A Genre Analysis on the Book Girl by Susanna Kaysen
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.
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.
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).
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.