Girl, Interrupted

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Girl, Interrupted By Susanna KaysenFrom 1967 eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen spent two years at the famous McLean Hospital (of Sylvia Plath fame) in a psychiatric ward for teenage girls after a short session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before. Girl, Interrupted (first published in 1993) is a memoir of her time there and told in a series of short non-chronological vignettes in which we, and Kaysen, slowly try and piece together the events that led to her spending so long at McLean and get a portrait of life in this strange and sometimes disturbing environment. ‘People ask, how did you get in there?’ writes Kaysen. ‘What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can’t answer the real question. All I can tell them is it’s easy. It is easy to slip into a parallel universe. These worlds exist alongside this world.’ The book ruminates on society’s definitions of what constitutes sanity or insanity with Kaysen herself, despite her circumstances and location, sometimes feeling like a sane person in an insane world.

Girl, Interrupted is a relatively short memoir (my paperback copy runs to only 167 pages) but an interesting and very readable book that has unfortunately been a little overshadowed by the fairly average film version featuring Winona Ryder as Kaysen. Kaysen tells us she had to undertake legal proceedings to retrieve her file from McLean hospital when she started thinking about her time there and felt compelled to write about it and some of these files and memoranda are included in the book. An office memorandum from the hospital reprinted for the memoir states that Kaysen is suffering from suicidal ideas, an immersion in fantasy and progressive withdrawal and isolation. One of the big questions posed by the book is the validity of the criteria in deciding who is fit for society and who isn’t. Could free-spirited unconventional people who don’t conform to whatever is loosely perceived to be the norm in a society sometimes be erroneously diagnosed? ‘What does borderline personality mean, anyhow?’ writes Kaysen. ‘It appears to be a way station between neurosis and psychosis: a fractured but not disassembled psyche. Though to quote my post-Melvin psychiatrist: It’s what they call people with lifestyles that bother them.’

The non-linear structure – a sort of Scenes From A Psychiatric Ward if you will – affords us a window into this troubling world and allows us to meet some of the other notable occupants of Kaysen’s ward. Chief amongst these is the obstreperous Lisa who Kaysen says still makes her smile whenever she thinks about her now all of these years later. Lisa has a penchant for daring escape attempts but is usually returned again a few days later after disappearing. ‘The worst was that she was always caught and dragged back, dirty, with wild eyes that had seen freedom. She would curse her captors and even the tough old-timers had to laugh at the names she made up.’ Lisa is the most vivid of the people Kaysen met in the hospital and features in the memoir quite a lot. Although diagnosed as a sociopath and very loud and unpredictable, Kaysen also remembers Lisa as a funny person who kept their spirits up and – stuck with apparently permanent insomnia from her drug-addled past – someone who would slowly calm down and decompress late at night and make hot chocolate for the staff at unearthly hours.

“Although disturbing at times this is an eloquent and very personal memoir that is well worth reading.”

Stranger and more disturbing than Lisa though are Daisy and Polly. Daisy is a troubled young woman who is periodically dumped in the hospital by her family and has a very odd addiction to roast chicken and laxatives. Her bedroom, which Kaysen is one of the few to ever be allowed to enter, is filled with chicken carcasses with Daisy believing that once she has collected 14 she will be allowed to leave the hospital. ‘Daisy was a seasonal event,’ writes kaysen. ‘She came before Thanksgiving and stayed through Christmas every year. Some years she came for her birthday in May as well.’ Polly is a self-inflicted burns victim with scarring on various parts of her body but radiates a calm self-assurance. ‘She was never unhappy,’ says kaysen of Polly. ‘She was kind and comforting to those who were unhappy. She always had time to listen to other people’s complaints. Whatever had driven her, whispered Die! in her once-perfect, now-scarred ear, she had immolated it.’

Kaysen’s roommate at McLean, Georgina, is considered, along with Kaysen herself, to be one of the less severe cases and even has a boyfriend of sorts, a patient in the hospital called Wade who lives under the delusion that his father is a deadly and famous CIA operative who undertakes dangerous secret missions in Cuba. Kaysen includes a memorable passage about the day it all went black for Georgina and McLean suddenly loomed large in her immediate future. ‘My roommate Georgina came in swiftly and totally, during her junior year at Vassar. She was in a theater watching a movie when a tidal wave of blackness broke over her head. The entire world was obliterated – for a few minutes. She knew she had gone crazy. She looked around the theater to see if it had happened to everyone, but all the other people were engrossed in the movie. She rushed out, because the darkness in the theater was too much when combined with the darkness in her head.’

The memoir is quite interesting about the psychology of being institutionalised. Kaysen explains how you gradually start to get used to having everything taken care of for you and forget how to do ordinary everyday things like writing a cheque, using a telephone or even locking a door. In an odd way they were free and escapees from the mundane expectations of life. Vicariously, they come to live through the staff and use them as a link to the real world, a place that seems ever more complex and faraway. ‘When we looked at the student nurses we saw alternate versions of ourselves. They were living out lives we might have been living, if we hadn’t been occupied with being mental patients. They shared apartments and had boyfriends and talked about clothes. We wanted to protect them so that they could go on living these lives. They were our proxies.’

One thing I found interesting too were Kaysen’s musings on the possible motivation for respectable and well-heeled families of the era to shove their dysfunctional children away in one of these places. Kaysen seems to suggest throughout the book that it simply makes them feel better to isolate the troubled one in the family. ‘Most families were proving the same proposition: We aren’t crazy, SHE is the crazy one. Those families kept paying.’ If I had any criticisms of the book the first would be that it’s a tad too short at only 167 pages and perhaps a little pretentious on fleeting occasions, especially a two or three page segment on Velocity vs Viscosity (‘Paradox. The tortoise and the hare. Achilles and the what? The tortoise? The tendon? The tongue?’) where Kaysen seems to be trying too hard to impress. The escapades and foul-mouthed insults of the patients are also perhaps never quite as amusing as Kaysen probably thinks they are. These quibbles aside though, Girl, Interrupted is always fascinating for the glimpse it affords us into this strange secret world and is often a very poignant book as we read about these troubled souls. Overall I would recommend Girl, Interrupted.

Although disturbing at times this is an eloquent and very personal memoir that is well worth reading.

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Girl, Interrupted
by Susanna Kaysne

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