Izzy is a teenager who has been in foster care for a decade since the age of 7 when her mother was imprisoned and judged insane for having killed her father. She struggles with a desire to cut herself. Her current foster parents, Harry and Peg, seem kindly and engage Izzy in their task to catalogue artifacts from the nearby state asylum that has recently closed. 

Izzy is given the journal of Clara, a patient who, at age 18 in 1929, was pregnant by her Italian lover, Bruno. She was committed to the asylum by her angry father.  Clara gave birth, but her baby girl was taken from her. She observed how the brutality of the hospital damaged those who did not belong there, eventually provoking the mental illness it purported to treat. With the help of a gravedigger, Bruno planned an escape, but their plan was uncovered, and Bruno died.

Izzy’s own story unfolds as she works her way through the journal, subjected to bullying and tormented by her anxieties. Peg kindly arranges to take Izzy to see her dying birth mother in prison, where she learns that the murder of her father was to prevent him from abusing young Izzy.  

Spoiler alert! Izzy learns from an elderly nurse that the asylum director took Clara’s baby for himself and that Clara is still alive. She reunites the mother and child, who is now a grown woman. Izzy joyfully learns that Peg and Harry will formally adopt her.


Inspired by the real 1995 discovery of 400 suitcases that once belonged to former patients of the Willard State Hospital in New York’s Finger Lakes region, this poignant story of two young women separated by eight decades also conveys the drama, allure, and challenges of archival research. 

The compelling account of the limited control that women of the past had over their own lives urges us to compare conditions in the present, hinting, for example, at recent decisions by mostly male legislators exercising power over female choice. 

The horrific conditions inside the asylum have some basis in historical fact. But the grim portrayal of Willard tends to suggest that no goodness ever came from asylum care and that its only goals were confinement, coercion, and cruelty. It invites deep questioning of the relationship between the closure of asyl­ums and the rise in homelessness and drug abuse in our times. Were all patients unjustly committed? Were all asylum doctors similarly cruel? And what exactly is the meaning of the word, “asylum”?


Kensington Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count