Girl, Interrupted is a best-selling 1993 memoir by American author Susanna Kaysen. In the book, Kaysen relates her experiences as a patient in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. The memoir's title is a reference to the Vermeer painting Girl Interrupted at her Music.
While writing the novel Far Afield Kaysen began to recall her almost two years at McLean Hospital. Once done with the book she obtained her file from the hospital with the help of a lawyer and began to write Girl, Interrupted.
In 1999, the memoir was adapted into a film of the same name starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. It was directed by James Mangold.
The plot of Girl, Interrupted
does not follow a linear storyline
, but instead the author provides personal stories through a series of non-chronological vignettes and personal reflections on why she was institutionalized.
In April 1967
, 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen is admitted to McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Massachusetts
, after attempting a half hearted suicide
. She denies it was a suicide attempt to a psychiatrist who suggests she take time to regroup in McLean, a private mental hospital. Susanna is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder
, and her stay extends 18 months.
Fellow patients Polly, Cynthia, Lisa, Lisa Cody, Georgina and Daisy highlight Susanna’s experience at McLean as she describes their personal issues and how they come to cope with the time they must spend in the hospital. Susanna also introduces the reader to particular staff members, including Valerie, Dr. Wick and Mrs. McWeeney.
Susanna reflects on the nature of her illness, including difficulty making sense of visual patterns, and suggests that sanity is a falsehood constructed to help the "healthy" feel "normal." She also questions how doctors treat mental illnesses, and whether they are treating the brain or the mind.
During her stay, Susanna undergoes a period of depersonalization, where she bites open the flesh on her hand after she becomes terrified that she has "lost her bones." Also, during a trip to the dentist, Susanna becomes frantic after waking from the general anesthesia and no one will tell her how long she was unconscious, as she fears that she has lost time.
Some months after leaving McLean, Susanna visits Georgina, who is now married and still quite unconventional. Outside of a subway station, Susanna bumps into Lisa who has a son and lives in Brookline. Georgina is now discharged and is living a normal life outside the hospital. Daisy commits suicide. Lisa Cody is a "junkie" heavily addicted to drugs. Polly's and Cynthia's whereabouts are unknown.
There are two main groups of characters, the patients and the staff. In addition to those there are her parents, her boyfriend and various other minor characters such as her former boss.
- Susanna Kaysen - The autobiographical main character, Susanna Kaysen is admitted to a psychiatric ward to be treated for borderline personality disorder following a suicide attempt. She is admitted after a short consultation with a psychiatrist who is also an acquaintance of the family. She is told that she will only be staying there for a few weeks though it turns out to be close to two years instead. Throughout the book, she frequently contrasts the time of the consultation, twenty minutes, to the time she was there.
- Polly - Suffers from schizophrenia and depression. Before admission to hospital, Polly set herself on fire, possibly because of her depression, for reasons unknown to her fellow patients. She is left with severe scarring. The other patients do not ask why she set herself on fire, according to Kaysen because the sheer guts it took to actually do so means that Polly is very respected. Though she is calm and appears to have, in Kaysen's words, burned her troubles away she does eventually break down.
- Georgina - Hospitalised for schizophrenia, Georgina is Susanna's roommate at the institution. She has a boyfriend in the hospital named Wade, and she and Susanna are considered the healthiest patients on the ward. Georgina apparently experienced her first symptoms after an episode in a movie theatre where she suddenly felt as if the darkness had surrounded her completely. It is not clear what the immediate reason for her diagnosis is.
- Lisa - She is diagnosed as a sociopath, but whether she actually is one is left open to interpretation. Lisa periodically escapes from the hospital, only to be found a week or two later and re-admitted. She is usually happy enough to be back though she does put up a fight when restrained. She is an ex-junkie, who never sleeps and barely eats, and enjoys making trouble for the staff. She apparently takes some pride in her diagnosis. Although she has a therapist assigned to her she never actually sees him. Lisa is not in contact with her family except her brother but the extent of their contact is not described. She also has a lawyer though it appears he is mostly used to threaten the staff if she doesn't get what she wants.
- Lisa Cody - She is admitted while Kaysen is there and from the beginning looks up to Lisa. She is diagnosed as a sociopath too, though Lisa questions this and is clearly annoyed that she is no longer the only sociopath there. A former drug addict like Lisa, she tries hard to defend herself from the accusations from Lisa that she isn't "real". She eventually escapes and is apparently found by Lisa during one of her escapes from the hospital. Lisa tells the other girls with pride that Lisa Cody has become a "real" drug addict. Her fate after her escape is not described any further.
