Haunting images: Authors explore ‘Abandoned Asylums of Connecticut’
It began innocuously enough. Tammy Rebello's kids were watching an episode of the travel channel TV show "Ghost Adventures" that took cameras inside an old, abandoned mental institution in New York.
They though it would be rather cool if their mother, who has been a photographer for two decades, snapped some pictures of that old asylum.
She thought so, too. The Oxford, Mass., resident grabbed her camera and, with her brother, Josh, went to visit Letchworth Village, the now-shuttered institution in Rockland County, N.Y.
Rebello's fascination started with the architecture but quickly moved beyond that to the fraught histories of places like Letchworth and their patients.
She says she was struck by the fact that Letchworth "was sitting there vacant, and it made me wonder, do people realize these places actually existed? I mean, my kids don't know what asylums are. They aren't around today as they were then."
Not wanting these places and the people who populated them be forgotten, Rebello started visiting and taking photos of abandoned asylums near her home. Since she wanted to tell the stories behind these institutions, she asked a friend, L.F. Blanchard, to write the text to accompany pictures of the sites. The results were compiled in an Arcadia Publishing book, "Abandoned Asylums of Massachusetts."
And then they moved onto a second book, "Abandoned Asylums of Connecticut," which is being released today. It is broken into chapters on: Seaside Sanatorium in Waterford; Norwich State Hospital; Knight Hospital and Mansfield Training School; and Fairfield Hills Hospital.
The photos are haunting images of neglect and decay, as if ghosts were left from these once-robust facilities. There are pictures of peeling wall paint, cracking windows and disintegrating ceilings. Graffiti creeps over walls.
At Seaside, a framed, simplistic painting of a child is tossed in a pile of debris. A discarded sheet of paper details "overtime and supplemental attendance record."
At Norwich, an austere wooden chair sits in front of a hollowed-out TV. Sheet music of "Hush, Little Baby" sits, crumpled.
The accompanying text doesn't explain the images the reader sees but rather recounts the history of each facility.
"Tammy just gave me a guide of where all the pictures were taken, what they were of, but I wanted to tell these stories more like a biography ... because they really did have their own life. Each one has an individual story," Blanchard says.
Blanchard also wrote a one-page profile of a person or subject related to each site, relaying dramatic and traumatic tales of a mentally disabled boy deserted by his parents at Seaside and an abusive nurse at Norwich. The figures are based on real people, although some names have been changed, according to Blanchard.
She says that, since she's a student of psychology, she tended to approach this all from a psychological viewpoint.
"I think it's important to remember the past so we can help shape the future. Understanding not just what happened but what came of what happened and how changes came to be — I think that's super important," she says.
Blanchard says that they have gotten a lot of feedback from people working in the mental-health field now because they are raising the subject in their books and are starting, or perhaps restarting, a conversation.
The authors have also become open about their personal stories.
"We've shared our own bouts with living with mental illness ourselves and have become great advocates for stopping the stigma of it," Rebello says.
Blanchard says, "When we first started this, we wanted to tell the story of these places and of these people, but it very quickly became more about sharing our own stories. I've lived with depression my entire life. When I sign books, I always sign 'Be the light,' because I had gone through a time in my life when I was so depressed that I couldn't see any hope, I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak."
She got help, and Rebello says it was because of Blanchard that she has started speaking about her own anxiety and related issues. She notes that she also has a child with depression and anxiety.
So while the authors are telling stories of the past, they are also being advocates for themselves and for others "others who aren't strong enough to advocate for themselves," she says.
She adds with a laugh, "Who would have thought a couple of pictures would have turned into that?"
Rebello works as a school secretary as well as a professional photographer. After raising her children, she returned to school to get her Bachelor of Arts degree in communications last year from Worcester State University.
Blanchard, a Worcester native, also attended Worcester State University. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology there, with minors in communications and art. She is now a full-time graduate student, working toward a master's degree in art therapy at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass. Both she and Rebello are artists as well.
In Blanchard's text for "Abandoned Asylums of Connecticut," she brings the sites' stories to the present. The Seaside section, for instance, details information about its original work helping patients with tuberculosis and the current plans to turn the property into a state park.
The Norwich State Hospital segment touches on everything from the huge surge in number of residents in 1905, just a year after the hospital's opening, up to the town of Preston and the Mohegan Tribe signing a memorandum of understanding for the property earlier this year.
Blanchard notes that she got help as she did research from, among others, Sean Nugent, chair of the Preston Redevelopment Agency, and representatives from the Preston Historical Society and Public Library.
Blanchard and Rebello are now working on the third in the series, this one focused on Hudson Valley, N.Y.
They have also been discussing doing a second Massachusetts volume. Another possibility: doing a book focused on a collection of 1904 board of directors' notes from the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded (the Waltham site that was later renamed the Walter E. Fernald State School) that someone gave them. Blanchard says the woman who had those notes read about her and Rebello's work and told Blanchard, "This story needs to be told, and I never quite figured out what to do with it. ... I knew this (with Blanchard and Rebello) is where it belonged."
By the book
What: "Abandoned Asylums of Connecticut"
By: L.F. Blanchard and Tammy Rebello
Publisher: Arcadia Publishing
Release date: Today
Cost: $22.99 softcover
Available: Locally and from arcadiapublishing.com
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