I had seen the film of Girl, Interrupted years ago but I had never read the book. I picked it up last year and have finally got round to reading it. They vary in places but are both extremely good.
Girl, Interrupted is the memoir of Suzanna Kaysen’s two year stay at McLean psychiatric hospital. In 1967 after a twenty minute session with a psychiatrist she had never met before he declared “You need a rest” and she was sent off to McLean in a taxi. She was told she would be there for a few weeks. She stayed nearly two years. She was the 18-year old daughter of distinguished parents who had made a half-hearted attempt at suicide and had a general inability to live up to her parents expectations of her, failing classes, refusing to go to college and being unable to hold down a job. She tells us:
‘I read everything, I wrote constantly and I had boyfriends by the barrelful…Back then I didn’t know that I – or anyone – could make a life out of boyfriends and literature.’
Kaysen relates tales of her time spent in McLean but the story is not in chronological order. We meet a whole host of colourful personalities: Lisa, the trouble-making sociopath; Daisy who comes to McLean before Thanksgiving and stays til after Christmas every year and is addicted to laxatives and collects the carcasses from the roast chickens her father delivers for her every week; Georgina who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia; Cynthia who receives weekly electroshock treatments from which she returns unable to stop crying; and Polly, a girl who attempted suicide by setting herself on fire. We also meet Brad, the boyfriend of Kaysen’s roommate Georgina and fellow patient, talks constantly of his father being a spy and having friends, Hunt and Liddy, who would do anything. You think he’s crazy until you remember that this was years before Watergate and Wade’s surname is Barker. Is he telling the truth or not? Kaysen herself tells us:
‘…we knew about it already: the Bay of Pigs, the seared skin, the bare-handed killers who’s do anything. We’d seen the previews, Wade, Georgina and I, along with the nurses whose reviews ran something like this: “Patient lacked affect after accident.”, “Patient continues fantasy that father is CIA operative with dangerous friends.”’
There are many quite shocking and unsettling moments in the novel not only from descriptions of the patients’ behaviour but from the way people thought mental illness could be treated in the 1960s. Kaysen mentions some of the other patients being treated with electroshock or being wrapped in ice cold sheets and patients are regularly dosed with thorazine to keep them subdued or placed in seclusion when they “act out”.
Kaysen was released from McLean after she accepted a marriage proposal from one of her boyfriends. After 25 years she hired a lawyer to help her gain access to her records and finally found out her diagnosis – Borderline Personality Disorder. She was only ever told she had a character disorder. As she reflects on her time at the hospital and why she ended up there she looks at her diagnosis and the behaviours that define it. She muses that her “problem with authority” may have been a problem with sexism. She couldn’t hold down her job but her workplace was sexist – all the supervisors were male and all the typists were female, the men were allowed to smoke and the women weren’t. She also questions whether the whole concept of diagnosing mental illness is clouded in sexism. Certain behaviours in women were deemed crazy that wouldn’t carry the same diagnosis in men.
The book ponders the question of what is it to be normal or crazy. When Kaysen describes the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder they sound scarily similar to what would today be described as teenage angst or rebellion. It makes the reader question whether Kaysen would have been sent to McLean today.
She alights upon the stigma that mental illness creates and the difficulties of job hunting and renting and apartment once you have lived in a mental institution. This is still relevant today when many people still stigmatise mental illness.
McLean is known for it’s famous residents – Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Nash, Robert Foster Wallace, Robert Lowell, Ray Charles, James Taylor and of course Kaysen herself. She speculates that creative minds, especially poets, may be prone to mental illness.
Girl, Interrupted is an honest account of Kaysen’s time at McLean. She has the insight to question a screwed up system and criticise it but she also has the honsety to admit that she did benefit from it. It is a short book – it’s only 168 pages – but every part of it is compelling and interesting. I would thoroughly recommend it.