mental Hospitals"|
What She Left Behind chronicles the lives of two young women living approximately 60 years apart. Izzy Stone has been in and out of foster homes since her mother fatally shot her father and was sent to prison. Convinced that her mother is insane, Izzy is particularly sensitive when her latest set of foster parents ask her to help them catalog the personal effects of the former patients of a shuttered mental institution. She is shocked to discover the contents of the large steamer trunk belonging to Clara Cartwright, an 18-year-old girl committed to the asylum in 1930. Through the reading of Clara’s diary, Izzy embarks on a mission to discover the girl’s fate.
There is certainly a shock factor to What She Left Behind. Clara is committed to Willard Asylum after she defies her father by taking an Italian immigrant as her lover. The harsh conditions and backward treatments of the asylum are painful to read; indeed, they are the stuff of nightmares. The idea that women were committed for disobeying their husbands or fathers, or for engaging in behaviors deemed unsuitable in polite society, is frightening. As Clara wonders throughout her captivity, how many sane women are committed, only to lose their minds after the fact?
Wiseman does an excellent job of conveying the horrifying methods employed to cure the mentally ill. The lack of compassion and sometimes outright brutality of the nurses and doctors are astounding. Though Clara is extremely naïve, and sometimes one- dimensional, her narrative is much more compelling than Izzy’s, whose story reads like a young adult novel at times. Despite this, What She Left Behind is a real page turner and will appeal to all readers of fiction, though the subject matter is not for the faint of heart.