What Remains

The Suitcases of Charles F. at Willard State Hospital

Text by Ilan Stavans
Photographs by Jon Crispin

Subjects: New York/regional, History, American History, Jewish Studies, Art
Series: Excelsior Editions
Imprint: Excelsior Editions
Paperback : 9781438478906, 128 pages, July 2020

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Table of contents

What Remains
Ilan Stavans

The Suitcases of Charles F. at Willard State Hospital
Photographs by Jon Crispin

Memory Is a Box without Edges: A Conversation between Ilan Stavans and Jon Crispin


Combining photography and essay, presents a speculative portrait of a Jewish immigrant living out the end of his days in New York's midcentury mental health system.


After the closure of Willard Psychiatric Center on New York's Seneca Lake in 1995, more than four hundred abandoned suitcases were discovered in its attic, containing thousands of personal possessions belonging to former patients. Three of the suitcases were owned by Charles F. , an eighty-four-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant arrested at a Brooklyn subway station in 1946 and institutionalized at Willard State Hospital (as it was then known).

An extraordinary collaboration between image and text, What Remains pairs Jon Crispin's gripping photographs of Charles's belongings with Ilan Stavans's intriguing, speculative portrait of a patient and institution at odds with one another. Anxious, isolated, and senile, Charles strikes an unexpected friendship with a young doctor whose empathy accompanies him through a sudden spiritual awakening. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Stavans, himself an immigrant from Mexico whose family history is marked by bouts of mental illness, approaches his character as a surrogate of his own personal journey. Crispin's photographs of Charles's possessions—including clothing, household tools, and Jewish ritual objects—are haunting in their ability to compel the reader to imagine a distant man's life. A moving blend of fact and fiction, photography and prose, What Remains reflects on questions of mental health, spirituality, and the Jewish immigrant experience in midcentury America.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author of many books, including Borges, the Jew and On Self-Translation: Meditations on Language, both also published by SUNY Press. Jon Crispin is a photographer living in Pelham, Massachusetts.


"In What Remains, Stavans opens the suitcase of a bereft, abandoned man who tumbled into Willard State Hospital and never came out. Peering inside, Stavans richly imagines Charles F. 's inner life, a phantasmagoria of angels and visions, Dodgers, and Chasids, all of them gently witnessed by a soulful psychiatrist. Together, Stavans's strange tale and Crispin's gorgeous photographs make this book an exquisite delight, and a small, aching wonder. " — Esther H. Schor, author of Emma Lazarus

"What distinguished Charles F. 's life, Ilan Stavans wonders, and why was he institutionalized? In this compelling tale of Willard State Hospital, a Jewish inmate, the doctor that treated him, the family that abandoned him, and three surviving suitcases, Stavans and photographer Jon Crispin conjure up the last painful years of Charles F. and display the objects that he left behind. A poignant meditation on the indignities of aging and on becoming 'an old Jew adrift in a lost world. '" — Jonathan D. Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History, Second Edition

"With exquisite words and piercing images, Ilan Stavans and Jon Crispin unforgettably excavate the contours of an imagined life. " — Jeremy Dauber, Columbia University