At the end of 2016, I reread Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted; I thought it would be an interesting idea to present my previous review, which probably dates from around 2013, along with my current thoughts.
Girl, Interrupted, which was first published in 1993, is a highly acclaimed autobiographical work. It tells of its author, Susanna Kaysen, who, as an eighteen-year-old in 1967, was sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression. She spent two years on the teenage psychiatric ward, which had previously treated such patients as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Ray Charles. The information within the pages of Girl, Interrupted was found within her patient file, which she obtained from the hospital after she had been released.
I find books which deal with mental illness and recuperation fascinating, and I love being able to see so far into the human condition, reading about things which I have thankfully never personally experienced. Here, Kaysen has interspersed her short chapters with photocopies of documents from her file, some of which contain some rather shocking and unsettling information. One cannot imagine how awful it must have been to read the views of the nurses and doctors upon these sheets, even a long while after they were written. Each chapter is an episode; a memory fragment, of sorts. There is no real order to them, and that is what makes Girl, Interrupted so eminently readable.
Throughout, Kaysen writes both wisely and beautifully. As well as outlining her own experiences – she and her roommate were deemed the ‘healthiest’ people in the hospital – she tells of other patients: ‘We watched a lot of things. We watched Cynthia come back crying from electroshock once a week. We watched Polly shiver after being wrapped in ice-cold sheets’. She writes bravely of force-feedings, medication which could turn friends to zombie-like beings in just a few hours, and the horrific electroshock therapy which some of the patients were regularly subjected to. Kaysen informs the reader of the gradations of ‘craziness’ which existed in McLean.
Girl, Interrupted is a fascinating and heart-wrenching account of living one’s formative years in such an institution as McLean. Unlike that of some of her peers within the hospital, Kaysen’s story has relatively happy elements to it, in that she came out of the other side and was brave enough to share her story. Her self-awareness and the use of retrospective, along with the power which every single word holds, makes <i>Girl, Interrupted</i> a truly stunning memoir, and one which I urge everyone to read.
I reread Girl, Interrupted for my Goodreads book group in December 2016. The work was far more fragmented than I remembered, and at times, Kaysen’s own condition and diagnosis felt a little overshadowed by those she was living in close confinement with. This approach, and her choice to use others in her own journey of mental illness, was fascinating. The scenes which she presents are almost disjointed on the face of it, but one soon gets the impression that the piece has been well structured. The introspective sections which discussed Kaysen’s own health, and her place within the world, were those which I found of the most interest.
The historical and social context which Kaysen presents, from the Vietnam War to Kennedy’s assassination, firmly anchors the whole within the mid- to late-1960s. What is surprising about the piece is both how different treatment appears to be in the twenty-first century, and the similarities which we can still recognise within our own societal treatment of the mentally unwell. Scotland, for instance, still uses electroshock therapy, which sounds old-fashioned even in Kaysen’s account. The smoke and mirrors which often surrounded which treatments were being given was surprising to me; there appears to be very little honesty with the patients, and little understanding of their own conditions at times. The gender distinctions here are fascinating – for instance, musings of experiences which have occurred to Kaysen within the workplace – particularly from a standpoint almost fifty years in the future; again, similarities can be recognised within our own global society. Upon my second reading, the camaraderie of those around Kaysen surprised me too; rather than being separated, the patients are encouraged to be together, from their leisure time down to their rooming.
Kaysen’s telling of her story is brave and heartfelt, and the insight which she gives into the institution of McLean and its treatments is fascinating. She is essentially laying herself bare for the world to see. I was left wondering whether any of the information which she relays has been partially or fully fictionalised, and whether the names of patients and nurses were changed due to anonymity. This does not matter on the whole, I suppose – we must remember that I absolutely adored James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and the furore surrounding its fictionalised scenes didn’t bother me at all – but I do like to think of Girl, Interrupted as a brutally honest account. It has been highly well-styled, and intelligently written. The advantage of hindsight, and her discovery of her patient notes detailing her Borderline Personality Disorder twenty-five years after she was released, are startling, and demonstrate how much treatments had moved on just in that relatively short space of time. Kaysen’s ability to talk in a relatively removed and understanding way about her experience was a fantastic asset to the whole, and definitely one of the strengths of the whole piece for me.