Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen


Girl, Interrupted
By Susanna Kaysen
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN13: 9780679746041
Pages: 169
Genre: Autobiography/Memoir


In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele — Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles — as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a “parallel universe” set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.


*I understand just how important mental health awareness is. This review is simply my own experience and not intended to provide anything more than my thoughts on this specific book.

In my efforts to expand my reading, I am rediscovering some of the older titles on my TBR. It is somewhat interesting to look through them and reflect on how my tastes have changed. I try to keep an open mind though and remind myself that all titles made the list for one reason or another. Girl, Interrupted is no exception. While memoirs and autobiographies are a rarity in my collection, every now and then one will surface. Being that I hold a particular fondness for the study of mental health, it is no surprise to discover that this book made the cut (even if it has taken years to pick it up). It is a subject that I expanded on during my nursing career and has greatly touched my life.

Let’s clear the air on the film vs book debate that often pops up; I have nothing to contribute. I watched the film years ago and it did not leave a memorable impression. For the sake of possible future discussion, I may revisit. For now, I am solely reviewing my time with this brief but memorable book.

“Did the hospital specialize in poets and singers, or was it that poets and singers specialized in madness?”
-Ray Charles

Girl, Interrupted was surprising lighter than I expected but not exactly an easy read. I think I was anticipating a fact laden and much darker story, but it simply was not. That is not to discredit the journey and importance contained within. There are surely some triggers and difficult topics. We are taken behind the scenes into a what it is to question ones own mental state and life as Susanna is admitted to a psychiatric ward during the late 60s after an extremely short and questionable visit with a psychiatrist. Eventually grouped into character disorder, she finds herself a patient for nearly 2 years. This is her story and an eye-opening look at the system during that time

Susanna holds a certain amount of familiarity when reflecting on my younger years. I was immediately drawn to her and questioning how her time in a mental health facility came to existence so abruptly. Her “irrational” behavior just did not feel as extreme at times. She is very self-aware and conscious of her own actions. This self-awareness can however, lead to isolation as one becomes increasingly alert to their own nuances.

“Emptiness and boredom: what an understatement. What I felt was complete desolation. Desolation, despair, and depression.”

Haven’t we all questioned our personal short comings or sanity at least to some degree though? Doesn’t the ability to do so actually contribute to our sanity? Based on her own personal account, the author would most likely be treated as an outpatient now if seen by a psychiatrist and would certainly not have been institutionalized after a mere few minutes. Therein is where I discovered the heart of the issue in Girl, Interrupted for myself. How was she admitted so easily? How has the system evolved, has it?

There is defensive prose throughout her narration that is undeniably understandable and justified but also perhaps a bit less relatable during present day where I like to believe the medical and mental health fields while not without flaw, have advanced and improved greatly. It is beneficial to keep the time period in mind when approaching this title and maybe absorb it as more of a comparison and opportunity to reflect on the process of diagnosis and treatment. I had entered expecting to gain more insight into the individual and personal struggles when facing mental health disorders but instead walked away with a stronger sense of the system’s shortcomings during the late 60s. With that I still found great value and significance. I cannot fault any book that challenges us to look further and notice issues or possible cracks.

“This time I read the title of the painting: Girl Interrupted at Her Music. Interrupted at her music: as my life had been, interrupted in the music of being seventeen, as her life had been, snatched and fixed on canvas: one moment made to stand still and to stand for all the other moments, whatever they would be or might have been. What life can recover from that? I had something to tell her now. “I see you,” I said.”

Character and personality disorders cover an expansive range of symptoms and behavioral patterns that greatly impact the lives of those affected. While treatment has advanced and many new options in terms of medication and therapy are available, it is important to continue exploring new possibilities. I respect Girl, Interrupted for giving me pause and shedding light on issues that might not be the primary center of focus for some. It is thought-provoking and touching, but not so heavy that you find yourself drowning in facts and losing sight of the real relevance. It is a pragmatic approach that provides a realistic view and gives credence to a significant issue. It will be appreciated easily by many.

Have you read Girl, Interrupted? Let’s chat about it!

