Lady Cordelia #CBR5 Review #96: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

imagesI 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.

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.