I was surprised to discover this book published in 1993 was actually about the author’s experience in 1967. Not having seen the movie, I had been aware of the subject, but didn’t know any of the particulars. Sadly, like a lot of experiences shared about mental health institutions, it served mainly to make me think how much harm is done in the “best interest” of the person.
Susanna is 18 in 1967. After a short meeting with a doctor she has never seen before, she agrees to enter McLean Hospital, a psychiatric centre in Massachusetts. She goes with the understanding that this will be to give her a break for a couple of weeks. However, she is there for nearly two years before she is released.
Susanna tells her story as a series of vignettes that leap around in non-chronological order. There are stories of her fellow patients, the staff, her treatment, her need to try to make sense of the time that is passing, and the difficulty of reintegrating back into the world. This really is a self-contained realm away from any external influence, though the patients are allowed television, so they get some sense of the radical changes happening outside.
There is a lot of interest here – the trends in psychiatric diagnosis that need to label individuals in order to cure them, the difference between understanding the mind and treating the brain, and whether there is an identifiable line between normal and deviant. It is also apparent now that Susanna was caught up by her society’s fear of changing values and radicalism. Some of her “symptoms” would now clearly be dismissed as typical teenage behaviour. That isn’t to say that Susanna was not clinically ill – she does describe some self-destructive behaviour – but her incarceration for two years is completely disproportionate.