Book Review: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Updated on March 2, 2020

I IMAGINE SUSANNA Kaysen is petite with dark cropped hair and large eyes. It’s the movie’s fault of course. I’m getting her confused with Winona Ryder. In Kaysen’s head shot she has short hair but it is bushy and curly. Online, I find a photo of her when she was eighteen. With her pixie hair style and youthful vulnerability, I am relieved the similarity to Winona is undeniable.

Susanna Kaysen is an American writer who has written two novels and two memoirs. Girl, Interrupted is her most popular work published in 1993 after portions of it appeared in three different magazines (AGNI, The Boston Review and Ploughsares) The book was re-published in 1999 after the film, starring Winona Ryder as Susanna and Angelina Jolie as Lisa, was released. It is a small book of only 168 pages telling the story of Kaysen’s two year stay in a mental institution between April 1967 and January 1969.

Book Review: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
Book Review: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Narrative Devices

The book uses three different building blocks to tell the story. The first is Kaysen’s narration in first person telling of the events that took place in McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts. The stories of fellow patients and staff, and her experiences are told in a series of non-chronological short vignettes; most chapters are only a few pages long.

The second device is the inclusion of copies of actual hospital records. The first page of the book is her admission form telling us a great deal about her circumstances. She is eighteen years old, white, Jewish, single, voluntarily admitted, her father works for the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, she has been in hospital before to have her stomach pumped and her diagnosis is Borderline Personality Disorder.

The third building block of this memoir is her perspective looking back on events now she is in her forties.


Girl, Interrupted explores the nature of mental health. Through the comparison of her predicament with others who are truly incapacitated by psychosis, self-immolation, bulimia, depression and substance abuse, we are asked to consider the nature of sanity. Was Kaysen mentally ill or just unwilling to conform socially?

Kaysen’s voice in this narrative is emotionless and detached, favouring short sentences and plain language. She describes her experience without telling us much about how she feels. She leaves the conclusions for the reader and often speaks to us directly. Although the subject matter of this book is serious and confronting, Kaysen finds humour in the face of tragedy.


The narrative relies heavily on dialogue to portray the personality of the characters and move the story forward. The extract following is an example of Kaysen’s mastery of dialogue, her humour and her detached style.

Daisy left early that year, to spend Christmas in her apartment.

“She’ll be back,” said Lisa. But Lisa for once was wrong.

One afternoon in May we were called to a special Hall Meeting.

“Girls,” said the head nurse, “I have some sad news.” We all leaned forward. “Daisy committed suicide yesterday.”

“Was she in her apartment?” asked Georgina.

“Did she shoot herself?” asked Polly.

“Who’s Daisy? Do I know Daisy?” asked the Martian’s girlfriend.

“Did she leave a note?” I asked.

“The details aren’t important,” said the head nurse.

“It was her birthday, wasn’t it?” asked Lisa. The head nurse nodded.

We all observed a moment of silence for Daisy. (p.35)

Is it true?

In a review of the book in the New York Times by Susan Cheever in June 1993, Kaysen talks about the reliability of her memory and the notions of truth and fact non-fiction writing.

"The events and atmosphere, it was unforgettable," Ms Kaysen, 44 years old, said in a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Mass. "But at the risk of ruining my new reputation as a memoirist, I now confess it: I had to invent the dialogue. My argument is that it's true even if it might not be the facts. (Cheever, 1993)

Kaysen questions her memory within the book itself. In the chapter Do You Believe Him or Me? she explores the discrepancy between the amount of time she spoke with her doctor before he admitted her. Her doctor says it was three hours and she remembers it being twenty minutes. She finds two contradictory hospital records, one showing an admission time of 11:30am and the other 1:30pm. She invites us to side with her as the authority on her own experience, proclaiming she is “right about what counts” (p72). At the end of the chapter she writes “Now you believe me” (p72).

Buy the Book

Girl, Interrupted
Girl, Interrupted
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.

This memoir seems to break all of the rules Paul John Eakin prescribes in his article Breaking Rules: The Consequences of Self Narration [Biography 24.1 (2001) pp 113-127]. He writes that autobiography should not be a misrepresentation of biographical and historical truth, an infringement of the right to privacy or a failure to display normative modes of personhood (p 113). Girl, Interrupted, to varying degrees breaks all these rules. Kaysen admits the dialogue is invented, she draws detailed and intimate portraits of her fellow patients and medical staff and she speaks as someone who is ‘crazy’ calling herself a ‘lunatic’.

But none of this is a kept from the reader. She opens the book telling us she ended up in a psychiatric hospital because she slipped into the ‘Parallel Universe’ where perceptions are different. She tells us she is not writing from within the real life we experience every day, but from ‘the other side’ where our world looks “huge and menacing, quivering like a vast pile of jelly” or “miniaturized and alluring, a-spin and shining in its orbit” (p6). Her view of life is both alien and familiar to us and we are captivated by the insights this other kind of life reveals.

A Popular Memoir

Girl, Interrupted is a snapshot of life in a mental institution in the late sixties by a young woman who was perhaps no more insane than we are. From the point of view of an adolescent and future adult, it deals with mental illness, suicide, sex, addiction, conformity and sexism in a way that is neither depressing nor self-indulgent. This book is a memoir that has earned its popularity because of its content, its style and its clarity of thought.

What Do You Think?

Did you enjoy "Girl, Interrupted?"

See results

The Movie Trailer


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)