Book Review: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
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.
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 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.