By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #26 – Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Insane, or not insane? Susanna Kaysen's memoir tells us how it's all in the eye of the beholder.

Have you ever wondered whether you were insane? Insanity is quite a broad term, to be honest, ranging from severe depression to suffering from psychotic episodes, with a plethora of mental illnesses in between. In my worst moments, when all I wanted to do was lay on my bed, hug my pillow tightly, and bawl my eyes out, I asked myself that question, and found myself unable to answer it. However, when I read Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted, I knew for certain I was not nearly as insane as the girls depicted in it. Want to know what it’s about? Read on!

In Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen writes about her experience in a mental health hospital in the late sixties, where she was treated for depression. She talks about the day-to-day events that happened in the span of the two years she spent there, the nurses helping her, the friends she made there, and the difference between inside and outside. In order to write this memoir, she obtained the entire file that was created for her during her stay in the psychiatric hospital.

Girl, Interruption feels like a mix between fact and fiction. Even though the events depicted in this memoir really happened, they’re written and analysed in such a way that it almost feels like reading a novel. It starts with a theory on parallel universes and how easy it is to slip into them. The two universes, of course, are the real world and the psychiatric hospital, and Kaysen writes that she never knew how she left the real one and slipped into the other. She claims that she had a twenty-minute conversation with the doctor who had her admitted, but in fact it lasted for over three hours. It’s so interesting to read how her truth and the real truth aren’t, in fact, the same thing, and how reality and time aren’t as one-sided as we think they might be.

Girl, Interrupted is a collection of short chapters, mixed with pages from her real psychiatric file. Conversations with the other patients really show that staying there really is like being in a different world; the things that happen in that hospital are so odd (there is, for instance, there is a girl who only eats chicken which her family brings in, and she keeps the carcasses in her room) that any person looking in from the outside would consider them lunatics. For the patients, however, all these things make perfect sense; in fact, girls who only have been diagnosed with only one mental illness are considered inferior and, consequently, they are bullied until they snap, leaving the other girls triumphant, for they have successfully mad someone else more insane.

I must admit I was quite shocked while reading Girl, Interrupted. It’s a brutal book, made only more intriguing because these things all really happened. However, it’s told in such a matter-of-fact way that, somehow, you feel like all these things are perfectly normal. I do believe the way these patients were treated actually was considered normal in mental health hospitals in the 1960s, and I sincerely hope they have changed since then. 

Change, come to think of it, is one of the most important elements of this memoir. For when does one change into a mental patient, and how do they change back to normal? What, actually, is normal? At the very end of the book, the title of Kaysen’s memoir is explained: it’s part of the title of a Vermeer painting: Girl Interrupted at Her Music, with which Kaysen identified when she saw it at a museum. She mentions that the girl in the painting is like her, doing something (in Kaysen’s case, being a normal girl), but she is interrupted from it and looks up. The looking up part is the slipping away into another universe, the changing into a different person. She writes about the unrealistic light in many of Vermeer’s paintings, which makes the people in it beautiful, and wishes that people could shine a light on others by looking at them, thus making them feel better. Girl, Interrupted ends with the following, moving words: “The girl at her music sits in another sort of light, the fitful, overcast light of life, by which we see ourselves and others only imperfectly, and seldom.” Somehow the real world doesn’t sound perfect either, does it?

Fast-forward fifty years since the events in Girl, Interrupted took place: we are currently living in a time in which more people than ever have been diagnosed with at least one minor or major mental health disorder. The current pandemic has had its impact on that, too. We’ve been locked up inside our houses, living inside our tiny bubbles, feeling isolated from the world; it’s bound to make all of us insane. So here’s some advice: please take good care of yourself. Please tell someone if you’re not feeling well. Please find someone you can trust. And: please pay attention to those around you, too. Let’s interrupt the spiralling down of those in need, and help them return to our universe. Help them become normal again – whatever that might be.

Have you ever felt insane? Which books would you recommend about this topic? Do let me know in the comments! Also make sure to follow me for more book musings! 

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