Once again, it is with great joy that I honor the people who helped, supported, and believed in me throughout this amazing journey.
First and foremost, this novel would not have come to fruition if not for the work of Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, authors of
The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic.
It was your book that inspired the idea and opened my eyes to the often heartbreaking world of the insane asylums of the past. I’m especially indebted to Darby Penney for taking the time to answer my questions about Willard State and what it might have been like for female patients in the 1930s. I hope you’ll forgive any historical inaccuracies and creative licenses I’ve taken.
For answering my questions about women in prison, I thank Deborah Jiang Stein, author and founder of The unPrison Project. Thank you also to Andrew Thompson for sharing his knowledge of correction officers.
Thank you to my family and friends for understanding my crazy schedule, for forgiving me when I had to say no, and for allowing me the time and space I needed to make my deadlines. I’m forever grateful for your belief in me, for your patience and understanding during this sometimes-bumpy ride, and most of all, your steadfast love.
To say that I’m grateful to my author posse at BP is an understatement. I can’t imagine experiencing this crazy, exhilarating ride without your friendship and brilliant advice. Together, we’re conquering the world, one book at a time!
It is with great pleasure that I send my love and gratitude out to my friend and cosmic sister, Barbara Titterington. Thank you for being one of my biggest cheerleaders and for reading an early draft of the manuscript. It helps knowing that in your eyes, I always sparkle.
Again, I’m eternally indebted to my wonderful editor, John Scognamiglio, for his faith in me, and to my patient and insightful agent, Michael Carr. I can’t thank you enough for your unwavering support, your great advice, and for helping me make this story stronger. Thank you also to my publicist, Vida Engstrand, for getting the word out about my novels, and to Meryl Earl, Director of Sub Rights, for securing foreign rights for my books. Thank you also to Kristine Mills-Noble for your gorgeous cover designs. And again, a thousand thanks to the rest of the Kensington team for all the hard work you do behind the scenes.
I cannot write a note of thanks without a shout-out to the people who live in and around my community. Whether you are a librarian who invited me to do a presentation, a journalist who did a story on me, a member of a book club who invited me into your home, an online supporter, or someone who read my work and made sure to tell me you enjoyed it, I can’t begin to tell you how much your encouragement and thoughtfulness has meant to me. Seeing your smiling, excited faces has filled my eyes with tears and my heart with pride. It truly has been one of the highlights of this experience and I will remember it always.
As ever, thank you from the bottom of my heart to my beloved mother, Sigrid, for being my rock, and my dear husband, Bill, for seeing me through. Words cannot express how much you mean to me. Lastly and most importantly, I want to express my immense love and gratitude to my children, Ben, Jessica, and Shanae, and my beautiful grandchildren, Rylee, Harper, and Lincoln. You are my greatest accomplishment, and I love you with everything that I am. You, alone, make life worth living.
Willard State Asylum
Within minutes of setting foot on the grounds of the shuttered Willard State Asylum, seventeen-year-old Isabelle Stone knew it was a mistake. If anyone saw her standing on the cracked and potholed main road of the vast, tree-lined property, they would have no clue of the horror festering inside her head.
On that hazy Saturday in late August, the warm breeze smelled of cattails and seaweed, occasional gusts rustling the grove of pines to the left of the open yard. Heat rose in shimmery vapors from the sunbaked earth and cicadas buzzed in the long grass near the woods, a droning, live thermometer that grew higher pitched and more insistent with every rising degree. Willard’s manicured lawns sloped away from the main buildings, gently rolling downward toward the rocky shoreline of Seneca Lake. Sailboats bobbed across the waves and a long pier stretched like an invitation into the sparkling waters.
Isabelle—her father used to call her Izzy—should have been enjoying the warm sunshine and beautiful view. Instead, she grit her teeth and struggled to push the image of a bleeding hole in her father’s skull from her mind. She felt like she was trapped in purgatory. Would she ever find peace, or would she always be that seven-year-old girl, reliving the horrible night her father was murdered?
Izzy stepped out of the shadow of Chapin Hall, the institution’s massive main building, and faced the sun, eyes closed, trying to repress all thought. But when she turned to look up at the three-story brick Victorian with cathedral windows, the snarl of grief and fear returned. An enormous two-story cupola with porthole windows towered above a black mansard roof sprouting numerous attic dormers, turrets, and chimneys. A stone portico with disintegrating pillars protected the giant double doors of the main entrance. Black bars covered the tall, multipaned windows, nearly all of which were boarded up from the inside, except for the dormers in the attic and the round, porthole windows in the cupola. It looked more like a haunted mansion than a place designed to help people.
Izzy wondered what horrors the hulking building had witnessed. What dreadful memories had attached themselves to the bricks and mortar and clouded glass, forever part of the structure, mortared and sealed with blood and tears? Just as pain and anguish would always be part of who she was, the memories of thousands of tortured souls would live on in Chapin Hall and the surrounding buildings of Willard State. How could this place ever be anything but a miserable reminder of lives and loved ones lost?
