There’s something so very intriguing about mental hospitals. The mind is such a hard thing to understand and then there’s the history surrounding mental health: lobotomies, electroshock, sensory deprivation. The list is long and it is cruel. It’s why mental hospitals are such a good backdrop for horror! Certainly the only things I’ve ever seen that surrounds mental hospitals are horror. It’s why I decided to read Girl, Interrupted; it was time to shed some light on the non-horror side of mental health.
The year is 1967. Susanna Kaysen has just had a session with a psychiatrist she’s never seen before and has been put in a taxi headed straight to McLean Hospital–a psychiatric hospital renowned for its famous clientele and progressive treatment. Kaysen spends the next two years of her life in the ward for teenage girls. Girl, Interrupted tells the story of the people and experiences she encountered in a series of short nonlinear scenes.
Susanna Kaysen was born and raised in Cambridge Massachusetts. She came from a priviledged family and attended high school at the Commonwealth School in Boston before being whisked off to McLean to undergo psychiatric treatment for depression. She was later diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and spent eighteen months in the hospital. Since then she’s made a name for herself as an author.
Kaysen’s memoir, Girl, Interrupted, shows her sharp perception, intelligence, and self-awareness as she paints vivid portraits of herself and her fellow patients and the doctors at McLean. It’s written almost as a parallel universe: the crisp, sterile, uniformity of the hospital against the backdrop of the late sixties. It’s a document that is unflinching in its portrayal of those around Kaysen. There’s Polly, a sweet girl with disfiguring, self-inflicted burns to her face and body. Lisa, a sociopath that may or may not be faking the whole thing just to screw with everyone. Georgina, Kaysen’s roommate, who’s dating a violent and unstable boy from another ward. The twins obsessed with roasted chicken and laxatives.
Her stories are out of order and short offering just brief glimpses into the world of mental health treatment and recovery but their shortness gives them poignancy. The stories are out of order and a little spacey, but they’re honest and darkly funny. Her story is compelling and written in a way designed to provoke questions and, honestly, it’s just so self-aware. She sees the difference between madness and sanity in such a way that you, as the reader, might begin to doubt your take on the two as you see her clarity!
My final thoughts on Girl, Interrupted are that it is ingenious. It’s a look at a girl’s life as she moves into her adult life in a most unusual way. The imagery is powerful, the writing even more so. It’s a book that shows the horrors of mental health without resorting to what horror movies do and it’s brilliantly done.