Newest Review: ... years ago!). It is basically a memoir by Susanna Kaysen, who at 18 years old (in 1967) was sent off to a psychiatric hospital on the rec... more
Girl, Interrupted - Susanna Kaysen
Member Name: historywitch
Girl, Interrupted - Susanna Kaysen
Advantages: Short, mostly easy to read, hard hitting, funny in places, informative
Disadvantages: Short, uncomfortable to read in places, not very uplifting
I feel duty bound to first mention the length of this book; being only 168 pages long and divided into short chapters interspersed with blank pages and items from Kaysen's case file. It took me less than an hour to read through and I did have a slight feeling of 'was that it' when I got to the last page. The book begins with that key psychiatrists interview and ends when she leaves the asylum, but as she makes sense of her internment and 'illness' we learn about her life before she was committed and why her parents had been concerned enough to pay the extremely high costs of the hospital to keep her in there. Her language is oddly philosophical, musing about the nature of life and talking almost blandly of her fellow patients; who include a girl who hasn't slept for two years and another who set herself on fire, and hospital life. Some turns of phrase and the events she has chosen to focus on feel strange and off-balance, this is not the usual run of the mill autobiography; it is as if the twisted reality of the asylum has seeped out onto the page. Kaysen slips from matter of fact accounts of day to day life to a disjointed series of strange little sentences about bones or her tongue, from normality to the ramblings of a confused and depressed teenager. On top of this there is discussion about the perceived nature and stigmatism of "madness" and how girls and women can be affected and treated. A lot to fit into 168 pages!
The case notes reproduced throughout the book are fascinating illustrations of how life is lived in a psychiatric hospital and how detached from reality and normality both staff and patients can become. Kaysen has also reproduced her admission notes from the psychiatrist who had her committed and compares her own experiences with those of the authorities who kept her under treatment for 18 months. Reading the notes (father "afraid she might kill herself or get pregnant", "reversal of sleep cycle", "promiscuous") and her supposed disorders, I couldn't help but ponder how she would be treated nowadays; certainly much of her 'disorder' could be put down to teenage angst/rebellion combined with depression and unrealistic expectations. Kaysen is starkly honest about the failed and successful suicide attempts of both herself and other patients, their states of mind and why they failed which was shocking to me and something I was not prepared for. I spent much of the book trying to work out the extent of her disturbance and intrigued myself with questioning how much of her behaviour resulted from being locked away from the world and 'normality'. Her treatment by the authorities certainly seems unfair and unjust, but it is also clear that she comes across as quite a depressed and often emotionally disturbed individual who is struggling with life and society in the 1960's.Whilst this is no reason to lock her up for 18 months, in the context of the 1960's when the study and treatment of mental illness was just moving on from lobotomies and electric shock treatment, Kaysen must have presented as a prime candidate for hospitalisation. It is a definite reminder of how much our society has moved on and become more accepting of mental illness and less restrictive of what constitutes normality.
I found this an interesting addition to my library and another perspective on the methods and attitudes of 40 years ago, both towards the mentally ill and those who don't quite fit. At times the book brought tears to my eyes, there are some truly heartbreaking moments and some very strange and upsetting incidents, but these events are tempered by Kaysen's honesty and bravery not just at the time but also in sharing her experiences in such a public way. It is quite a brutal book, it certainly pulls no punches and her observations of fellow patients and hospital staff reflect the strange chaos of a psychiatric ward. To my surprise there are also some genuinely funny moments which made me laugh out loud, all the more so because they are often sandwiched between moments of pain or human tragedy. Sadly we don't get to know very much about Kaysen's life before McLean, only in the ways it impacted her mental health, but we know much about what happened after she left McLean and any long term effects of her stay. Kaysen's resentment spills out in the final part of the book in adissection of her diagnosis and attack on the society that allowed this to happen; something which was extremely uncomfortable for me to read as it documents certain self-destructive and self-harming behaviours Kaysen demonstrated as a teen. The last few pages came across as a self-pitying, self obsessed description of her life after the asylum that I gritted my teeth and skim read for the good of the review, so I hope you all appreciate it!
I would recommend 'Girl, Interrupted' to anyone who has an interest in the subject of mental illness and treatment, but also to those who enjoy slightly surreal autobiographical writings. Just a shame its not longer!
***Price and ISBN***
There are many different versions of this book usually retailing at around £6.99
The edition released after the film was made (which has little in common with the book if I remember correctly) is : 1860497926 and Amazon.co.uk has it for £5.49. Marketplace offers on other versions start at around 73p.
Summary: Life in a mental hospital