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
A life disrupted by doubts
Girl, Interrupted - Susanna Kaysen
Member Name: brokenangel
Girl, Interrupted - Susanna Kaysen
Date: 24/01/09, updated on 05/12/13 (195 review reads)
Advantages: Well-written, interesting characters, interesting ideas
Disadvantages: Some aspects not explored
Kaysen's written style is simple, precise and evocative. Short chapters focus on key incidents, characters and reflections in an almost poetic and often darkly humorous manner. The vignettes are not organised chronologically, although they do begin by describing Kaysen's memory of the interview that resulted in her hospitalisation. Throughout the book Kaysen refers back to this episode, which she feels convinced consisted of a twenty minute interview and a promise of rest, but which resulted in an eighteen month stay in the McLean Hospital. Her half-hearted suicide attempt she describes as an attempt to kill the part of her who wanted to kill herself, and it is clear that she does not feel she needed to be institutionalised. The doctor comes across as patronising and overly analytical, imbuing a simple physical act Kaysen commits with undue psychological significance. It is clear that Kaysen accepted her committal, waiting for the taxi and signing herself in at the hospital, but the imperfections in the systems of 1967 that allowed her to be incarcerated after such a brief examination are also highlighted and encourage the reader to question the professionals' judgements.
As the memoir progresses, the reader is introduced to a range of characters with brief summaries of their condition, progress and methods of coping with institutional life. The sense of time dragging on endlessly is captured perfectly in the monotony of 'checks' and cigarettes, watching and waiting, meds and curse words. Often we are given a focused account of a key incident from their incarceration. The characters are interesting and well-realised, although their histories, and often their futures, are under-developed, which leaves the reader wondering what really happened to them.
Kaysen's history outside the hospital is also often unclear. She gets married and the marriage fails, but due to the unconnected nature of the book and the focus on the actual time spent in the institution, her relationships with her parents and her husband are sketchy, their characters absent from what is essentially an exploration of her history. This has frustrated some readers but it does not detract from the powerful nature of the central issues the book explores.
The photocopies of hospital records which are interspersed throughout the book emphasise the clinical manner in which a very personal struggle was treated by the nurses and doctors. Although Kaysen is only occasionally explicitly critical of specific professionals, the whole system appears to be set up to follow routines, rules and drug programmes rather than to cure patients. As Kaysen's account veers between episodes it becomes apparent that being in hospital did not help her, except by giving her some respite from responding to people in the outside world. It did, however, encourage her to question her diagnosis as she clearly feels she is in a different category to inmates who receive shock-therapy or rub their faeces on their walls and bodies.
As the book draws to a close, Kaysen begins to consider the differences between 'mind' and 'brain' and between 'mental illness' and 'difference', questioning whether she really met the criteria of the personality disorder she was diagnosed with - and whether those criteria are just. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the book as the reader is drawn into these questions and inspired to consider how fine that line between sanity and reality can be.
Overall, this is a powerful and fascinating read which raises important issues. It is not to be confused with a self help guide as there is not great recovery scheme or advice, merely a sense that Kaysen was never really crazy, simply interrupted in the death throes of adolescence.
Summary: An intriguing insight into mental illness