As soon as I opened the cover to see the first page dedicated to a terse medical description of the author’s time in a mental hospital, I knew that Girl, Interrupted would be a different kind of memoir. Written by Susanna Kaysen and published in 1993, it is an account of the author’s lengthy stay at McLean Hospital and the people she encountered there. An often funny and always powerful story told through vignettes and medical documents, it is the memoir of one woman who spent two years of her life overcoming mental illness and the dehumanizing aspects of treatment in a mental hospital.
The details of Kaysen’s teenage years are pretty bleak. At 18, she unsuccessfully attempted suicide via an overdose of aspirin and landed in the office of a psychiatrist who, after a surprisingly perfunctory meeting, suggested a “rest” at McLean. That “rest,” which began in April of 1967, would go on to last nearly 500 days at the hospital, as well as another 120 days on “authorized leave.” During this time, Kaysen was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She explores this diagnosis and her treatment with both a sense of humor and uncertainty. Even years after the events, she confessed to a New York Times reviewer that she still continued to feel uncertain whether she was really “crazy” or just “desperately unhappy,” and whether or not the difference matters, both to her and society at large.
A good memoir describes the author’s life with verve and style, and Girl, Interrupted has both in spades. In the non-linear path Kaysen charts through her past, she stops to highlight many of her friends and acquaintances at McLean, from the nurses and psychiatrists to her fellow inmates. While Kaysen’s memoir has a nominally happy ending, with the main character leaving the hospital and going on to become a successful author, many of the other characters are not so lucky. One, a sad woman who arrives at McLean every year between the winter holidays, later commits suicide; others explode into illness-induced rages and are just barely coaxed back to sanity, sometimes via electroshock therapy and other times via “maximum security” institutionalization.
Girl, Interrupted is an important novel for many reasons. Kaysen’s good humor and serious intent make for a memoir that should be relatable to anyone who has ever felt a little crazy (or a lot crazy, as the case may be). Of course, the book has a few critics; this review in the professional journal Psychiatric Services questions the book’s historical accuracy and some of its analyses of psychiatric concepts. Despite these issues, I think it’s still a very powerful personal memoir, and readers should definitely check out the book rather than simply relying on the film. Released in 1999, the movie adapts the memoir’s non-linear style into a single story, throwing out many of the book’s most distinctive elements. However, it does feature a great turn from Angelina Jolie as Lisa in one of her first major roles. The performance earned her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.