Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #39: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Content Note: Discussion of depression, mental illness, suicide.

I’ve seen the movie – the one that won Angelina Jolie her best supporting actress Academy Award, the one starring Winona Ryder and featuring Whoopie Goldberg as the head nurse. It’s the one about a young, white, middle-class woman who commits herself into a psychiatric institute at the direction of a therapist. I felt some sort of inexplicable connection with it the first time I saw it, to the point where I ended up purchasing it. On VHS. I found a DVD of it at a going-out-of-business sale a few months ago. It reminded me that I wanted to read the book it was based on.

I should say loosely based on, because the book painted a much sparser picture than the film. In the book, Ms. Kaysen does tell some stories about the women she encountered while at the facility, and those women were definitely present in the film, but some of the stories in the film differ. There isn’t the same overlap, and clearly the narrative arcs of those women were expanded to make for a more involved film. It’s also possible that Ms. Kaysen shared more information with the screenwriters to flesh out those women for the film.

The book stands well on its own though. It is disjointed at times – it’s not a straight through memoir, but instead a collection of essays – but there is a lot of wisdom in the writing. The author has clearly had time to reflect on what her diagnosis (Borderline Personality Disorder) meant then and means to her now, as the book was written 25 years after she was discharged from the facility. For example, her discussion of her suicide attempt is really interesting – she thinks of it as wanting to kill only part of herself – “the part that wanted to kill myself” – which is both pretty meta but also makes a lot of sense. She also describes mental illness as coming in two forms: slow and fast, or ‘viscosity’ and ‘velocity’.’ “Viscosity causes the stillness of disinclination; velocity causes the stillness of fascination. An observer can’t tell if a person is silent and still because inner life has stalled or because inner life is transfixingly busy.

The book is also interesting as a study (although again, a sparse one) of the facility itself. Kaysen describes it quite vividly, but she describes the feel of it even better: “For many of us, the hospital was as much a refuge as it was a prison. Though we were cut off from the world and all the trouble we enjoyed stirring up out there, we were also cut off from the demands and expectations that had driven us crazy.

The author clearly struggled with whether she really was ‘crazy’ enough to be in the facility – some of the other residents seemed to have much deeper mental health concerns than she did. Was she being self-indulgent? Was she just someone who didn’t accept the rules everyone else accepted, and did that make her crazy, or just different? Or both? And would she have been viewed differently if she had expressed the same feelings and taken the same action but were a young man, not a young woman, in the late 1960s?

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in this area. It was a very quick read for me (only a couple of hours) but I do feel like I got a lot out of it. I wish there had been more, so I’m going to look at some of her other work, as I did enjoy her writing style. Her self-awareness and introspection could come across as navel-gazing in less competent hands; instead the book provided me with an interesting introductory look at how mental health is viewed.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #50: Victims by Jonathan Kellerman

Another in a long line of Alex Delaware novels, in which the child psychologist offers his (usually crime-solving) insights as an occasionally-paid consultant to the LAPD, and in particular to his friend Detective Milo Sturgis. The sometimes humorous/sometimes poignant relationship between Kellerman’s lead characters Delaware and Sturgis is alone sufficient to keep most Kellerman fans coming back year after year and book after book, and Kellerman’s handling of dialogue with authenticity and often snappy wit is a big plus for me, but this time, the plot –despite a number of unexplained holes in it—proved a draw as well.

We are introduced right away to the handiwork of a monster, a disemboweled corpse with the intestines looped around the victim’s neck. We soon discover that the victim was an aggressively abrasive alcoholic loner and our sympathy level ratchets down a notch, only to shoot up when the next victim is discovered to be the quintessential nice guy. Adding to the horror, the second victim’s dumb but loveable Golden Retriever is missing and presumed killed as well. More victims start popping up, all apparently randomly chosen and yet evidently stalked and targeted by the killer. Detective Sturgis does a lot of plodding police footwork throughout the first half of the book that gets him nowhere except in trouble with his superiors for his lack of progress, while Dr. Delaware –with a little help from his love interest Robin–throws in a few professional zingers which keeps the crime-solving moving ahead.

Delaware was more of an enigma to me in this book, functioning less like a real flesh-and-blood character and rather more like a rather bland mouthpiece for solving the mystery. In fact, for me, it was the secondary characters that really made this book hum. Kellerman brilliantly introduces us to a large number of people who are portrayed in all their flawed humanity—the shell-shocked wife of one victim who clings to Sturgis for consolation, the enraged father of a dying child who wants to strike out at the world, the former clinic administrator who in his declining years cannot shed enough possessions to assuage his guilty conscience, the long-estranged son of a homeless victim, and so on.  Kellerman is masterful at peopling his stories with the real thing, and not just black hats and white hats, and it’s one of the things I enjoy about his books.

The plot meanders a good deal, and it’s not until well into the book that our detective and his pal start to connect the killer to a psychiatric facility which was shut down and dismantled many years earlier, but which had a common thread with one or more of the victims. At this point, the pace accelerates, the killer’s identity coalesces and the melodramatic climax ensues. At the end, soulfull looks are exchanged between Sturgis and Delaware which left me scratching my head in confusion. Nonetheless, a page-turner with many good things to recommend it.

One aspect of the novel that bears noting is that I think Kellerman chose Victims to make a strongly personal statement about the insidious nature of today’s health insurance industry, and it comes through loud and clear. I couldn’t have agreed more.

pyrajane’s review #14: Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson with Richard Mendius, MD

BuddhasBrainMECH.inddWhen I’m not being judgmental, cold, cynical, sarcastic, fatalistic, angry, or hopeless, I try to be a better person.  Have a positive attitude, practice active kindness, find beauty and good in the world and all that crap.

Buddha’s Brain is an incredible resource.  It starts with the neuroscience of what happens in our bodies when we react to situations.  Without being textbook boring, Hanson looks at current (2009) advances in neuroscience and what science is continually learning about the brain.  It’s fascinating and helped me understand how biological reactions immediately become emotional responses.

You should read it.  I wrote a gigantic review over on my blog with my own practices and arguments with my brain.  If your brain seems to stay in panic mode or you have thoughts constantly stacking up and you just want to be calm for a moment and enjoy what’s happening, this book can really help.