Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Book Commentary of Girl, Interupted

hope's picture

In her memoir, Girl Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen describes her two-year experience in a mental health facility for young women in the 60s, where she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Interwoven in her narrative of life on a psychiatric ward is a subtle message: being insane isn’t really all that different from being sane.   

            She at several points describes the experience of being insane, doing so in such a clear and simple way that the reader can easily relate. “Insanity comes in to varieties,” she writes, “fast and slow” (75). The more formal words, “depression” or “mania” are descriptions a psychiatrist might give, but these words drive the reader away. They are so full of negative connotations that we do not wish to relate to them. “Fast” and “slow,” however, we can deal with. To describe the slow variety of insanity she writes, “Experience is thick. Perceptions are thickened and dulled. Time is slow, dripping through the clogged filter of thickened perception.” Surely most people have experienced a similar sensation, maybe not regularly or to the same degree, and thus we are “sane,” but we understand her meaning. Her description of the fast version is also understandable. “There is too much perception, and beyond the plethora of perceptions, a plethora of thoughts about the perceptions…” Again she illustrates a fairly understandable state of mind. Even if for most people it occurs only after too many cups of coffee, it is not a completely foreign idea.

            Kaysen provides another example that most people have experienced. She describes being on a train while the train text to you begins to move. She writes,


            “Sometimes, when you’ve realized that your train is not really moving, you can   spend another half a minute suspended between two realms of consciousness: the    one that knows you aren’t moving and the one that feels you are. You can flit       back and forth between these perceptions and experience a sort of mental vertigo.         And if you do this, you are treading on the ground of craziness…” (141).


            Kaysen’s ability to describe the experience of insanity in such practical and accessible ways makes her book both frightening and comforting. It is frightening because most readers do not necessarily want to be able to relate to someone who has been institutionalized for a personality disorder. Kaysen addresses this fear on the first page. “People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can’t answer the real question. All I can tell them is, It’s easy.” However the book is comforting as well, implying that maybe insanity is not all that deffernt from sanity. After all, Kaysen points out that “Recognizing the agreed-upon version of reality is only one of billions of brain jobs” (142).


            Kaysen describes her own theory of a bipartite brain. She uses the analogy of two interpreters working together. The first she compares to a “foreign correspondent, reporting from the world,” and the second she likens to a “news analyst” (138). We could compare her first interpreter to the cognitive unconscious and the second to the storyteller.


Paul Grobstein's picture

interrupted brains

"maybe insanity is not all that different from sanity" is comforting?  How does the "foreign correspondent" and the "new analyst" relate to fast and slow?