By Susanna Kaysen
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?”
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!