She swallowed and turned toward the water, one hand shielding the sun from her eyes. She wondered if passing boaters looked over at the asylum and assumed the cluster of brick buildings and pastoral grounds belonged to a country club or college. From a distance, it looked orderly and genteel. But she knew better. She imagined the former patients in the yard, sitting in wheelchairs or shuffling across the grass, hospital gowns hanging from thin frames, eyes glazed over. She imagined being one of them, looking out over the blue lake. Did the patients realize that other people were taking boat trips, cooking dinner, falling in love and having children in the small communities across the bay? Did they wonder if they would ever be released, allowed to rejoin the “normal” world? Or were they completely unaware of the lives they were missing?
Izzy’s stomach cramped as another memory flickered in her mind: her mother, Joyce, sprawled across a bed at the Elmira Psychiatric Center, eyes glazed over, staring blankly at the ceiling, hair sticking out in all directions. It had been a sultry day just like this one, and Izzy remembered her mother’s mascara and eyeliner, melted and running down her pale cheeks, like a clown left out in the rain. She remembered burying her face in her grandmother’s skirt, begging to go home. She’d never forget the endless white halls of the psych ward, the smell of urine and bleach, the dim rooms, the patients in wheelchairs and beds surrounded by rubber walls. After that visit, she had nightmares for years. She asked her grandmother not to make her go back and, thankfully, her grandmother agreed.
Izzy wrapped her arms around herself and moved along the broken pavement of Willard’s main road, wondering how she found herself here, exploring a giant replica of that creepy hospital ward. She could have claimed a headache or a queasy stomach, anything to get out of coming. There were other museum employees who could have come in her place. But she didn’t want to disappoint her new foster mother, Peg, the museum curator. For the first time since she was ten, after her grandmother died, Izzy had foster parents who seemed to care.
Sure, she was going to turn eighteen in less than a year. She’d been in the system long enough to know that eighteenth birthdays weren’t marked by celebrations. When the checks stopped coming, she’d be on her own. “Aging out” of foster care meant becoming homeless. She’d heard stories of kids ending up in jail and hospital emergency rooms, selling drugs, living on welfare and food stamps. How desperate did a person have to become before they broke the law to survive? For now, things were good, and she didn’t want to mess that up.
Earlier, Peg had asked her to come to the old asylum to help safeguard anything that might be worth keeping before the buildings were condemned. Without a word about her reservations, Izzy had agreed. She was relieved when Peg let her explore outside first, instead of making her go inside with the others, clambering into basements, wandering through the morgue, touring the dozens of abandoned patient wards. But she wondered what Peg would think if she knew that just being near Willard made her nauseous.
She crossed a wooden bridge over a dry creek bed, then followed the one-lane road toward the grove of pines. To her left, a flock of Canada geese foraged in an overgrown field, their heads curved above the goldenrod like black canes. A few feet from the edge of the road, three grayish-yellow goslings lay cradled in a nest of timothy and chickweed, their necks stretched out in the grass. Izzy stopped to watch, motionless. The babies’ eyes were open, but they weren’t moving. She edged closer, keeping one eye on the adults in the field. No matter how close she drew, the goslings stayed in the same spot, still as river stones. Izzy swallowed, her throat burning. The goslings were either dead or dying.
She knelt and picked one up, turning its soft, limp body over in her hands, feeling beneath its wings and stomach for wounds. She moved its legs and neck, checking for broken bones. There was no sign of trauma, and the bird’s fuzzy down was still warm. Then the gosling blinked. It was still alive. Maybe they were sick, poisoned by improperly disposed chemicals or psychiatric medicines from Willard. Izzy picked up the other two goslings, found no sign of injury, and laid them back down.
Briefly, she wondered if Peg would allow her to bring them home, to nurse them back to health. Then she remembered that wild animals were better off being left alone. Maybe their mother would return and recognize what was wrong. Izzy straightened and continued down the road, her eyes brimming with tears. She watched over her shoulder, hoping the goslings’ parents would appear. Hopefully, nothing had happened to them. Then, all of a sudden, the goslings jumped up and scurried into the field, their mother honking and rushing toward them through the grass. Izzy grinned and wiped her eyes, surprised that geese would play dead.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she continued toward the pine grove. On one side of the road, a leaning four-story building sat in the middle of a field, its shattered windows covered with iron bars, its roof collapsed, the green tiles and broken wood covered in black mold. It looked as if it had been dropped from the sky, like a ship pulled from the sea and tossed a thousand miles from shore. On the other side of the road, rows of cast iron grave markers lined a scraggly meadow, tilting left and right like crooked, gray teeth. A bitter taste filled Izzy’s throat. It was Willard’s cemetery. She spun around and hurried back to the main structure, toward the staggered rows of brick, factory-sized buildings connected to Chapin Hall—the patient wards.
