"'Today, you seem puzzled about something.’ Of course I was sad and puzzled, I was eighteen, it was spring, and I was behind bars.”
Girl, Interrupted is a memoir written by Susanna Kaysen, an American 18 year old who is admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1967. The book follows her two year stay in the hospital, documenting her experience as someone with ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’. The book tracks some of her personal thoughts, as well as her experiences with the other patients in the facility and the treatment she received by the various doctors and nurses she comes into contact with.
I realise that a lot of people who are familiar with Kaysen’s memoirs have become so primarily through the 1999 film adaptation with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. Even if you have watched the movie I believe the book is still a worthy read through how it manages to provide a more realistic insight into the complex inner workings of the author’s thoughts. Where the movie attempts to give you a linear story through a Hollywood framework, the book is much more centred on the individual’s authentic experience.
The thing that strikes you most when you read this book is how it does not follow a linear narrative or plot. Her experiences are told in glimpses as if she is recalling memories as they come to her. Susanna is fearful of losing time (hence her eagerness to find out how long it took the dentist to remove her wisdom tooth) and it is this which governs the whole structure of the memoir. The time, or era, in which the memoir is set also has a bearing on its themes. The book is set in 1967 and therefore makes frequent references to the free love movement, in addition to the rise in drug consumption during this period in America. The book focuses on the women in the hospital and how they navigate entering womanhood alongside facing the realities of their mental illnesses. The world within the hospital is thus a microcosm for the outside world of disorder and confusion that the women are keen to escape from and to. While some of the women have attempted to break out of the hospital, they always end up returning, relieved to be back amongst order and rules. Simultaneously both a place of protection and a prison, the women are granted security in exchange for their freedom.
While we see the perspective of Susanna and her fellow patients often, we only experience the views or thoughts of the doctors and the nurses through their scanned notes which feature in the book, mediated through formal and medical language which reduces the women to disorders and abnormalities. Their analysis is focused on surface features and often comment on the patients’ appearance: the clothes they wear, the jewellery and any visible scars. Disturbingly, their answer to every situation seems to be through pills and medicine which keep the patients quiet without ever understanding the reasons behind their outbursts. Although this makes the staff seem distant and unfeeling towards their patients, it was interesting to witness the juxtaposition between what the medical and psychological worlds of science of the 60’s can tell us about these young women, compared to what they actually think of themselves.
This book is inevitably a feminist critique which addresses the way many women who lived outside accepted societal norms were seen as deviant or mad or, in many cases, both. Writing 25 years after her stay in the hospital, the memoir is positioned from hindsight, meaning Susanna’s personal experiences are often placed alongside context and wider thought. For example, Susanna often refers to the discrepancies of mental health conditions diagnosed in women, compared to that in men. Taking part in casual sex or “compulsive promiscuity’ was often considered a symptom for women with certain mental health conditions. Yet the fact these symptoms of ‘potentially self-damaging’ activities were majority gender-specific highlights certain inequalities which existed within the medical field at the time.
There is a quote within the book that I was particularly drawn to:
“The less likely (a) terrible thing is to happen, the less frightening it is to look at or imagine. A person who doesn’t talk to herself or stare into nothingness is therefore more alarming than a person who does. Someone who acts “normal” raises the uncomfortable question, What’s keeping me out of the loony bin?”
When reading this book the reader can’t help but compare themselves to the narrator and to her thoughts. That Susanna can be diagnosed and sent to a psychiatric hospital after a 15 minute consultation makes you question why her and, in consequence, why not me? At one point Susanna questions the doctor’s motivations, questioning whether he was actually concerned for her safety, or whether he was merely covering for himself. By mentioning the hospital’s famous clientele (Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, Anne Sexton and Ray Charles) the reader is also forced to confront the rather chilling reality that these patients are really no different to us.
I wouldn’t say that it was the best or most exciting book I have ever read. Nonetheless, this was an important memoir that addresses some very difficult themes. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the film and wants to learn more, or anyone with an interest in psychology or mental health. 7/10.