Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
Published by Vintage on April 19, 1994
Genres: Autobiography, Health, Memoir, Mental Health, Non-Fiction, Psychology
Length: 169 pages Source: ThriftBooks
Goodreads • Amazon • Barnes & Noble • Book Depository • IndieBound
In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she'd never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele--Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles--as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.
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.
I’ve been meaning to re-read this book for an age, so thank you to the Reading Rush for getting me kickstarted on that.
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.
It’s hard for me to peg exactly why I love Girl, Interrupted, and that’s why this review is a little rambling. Susanna Kaysen makes the story her own, weaving the facts together with a great voice. Also there’s this essay in the middle called “Velocity vs. Viscosity” which talks about the different ways the brain goes when things are not perfect, and it makes me feel so heard, because I have a hard time explaining what I’m thinking about? I really appreciate that essay.
And just… in general. I like this book, and I think anyone interested in mental health needs to read it.
Girl, Interrupted stays on the shelf!
I mean… this is a five star read, guys.
Also, I’ve already re-read it once. It’s one I’ll pick up from time to time – this particular book speaks strongly to my need for a mood-based read. Also it’s really short. I’ve read it in one sitting before. And I really like it? I’ll always re-read books I love, even the non-fiction ones.
What other mental health memoirs have you read? I very much need to read The Bell Jar, and I just added a handful to my TBR, but I’m really interested in your recommendations. What do you suggest?