Girl, Interrupted Summary

Susanna Kaysen

Girl, Interrupted

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Girl, Interrupted Summary

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Girl, Interrupted is a  memoir by American author, Susanna Kaysen. Although Kaysen is best known for Girl, Interrupted, she has written a number of other novels, most recently Cambridge in 2014, many of which are informed by her own experiences or the places she’s lived, including the Faroe Islands. She is a strong advocate for mental health reform, largely as a result of her experiences in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s after she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which provides the subject of her memoir. Taking its title from the Vermeer painting Girl Interrupted at Her Music, the book was conceived while Kaysen was writing her novel Far Afield, which made her recall her own time in McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. After obtaining her file from the hospital with the help of a lawyer, she turned the documents and her personal remembrances into a non-linear narrative of personal reflections on the events that led to her stay in the hospital. Exploring themes of sanity and insanity, and the way psychiatric facilities can often exacerbate, rather than heal, mental illness, the book serves as a critique of the American mental health system. It received widespread acclaim upon its release and was adapted into a 1998 film directed by James Mangold, starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, with the latter winning an Academy Award for her role as troubled patient Lisa Rowe.

Girl, Interrupted begins in April, 1967, as 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen is admitted to McLean Hospital after attempting suicide by overdosing on pills. This is roughly the same time that she has a sexual relationship with her high school English teacher, and breaks up with her boyfriend. She has also been engaging in self-harm and has problems with memory loss. Although she denies attempting suicide, a psychiatrist convinces her to spend a few weeks at McLean, a private psychiatric hospital with a good reputation. However, soon after being admitted, Susanna is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. This allows the doctors to forcibly extend her stay from a few weeks to eighteen months. During this time, she gets to know other patients including Polly, Cynthia, Lisa Cody, Georgina, and Daisy. One of the most prominent patients is Lisa Rowe, a charismatic sociopath and long-term resident at the hospital. She frequently makes escape attempts, but is always brought back, and the other girls on the ward look up to her. Some of the girls are released during Kaysen’s time in the institute. The patients are devastated when they get word that Daisy, a sweet, thin girl with an eating disorder, has killed herself soon after her release. As well as her fellow patients, Susanna also introduces the reader to many of the staff at McLean. She gets along well with no-nonsense head nurse Valerie, but tends to clash with consultant psychiatrist Dr. Wick

During her stay at McLean, Susanna reflects on her illness and how it affects her mind. She has difficulty making sense of visual patterns, and at one point undergoes a period of depersonalization, where she starts to believe she has lost her bones and her self-harm escalates. During a visit to the dentist she falls into a panic after waking up from general anesthesia and is unsure of how much time she lost. These periods of increased instability are reflected in the writing, with the style becoming choppier as Susanna’s mental health declines. During these periods, she relies heavily on medication to avoid falling into a panicky and obsessive state. However, in her more lucid moments she becomes convinced that sanity is a social construct designed to help healthy people feel normal by comparison to those classified as “insane”. Towards the end of her stay, Kaysen begins applying for jobs, although she’s unable to hold any for more than a week. She receives a marriage proposal from her boyfriend, and accepts it. Her mood takes a turn for the better, she is deemed to be fully functioning by the staff, and is released. After leaving McLean, she loses touch with most of her fellow patients. However, she does keep in touch with Georgina, her roommate who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Georgina seemed to be among the healthiest patients in the hospital and was eventually released as well. Although she doesn’t keep in touch with the volatile Lisa Rowe, she sees her years later and is surprised to find her as a quirky, but healthy-seeming single mother. The latter part of the book focuses on Kaysen’s perception of the mental health industry as shaped by her institutionalization. She believes too many doctors treat the brain rather than the mind, and examines the way society stigmatizes the mentally ill. To this day, she believes that her mental illness was not serious enough to warrant her extended confinement, given the social and medical mores of the day.