Book Review | Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

girl-interrupted-review-paiges-pagesTITLE: Girl, Interrupted
AUTHOR: Susanna Kaysen
GENRE: Nonfiction, Memoir

On the surface, Girl, Interrupted is a witty memoir about being human.  Deeper down, this book confronts the stigmatisation of mental illness.  

The year is 1967.  18-year-old Susanna Kaysen is struggling with her slipping grasp on reality and suicidal impulses.  Misinformed and arguably misdiagnosed, she is incarcerated at McLean, a psychiatric hospital famous for its celebrity patients including Sylvia Plath and Ray Charles.  There she meets a diverse cast of female characters, all of whom have hit rock bottom.  Susanna’s journey to recovery revolves around rejecting society’s attitude towards mental illness to validate her experience.

I think the title of this book perfectly sums up how mental illness can affect a person’s life.  Susanna was forced to take her self-view back to the drawing board for a complete overhaul.  While the world outside keeps turning, this interruption removed her from ordinary reality – McLean becomes her parallel universe, stripped of commonplace interactions and functions.

In a strange way we were free.  We’d reached the end of the line.  We had nothing more to lose.  Our privacy, our liberty, our dignity: All of this was gone and we were stripped down to the bare bones of our selves.  Naked, we need protection, and the hospital protected us.  Of course, the hospital had stripped us naked in the first place – but that just underscored its obligation to shelter us – page 94

Constant new neuroscience discoveries force us to reconsider the way we view mental illness.  Words like “mad” and “insane” grossly generalise people with complex mental illnesses and dehumanise the person in question.  Before, during, and after Susanna’s stay at McLean Hospital, she experiences stereotyping, discrimination, and stigmatisation.  Regardless of the socio-historical context from which she’s writing, she presents a very clear picture that hasn’t changed much in half a century.

“You spent nearly two years in a loony bin!  Why in the world were you in there?  I can’t believe it!”  Translation: If you’re crazy, then I’m crazy, and I’m not, so the whole thing must have been a mistake.

“You spent nearly two years in a loony bin?  What was wrong with you?”  Translation:  I need to know the particulars of craziness so I can assure myself that I’m not crazy.

“You spent nearly two years in a loony bin?  Hmmm.  When was that, exactly?”  Translation:  Are you still contagious? – page 125

The characters Susanna meets at McLean become her dearest friends for the next year and a half.  Some are tragic, some are hilarious, but all are empathetic and very human.  Their camaraderie reminds me of Orange is the New Black.  At the end of the day, however, I was sad thinking about how the world treated them, for nothing more than being mentally unhealthy and caught between a rock and a hard place.

Since the publication of Girl, Interrupted, I’m sure plenty of newer books have delivered much more accurate representations of mental illness.  However, despite its age, I found Susanna empathetic and perceptive, spot on with her critique, and totally human despite what society thinks.  

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