- Daisy - A thin girl who is admitted to hospital seasonally according to Susanna, coming before Thanksgiving and staying through Christmas every year. She has a single room, where she spends most of her time. She is addicted to laxatives, and will only eat chicken, in her room. She peels off the meat and keeps the carcasses, saying that when she has 14 carcasses, it's time to leave the hospital, possibly due to obsessive compulsive disorder. Daisy's father visits her quite often, and it is implied he has incestuous feelings for her. Daisy eventually commits suicide on her birthday. Susanna describes her as "sexy" and says Daisy had a spark that the rest of the girls lacked. Daisy is reclusive and anti-social. She hates when anyone goes near her and is hostile when people approach her. However, she does allow Lisa to enter into her room. Sometimes they even share cigarettes indicating that Daisy does respect Lisa out of all the other patients on the ward.
- Torrey - An ex-drug addict. She was put into the ward after her parents discovered her promiscuity. She is the best friend of all the fellow patients. Her parents then take her out against her own will, and take her back to Mexico where she believes she will become an amphetamine addict again. The girls do try to help her with an escape plan but eventually that plan is ruined, partly by Torrey herself as she is too afraid to do it and partly by Valerie after she gives her a cup of thorazine just prior to her departure. Though she only appears for a short time she is an important character. Kaysen distinguishes between those put there indefinitely by parents willing to pay without questioning the progress of their treatment and those whose parents are not willing to do so. Torrey is used as an example of the latter group.
- Alice Calais - At first she seems quiet and, in Kaysen's own words, "not too crazy" but she eventually breaks down and is admitted to maximum security after about a month. When the girls go to visit her they find that she has painted herself and the walls in her seclusion room with her own feces. Most of the other patients believe she was "raised in a closet" because she is ignorant about the trivial things in life (for example, she has never tasted honey and doesn't know how it tastes. She is also completely unaware that her last name is a well-known location in France and is overwhelmed in awe when she hears of the Hundred Years' War). It is not explained what happened to her after the girls had visited her.
- Valerie - The head nurse on the ward. She works there during the day and though she can be strict she is generally liked by the patients and Kaysen in particular. She is described as down to earth and rarely uses the psychiatric terms used by the therapists. Kaysen recalls her as honest and direct.
- Mrs. McWeeney - The evening nurse on the ward. Described as the exact opposite of Valerie and very disliked by the patients. Kaysen recalls her as clearly nuts. Valerie does not like her and tends to ignore her. She does, however, describe her as a professional when the patients complain to her about her.
- Dr. Wick - The chief therapist. She is described as very old-fashioned and easy to embarrass. She has previously worked in Africa and her direct contact with the patients is very limited.
- Melvin - Kaysen's therapist and analyst.
The book explores several themes related to mental illness and society's interpretation of it.
Mental illness vs. conformity
Although Kaysen does admit that she was going through very difficult times she questions the validity of her diagnosis and to what degree it could be applied universally to anyone showing nonconformist behavior. She recalls the other patients' mental conditions and finds it hard to relate them to her own problems. She also describes the stigma that follows from having been hospitalized for mental illness and how she eventually stopped telling people in order to avoid the negative reaction.
Hospitalization as treatment
Kaysen elaborates through parts of the book on her thoughts about how mental illness is treated. She explains that families who are willing to pay the rather high costs of hospitalization do so to prove their own sanity. Once one member of the family is hospitalized it becomes easier for the rest of the family to distance themselves from the problem. As mental illness in her view often includes the entire family the hospitalized family member becomes an excuse not to look at one's own problems which explains the willingness to pay the high financial costs of hospitalization.
Treating the brain vs. the mind
An important point in Kaysen's view is the distinction between the treatment of the brain, as opposed to that of the mind. She uses an example with two interpreters, one reacting to one's senses and another that processes and evaluates the results from the first interpreter. She describes mental illness as the failure of the second interpreter to correctly dismiss false interpretations by the first interpreter. She compares this with the chemical reactions of the brain and concludes that those who treat mental illness with drugs are treating the brain whereas therapy is aimed at treating the mind. Though she does not dismiss the use of drugs she is critical of them.
Through parts of the book she describes the trade-off between being a patient in a mental institution and being free in the conventional sense of the word. Though restricted by a complex set of rules she also describes how not being out in the real world sets her free from the expectations of parents and society when it comes to education and work. Though she describes the hospital as a womb you can't get out of, she also explains the difficulties she had prior to being hospitalized and how the pressure increasingly got to her.