The wards’ fire escapes were inside wire cages, and the dirty windows were covered with thick bars, the rotting sills oozing a black sludge that ran down the brick walls. Most of the doors and windows had been boarded up from the inside, as if the memories of what had happened there should never again see the light of day. Izzy shivered. How many patients had suffered and died in this awful place?
Just then, someone called her name, pulling her from her thoughts. She turned to see Peg trotting along the road in her direction, a wide smile on her face. From the moment Izzy met her new foster mother, she was reminded of a sixties hippie. Today was no exception. Peg wore denim overalls and a flowery gypsy top, her hair a free-flowing mess of wild curls.
“Isn’t this place amazing?” Peg said. “I didn’t know it was this huge!”
“It’s big, that’s for sure,” Izzy said, trying to sound agreeable.
“Did you see the boathouse and the dock?” Peg said. “That’s where Willard Asylum’s first patient arrived by steamboat in October 1869. Her name was Mary Rote and she was a deformed, demented woman who had been chained without a bed or clothing in a cell in the Columbia County almshouse for ten years. Three male patients arrived at the dock that day too, all in irons. One of them was inside what looked like a chicken crate.”
Izzy looked toward the pier. To the right of the dock sat a two-story boathouse with broken windows and missing shingles, like a bruised face with drooping eyelids. “That sounds barbaric!” she said.
“It was,” Peg said. “But that’s why Willard was built. It was supposed to be a place for the incurably mad who were taking up space in poorhouses and jails. Within days of their arrival at the new asylum, the new patients were bathed, dressed, fed, and—usually—resting quietly on the wards.”
“So people were treated well here?”
Peg’s face went dark. “At first, I think so, yes. But through the years, Willard got overcrowded and conditions deteriorated. Unfortunately, nearly half of Willard’s fifty thousand patients died here.”
Izzy bit down on the inside of her cheek, wondering how to ask if she could go wait in the car. Then Peg grinned and grabbed Izzy’s hand.
“Come on!” she said, her eyes lighting up. “One of the former employees wants to show us something in the shuttered workshop. I think it’s going to be an important find and I don’t want you to miss it!”
Izzy groaned inside and followed her foster mother along the main road toward the workshop, trying to come up with an excuse not to go inside. Nothing came to her. Nothing that didn’t sound stupid or crazy anyway. And she didn’t want Peg to think she was crazy. This past summer, when she first arrived at Peg and Harry’s, she was certain they’d be like the rest of her foster parents, taking kids in for the money and free labor. Harry was the art director of the state museum, and Izzy got the feeling that between the two of them, they didn’t make a lot of money. But thankfully, finally, this time she was wrong. Her new foster parents were actually decent people, willing to give her the space, both physically and emotionally, a young woman needed. Back at Peg and Harry’s three-story house in Interlaken, she had her own room that looked out over the lake, with a TV, DVD player, and a personal computer. They said it was up to her to keep their trust. It was the first time anyone had ever put the ball in her court, without judging her first. And now, for the first time in a long time, Izzy felt like she was part of something “normal.”
And yet, sometimes her new situation seemed too good to be true. In the back of her mind, she knew something or someone would come along and screw it up. That’s just the way her life worked. Then she remembered that her first day at her new school was in two days and her stomach twisted. Being the new kid was always hard.
The closer they got to the workshop, the hotter Izzy’s neck and chest grew. Like her mother, she had silver-blue eyes, black hair, and a bone white complexion. When she got nervous, red, blotchy patches broke out over her neck and chest. She could feel her skin welting up now. Being outside on the lawns of the asylum was one thing. But now she was going inside one of the buildings. The urge to flee swelled in her mind, making her heart race.
It’s just part of my job,
she told herself.
It has nothing to do with me, or my mother. Besides, it’s time to put away childish fears.
She pulled her long hair up on top of her head and tied it in a knot, letting the breeze cool her neck.
“Aren’t you hot in that long-sleeved shirt?” Peg said.
“No,” Izzy said, pulling the edges of her sleeves down and holding them inside her fists. “It’s pretty thin.”
“I noticed when I was folding your laundry that you don’t have any short-sleeved shirts,” Peg said. “Maybe we can go shopping and get you some new clothes.”
Izzy tried to smile. “Thanks,” she said. “But I like long sleeves. And you don’t have to do my laundry.”
“I don’t mind,” Peg said, smiling. “I just can’t understand why anyone would want to wear long sleeves in this weather.”
Izzy shrugged. “I’m a little self-conscious about my arms,” she said. “They’re so skinny and pale.”
“Most girls would love to have long, slender arms and legs like yours,” Peg said, laughing.
Not if they could see the scars,
She looked toward the lake and saw groups of people gathered near the shoreline, sitting at picnic tables, walking, playing softball and badminton. Most were in worn, faded clothing, shuffling along as if dazed by medication. She stopped. “Who are they?” she asked Peg.
Peg shielded her eyes from the sun and squinted toward the shore. “They’re probably from the nearby Elmira Psychiatric Center,” Peg said. “There’s a campground down by the lake. Sometimes the staff bring the patients here for outings.”