Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. Review by Sophie Smart
In 1967, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was sent to McLean’s psychiatric hospital to be treated for depression. Girl, Interrupted is her account of the two years she spent there. While only a small book (160 pages), not a single word is wasted and the result is a compelling and interesting read that I thoroughly recommend.
Don’t expect a chronological account, her story is told in topics with chapter headings such as ‘The Prelude to Ice Cream’, ‘Fire’ and ‘Do You Believe Him or Me?’. One could argue that this is to represent her scattered mind; she mentions her occasional “loss of time”, for instance, having a tooth removed she blanks out what happens and panics when she cannot remember how much time has passed;
“It’s my time!” I yelled. “It’s my time and I need to know how much it was.”…”I’ve lost some time, and I need to know how much. I need to know.” Then I started crying. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help it.
But it could easily be that Kaysen knows that her story is more dramatic (I’ll get back to this later), more compelling, more readable when told in segments.
Girl, Interrupted really is a wonderful book; Kaysen is clearly a gifted writer. Personal accounts of mental illness have always fascinated me. A person suffering from mental illness will come into contact with a large number of professionals, on an inpatient ward seven or eight members of staff (from both the ward and outside) can decide that person’s future, yet mental illness remains a wholly private experience. People will always be offered sympathy but they can never be offered true empathy. Therefore, any personal account, any memoir, is a unique opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. A privilege too.
Kaysen includes letters, clinical notes, her admission form, nursing notes and progress notes which help to give her story a sense of objectivity. Although highlights have to be her comments about the world; the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the stigma associated with suffering from a mental health disorder, sexism, suicide, the mind vs. the brain debate and her thorough examination of the DSM’s (3rd ed.) diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and how it applies to her;
It’s a fairly accurate picture of me at eighteen, minus a few quirks… I’m tempted to try refuting it, but then I would be open to the further charges of “defensiveness” and “resistance”.
Kaysen makes it clear that while the world has stopped for her, interrupted her life, it continues to revolve just the same outside the hospital ward.
There is one thing I do not like about the book. Although this could simply be a personal irritation of mine, I felt the publicity surrounding the book over dramatised some of the facts. The book is sold on the premise that after a 20 minute interview, with a psychiatrist she had never seen before, Susanna Kaysen was incarcerated for two years when she was just eighteen-years-old. That is damning evidence (and I’m sure Scientologists loved it). However, Kaysen hardly dwells on this issue. In fact, a third of the way through, hospital notes record that she saw the psychiatrist for 3 hours. For a woman who acknowledges she can “loose time” yet who presents the evidence so clearly and succinctly it is hard to see who is in the right.
So do not read the book expecting a damning account on her time in hospital. There are shocking features; of what mental illness is like and how they thought it could be treated in the 60s. However, what shocked me the most was the similarity between that infamous ward, in American, in 1967 and the ward I spent a summer of work experience on, in England, in 2012. The terminology, ‘checks’, ‘sharps’, ‘privileges’, is still the same. Patients still plan to and do run away (and fail to), they come up with (inventive) ways to pass the time, and even the physical description of the ward was scarily similar.
It left me wondering what has changed in that time? Obviously treatment has moved on and being sectioned still does, for many people, give them the help they need. But can the system be improved? Has the stigma really decreased?
People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can’t answer the real question. All I can tell them is, It’s easy.
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen can be bought here
Sylvia Path was also an inpatient at McLean’s psychiatric hospital, her (largely autobiographical) novel The Bell Jar tells the story of a gifted young woman’s mental breakdown
Girl, Interrupted was made into a film in 1999 winning numerous awards and an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role