A Genre Analysis on the Book Girl by Susanna Kaysen
Girl, Interrupted (1999) directed by James Mangold is largely based on a semi- autobiographical book by the same title. The movie chronicles eighteen year old Susanna Kaysen’s experiences surrounding her stay at a mental institution. It is 1967, a time of social change and unrest. Susanna makes a half-heart attempt at suicide, ingesting a bottle of aspirin and chasing the pills with a bottle of vodka. She is taken to the emergency room, her stomach is pumped and she survives. Afterwards she meets with a psychologist who explores her more recent feelings and experiences. The psychologist concludes, with her parents assent, that she would benefit from a stay at Claymore, a private mental institution.
I particularly appreciate Girl, Interrupted because it’s a book that speaks to me. I remember reading it years ago and my initial impressions were 1.) this is nothing like the movie; and 2.) it was one of the first books I’d ever read where I felt like the author heard my experience. And honestly, that’s a bit snobbish because I haven’t gone through anything like Susanna Kaysen went through. I was definitely never institutionalized. But I discovered Girl, Interrupted when I was living with my parents still and struggling with anxiety and depression and getting no help and being made to feel crazy. And this book? This was a well-needed reminder that it’s okay to not be okay, and that is a version of normal. Girl, Interrupted is a story included in a series of essays. There are characters and scenes and moments that are all striking in their own right, but there are also copies of Susanna’s files within the pages. I’m not sure if they’re in all the editions of this book, but I assume so? At any rate, I found them powerful. There’s a letter from Susanna’s therapist to the RMV seven years-is after her release that gives her permission to drive – in little ways like that, you can see how her stay affected the rest of her life, putting a label on her. Some of the scenes in Girl, Interrupted are funny anecdotes. Some are soul-hollowing truths. Others are just informational – there’s a whole chapter defining Borderline Personality Disorder. McLean Hospital, where Susanna stayed – still exists today. While the institution opened as an asylum in 1818, the modern iteration of McLean hospital looks to be a safe and supportive place to be. Even in the late ’60s, Susanna never criticizes the mental care she received (or, when she does, it’s not a criticism of the care, but her general not wanting to deal with it). Kaysen’s writing in general is enjoyable, quick and descriptive. You get a feel for the place and the people there. Mental health memoirs aren’t for everyone. Everyone’s experiences are different. I thought Susanna’s story was powerful, but not too heavy. She speak sort of… sarcastically, I guess? I don’t want to say flippant, but the way she writes it’s clear that she’s rolling her eyes at a lot of things and taking them in stride, and I know that’s a weird way of explaining a writing voice, but I really liked it and it’s not as negative as I”m making it sound. I think her voice is what made the essays feel both relatable and impactful for the reader, despite personal experience.
Due to stressful social demands, especially from her seniors, which contributed to her suicide attempt, Kaysen ends up in a mental facility. For Kaysen, suicidal thought could have been her way out of the social madness, and not a symptom of personality disorder as believed by her therapist. She recounts her perspective on suicide, remarking, “Suicide is a form of murder- premeditated murder. It isn’t something you do the first time you think of doing it. It takes getting used to. And you need the means, the opportunity, and the motive. A successful suicide demands good organization and a cool head, both of which are incompatible with the suicidal state of mind” (Kaysen 36). Diagnosed with mental illness known as borderline disorder, throughout the novel, Kaysen embarks on a rigorous questioning of her state of mind. This leaves her depressed, angry and sad hence only confiding in friends like Lisa. Later, Kaysen’s struggle to explain her situation gives her ticket to the real world. For her, this is a clear misdiagnosis. Despite the techniques used by Kaysen, defense mechanism is common among many authors who seek to recount their unbearable past. For instance, in Truddi Chase’s memoir of her childhood abuse, she tells her story in the third person to subtly conceal her identity. She describes her self as “the woman” also refrains from referring to other characters by their real names (Chase 3).
Generally speaking, Kaysen's memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a "parallel universe" set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching documnet that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.
Chase, Truddi. When Rabbit Howls. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1990.
Kaysen, Susanna. Girl Interrupted. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.