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42 thoughts on “Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

  1. I’v seen this one floating around for years and always wondered about it from afar lol, the title certainly made me raise an eyebrow. I had no idea however that this is a Autobiography/Memoir, had I checked I would probably have added this title to my TBR a while ago. It’s def good to know what to expect & that this is more of a look at how patients with mental health issues were treated. Love the quotes Danielle! great review 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a unique perspective because she is definitely sharing her personal thoughts and experience, but I truly did find myself focused on how I feel the system failed her. It was enough to make reflect heavily on health care and treatment in general and whether it has evolved in a good way. It is a fast read too. Maybe you can borrow from the library and we can discuss sometime 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sounds like my type of book, I don’t have a actual library that houses books by me, not sure if I ever told you about how it’s run in Brooklyn. Basically the library is more of a community space for English/GED lessons as well as other events. However, the shelves (with the exception of the kids section) are bare. I have a old post about this sadness that is my Library lol, anyways I will see if there’s a Kindle copy 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is one that is close to the bottom of my TBR it’s been on there for years. I do love memoirs and non fiction in general, but was worried about how hard of a read this one would be. I need to be in the mood for something hard. Great job at reviewing it though, memoirs can be hard to review sometimes I think:)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was about 18 when I read this, it was quite a while ago now. I was in something of a mess myself and had also just read Sylvia Plath’s diaries. I was going through one of those phases of trying to figure out my own mental health by reading books about others. Really unhealthy! I found this really quite disturbing and hard to read, it was quite scary for me, I knew there was something wrong with me but I didn’t know what and couldn’t get anybody to hear me. I agree that this has quite a defensive prose, and I think that made me feel quite defensive aswell. I do know that after Plath and this I stopped looking for answers in books! At that age anyway! 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this perspective Claire! I can certainly see how it would have impacted you in such a hard way. I have also had to refrain from seeking answers in books (and online). Sometimes I am my own worst enemy. It found it to be a tough read as it really shed light on how on how broken the system was 😦


  4. Excellent review and I loved those quotes! I’m really curious about this now both because I enjoy reading memoirs every once in a while and the whole mental health/illness topic fascinates me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I never did read it or watched the movie in its entirety, to be honest. But it was something that always fascinated me. I also had no idea it was the same place famous celebrities had been to, which only adds to my interest factor. That Ray Charles quote is both beautiful and hauntingly true.
    Amazing review!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fabulous review for a book I now want to read!

    It baffles me to be able to compare the system or status quo or even the historical setting of approaches to mental health issues and institutions and admissions. Weirdly, being from Estonia, I can’t recall any expansive knowledge in this area. The only thing I know is that there’s are institutions for alcohol/drug abuse which probably deal with every mental health issue and then there are the educational institutions for challenged youth (so, if they get into trouble all the time- robberies, fights, etc). I should really look into this more… because being in Ireland has fed me so many horrible stories about the institutions here and stories from past 60s/70s where people were wrongly institutionalized…in some instances it was simply a case of someone wanting a piece of land; in other it was because a woman got pregnant outside of marriage… it’s… anyway, going back to your point, I think what is the scariest is the failings of the system that you acknowledged from the book that seems to be the overall failure… and it’s not by far the only aspect to the whole story…
    Due to odd circumstances (which is too long a story to cover off in detail) I visited an old institution, which was used in half for this reason and in half for offices for the healthcare sector… going into these offices were the most harrowing walks I have ever had… the rooms, the old 60s/70s set up- tiles, old sinks, and the feeling… simply suffocating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes! The history surrounding institutions and admissions is a very shady one indeed. Even here in the states there is a dark past that we seem to sweep under the rug. Husbands we able to commit wives who behaved “badly” and many women seem to have fallen through the cracks before we finally advanced. If you dig back and do enough research, it is a terrifying subject. Even the treatment options were completely inhuman. Perhaps I should also dig some and explore the progression of mental health treatment in various countries? It would be interesting to see some comparisons.


  7. I haven’t read this (did se the movie) but I think it’s a fascinating topic. And I can only imagine how different mental health treatment was back then, and the people who were institutionalized who should not have been. What a harrowing experience for so many people. And the lack of understanding/ treatment options too.

    Love the Ray Charles quote. Are certain personalities more prone to mental illness, or are they just identified easier? Fascinating to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is so much to take away from them and really I left with more questions than answers! I have to admit that the movie did little for me, but this book has made a lasting impression. Perhaps I will revisit the film and see how I feel now. Thank you so much Greg!


