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Bookmark It: “Girl, Interrupted” Paints Honest Portrait of Mental Illness

Brayden Malley

“Was I crazy? Maybe. Or maybe life is…  Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret.  It’s you or me amplified.”  This embodies the tone of Girl, Interrupted. Susanna Kaysen’s autobiographical novel explores for an answer to the question:  what is crazy?

In 1967, 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen found herself somehow in the esteemed McLean’s psychiatric hospital, to be treated for depression – following what doctors claim was a suicide attempt. Girl, Interrupted is her account of the two years she spent there. Kaysen’s novel takes the reader through the ups and downs and in betweens of inpatient psychiatric care.

“It’s a fairly accurate picture of me at eighteen, minus a few quirks… I’m tempted to try refuting it, but then I would be open to the further charges of “defensiveness” and “resistance”, she claims early on in the novel.  Kaysen makes it clear that while the world has stopped for her, interrupted her life, it continues to revolve just the same outside the hospital ward.

Throughout the novel, Kaysen’s medical documents from her stay at McLean accompany the story.  The reader visits the ward, psychiatrist’s office, bathtub and many other key places in the story of Kaysen’s lock-up; contemplating this concept of “crazy” throughout.  Kaysen includes letters, clinical notes, her admission form, nursing notes and progress notes which help to give her story a sense of objectivity. The account starts in a cold, almost frightening way; the first page is a copy of author Kaysen’s case record folder.

Girl, Interrupted is a fast paced, psych thriller, perfect for anyone interested in the topic of mental health.  Every psych major should pick up this short, yet powerful book, for a glance into what the mental health industry used to be like for those who were diagnosed and required treatment.  This juxtaposition of the clinical aspect of the story along with the personal, highlights exactly what this memoir aims to unveil; the darkness of mental illness has a face, a voice and it all is sometimes hidden behind labels and diagnoses.

Kaysen’s book explores many different diagnoses, particularly the controversial borderline personality disorder.  Susanna fights the doctor on her diagnosis throughout the whole book.  She constantly reaffirms, “I’m just sad!”  She explores her illness at its most intimate moments and often follows her breaks with reality with detached physician reports, giving the reader both inside and outside perspectives.

Kaysen’s story could cause readers’ to shed a few tears, but the author does a wonderful job meshing this in with humor, leaving the reading balanced and enjoyable throughout.  Her sociopathic character, Lisa, is sure to give a good laugh.  Lisa is in and out of the ward throughout the novel and slowly her and Susanna become good friends.  Once this occurs the nurses are in for it.  Susanna and Lisa’s antics lighten up an otherwise dark and twisty story of the youth of the sixties locked up in an institution.

Kaysen’s national bestseller is now accompanied by a major motion picture starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie.  Other titles by Kaysen include “The Camera My Mother Gave Me,” “Asa, as I knew him,” “Far Afield,” and her most recent publication “Cambridge.”