  8. I question my sanity every single day, haha!
    “Girl, Interrupted was surprising lighter than I expected but not exactly an easy read.” THIS! You captured the intricacy of the book in my opinion. Mental health books are not always super dark and heavy, but never are they easy. I love that sentence so much! I’m a quote selector :p Keeping in mind the time the period used in this book is definitely important, so many things have changed (I hope!) in this field that it would not be fair to compare to today’s situation. I feel this is a great read to better understand the system and how it can fail patients, people in need, then, and now, and have a better understanding of what it was like before. Fabulous review!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I could not agree more. Even now, this book is so relevant! Anything that challenges us to look for the cracks acknowledge them is and always will be of value ❤ She has done an incredible job of implicating the system in how it failed it her. A moving read at the very least, but so much more.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve heard about this book, but never read it. It sounds like I should really get on and do that, cos it’s such an important issue and I don’t read enough on the subject. I’m glad it’s not too heavy as well, cos that’s one of the main reasons I struggle to pick books like this up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For myself it was heavy in terms of significance, but not as dark as I originally believed it would be. Although, many have commented that for them it was disturbing so maybe inter with caution? I would love to see how you feel about this if you ever pick it up.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I have not read this book, but I probably will now that I am seeing it is only 169 pages. I did see the movie though, maybe a couple of times, and it did stick with me somewhat because at sixteen I spent two in-hospital 90 day “detoxes” for ODing, and in those days everyone from middle aged people just needing a rest for their “nerves”, to a twelve year old with schizophrenia who banged his head on the floor in the visting room every afternoon, and on to the elderly woman who wore a tissue on her head and thought she was a queen, were in the same unit in the hospital. It was crazy. I think some of the patients left in worse shape than they came in. It might sound awful, but It was so weird compared to today’s standards that I almost want to laugh. Thanks for remunding me about this book and sharing your thoughts. I might just give it a read soon. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Given your own experience, I would love to hear your thoughts on the actual book. I can only compare the system to what I have experienced as a nurse. I do have some time in on psych wards but I am sure that it is a very altered perspective being on the opposite end of matters. This one really moved me, but I have to be honest the movie left no impression. I may rewatch it now that I am older and have read this 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I have read this book about two years ago I believe. I have liked it but didn’t feel like it was a 5 star material. It did give me some insight into mental health issues which later became the thing I’m now very much interested in. I love reading Mental Health memoirs/books and feel sad that not everyone has a ‘taste’ for them. It might be because of my depression and anxiety that I’m interested in these subjects.. I do love reading other people’s experiences on these things. Mental health issues should be taken more seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it can be very beneficial to explore others experiences and perspectives with heavier topics such as this. I would recommend that everyone read at least one good memoir or autobiography addressing mental health as it has surely touched all of our lives in one form or another. If not directly, it is certain that someone we care for has been affected. I hold the subject very close due to my own history and nursing career. This was not exactly what I expected, but worth reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. It’s been quite some time since I’ve read this book, but I remember enjoying it. 🙂 I recall it being a lot lighter of a read than I was expecting as well. It might just be one I need to revisit one day since it’s been so long. Nice review! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Oooo this sounds fascinating! I would love to see the thoughts of someone who works in a Psych ward after reading it to compare and contrast now vs. then… how has the system changed over time? Interesting indeed!

    Have you read Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan? It isn’t exactly mental illness – though they thought it was & she was misdiagnosed, BUT I think you would really enjoy that book 🙂 It felt like a medical thriller… I read it back in January and loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Definitely a fascinating subject and a title I would love to explore. How much we’ve evolved system-wise is quite staggering, especially when you think about how them asylums were like back in the day. Just the definition of some illnesses have greatly changed and aren’t perceived the same today! It’s nice to see that you picked up a title you had put in your TBR ages ago. I too wonder what it’be like to pick up a book I had added a couple years ago. Then again, 100% agree that we all add books to our TBRs for a reason after all! 😀 Fantastic review, Danielle. Very just and comprehensive. I like that you took into consideration the time period in order to fully appreciate this book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Lashaan 🙂 I have a lot of older titles on my TBR so I also have to approach with the time period and how dated a piece of work is in mind. I try to stay open like that. It allows us to fully appreciate the work’s impact during its initial release or setting. I do recommend this one. And at under 200 pages, it is a fast read.

      Liked by 1 person

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