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Girl, Interrupted - Book Commentary

Student's picture
For my book commentary I read Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen. The book is about Susanna Kaysen when she was eighteen years old, and institutionalized, and spans to her life after the institution. She recounts how she got to the institution, what it was like in the institution, and reveals her thoughts about the world and various theories. The book portrays vivid portraits of the world she enters, and of the world she left. Kaysen is clear and precise, making the reader question what the difference is between the “sane” and the “insane”, between her and you?

Kaysen opens the book, writing, “People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up there as well. I can’t answer the real question. All I can tell them is, it’s easy”. She discusses how easy it is to slip into a parallel universe when there are so many of them, such as the many worlds of the insane. She says that most people pass over these worlds, these parallels, incrementally, making perforations in the membrane until an opening exists. She talks about how the odd thing about a parallel universe is although it is invisible from this side, once you are in it, you can easily see the world you came from (1-2). I think this concept is so interesting, of not being able to see into the world of the insane, but of the “insane” being able to see outside. Or at least, that was the way she saw it. As detached as we can get from our lives and our world, how much of big picture can we ever actually see if we’re still involved, and still living in this world? I suppose to ask this question, one has to give credit and belief to Kaysen’s statement about the parallel worlds. I do think that some sort of parallel worlds must exist, however subtle or however grand the differences may be. While there are parallels, is there an original world for the lines to be parallel to? Is the original line the “sane” world? Is there only one “sane” reality? Are there different parallels within the “sane” world?

She talks about her roommate, Georgina, one night when they were making caramels. Susanna accidentally poured the hot sugar onto Georgina’s hand, and while Susanna screamed, Georgina said nothing, and showed no pain (30). She writes, “I can’t remember if it was E. Howard Hunt or G. Gordon Liddy who said, during the Watergate hearings, that he’d nightly held his hand in a candle flame till his palm burned to assure himself he could stand up to torture” (30). Pain is a funny thing. I remember learning in a psychology class once that people who cut themselves do so to forget about the emotional pain they’re experiencing, to make themselves think of the just physical pain. Why did Georgina not make a sound? Was she not hurt? Did she enjoy the pain? If you can prove to yourself that you can stand up to being burned, and can stand up to pain, what does that prove? Is it only physical pain that you can prepare yourself for? Are there different kinds of physical pain? That is to say, if you prepare yourself by burning yourself, will you also be prepared for pain caused by things other than fire?

Susanna ended up in this hospital for a suicide attempt. She discusses her thoughts on suicide, saying, “Suicide is a form of murder- premeditated murder. It isn’t something you do the first time you think of doing it. It takes getting used to. And you need the means, the opportunity, the motive. A successful suicide demands good organization and a cool head, both of which are incompatible with the suicidal state of mind” (36). She talks about just wanting to kill part of herself, the part of herself that considered suicide, and dragged her into the suicide debate (39). She later on talks about the concept of “premature death” from suicide. She says, “I’d think about it [suicide] and make myself sad over my premature death, and then I’d feel better. The idea of suicide worked on me like a purgative or a cathartic. For some people it’s different- Daisy for instance. But was her death really “premature”? Ought she to have sat in her eat-in kitchen with her chicken and her anger for another fiftty years? I’m assuming she wasn’t going to change, and I may be wrong. She certainly made that assumption, and she may also have been wrong” (158). We talked about suicide in our class, and debated whether or not those who seriously consider suicide should be forced to live. If they are that miserable, we wondered, is it fair to keep them alive? There is the underlying assumption, the underlying possibility that maybe one day they can get better, and will get better, and one day will be able to enjoy life; cutting life short means never finding out if that possibility exists. Are some people incapable of ever being happy? Will we ever know if all people have the capability of being happy, if many of these people who have trouble being happy end their lives early?

Kaysen talks about the problems she was having with patterns. She writes, “When I looked at these things, I saw other things within them. That sounds as if I was hallucinating, and I wasn’t. I knew I was looking at a floor or a curtain. But all patterns seemed to contain potential representations, which in a dizzying array would flicker briefly to life” (41). She also talks about something happening to her perception of people as well, as when she looked at someone’s face, she had the reverse of looking at a floor or curtain. Instead of seeing too much meaning, she saw no meaning. This idea of perception was really interesting to me. If everywhere you look, you are bombarded with meaning coming from objects, yet no meaning from faces, what does that suggest? Is she so distanced from people, from the world, that objects need to hold all the meaning for her, and that people, and their faces and emotions, are too much to handle? Or is it this distance that makes people non-relatable and therefore uninteresting?

Perhaps the most interesting concept in this book to me was how she discusses her awareness. She says, “But I wasn’t simply going nuts, tumbling down a shaft into Wonderland. It was my misfortune- or my salvation- to be at all times perfectly conscious of my misrepresentations of reality. I never “believed” anything I saw or thought I saw. Not only that, I correctly understood each new weird activity” (41). She then talks about feeling alienated from people and unlike other people, and therefore projecting her discomfort onto them. She talks about how this clarity made her able to behave normally, which begged the question of whether others were seeing this stuff and acting as if they weren’t, while able to behave normally just like her. She questions if others weren’t seeing these things, does that mean something was wrong with them? Were they blind? She talks about how anything might be something else, and once she accepted that, she accepted that she might be mad, or that someone might think she was mad, and how could she say that she wasn’t for certain, if she couldn’t say that a curtain wasn’t a mountain lion (42)?

I thought this awareness was so interesting, as I had often previously thought that being insane, or being confined to an institution, suggested an inability to see the difference between what is there, which has been agreed on, versus what is not. While, as Susanna suggests, anything could be anything, and who are we to decide what it is and what it is not, many of us see the same things, the same objects. Are we missing what we call “the insane” are seeing? Are we simply calling them “insane” because they are different, and see things we don’t see, and rather than keeping an open mind, are we labeling them and confining them to asylums so as not to challenge our views on reality?

She then goes into a chapter called “Mind vs. Brain”. She writes, “Whatever we call it- mind, character, soul- we like to think we possess something that is greater than the sum of our neurons and that “animates” us (137). She says, “It’s a long way from not having enough serotonin to thinking the world is “stale, flat and unprofitable”; even further to writing a play about a man driven by that thought. That leaves a lot of mind room. Something is interpreting the clatter of neurological activity” (137). She says that this interpreter is full of claims and reasons, saying, “you’re a little depressed because of all the stress at work”, rather than “you’re a little depressed because your serotonin level has dropped” (138). She says that often the interpreter doesn’t know what it’s talking about, and that you’re the one who decides if it’s wrong or right. Then, she questions, who makes that decision? A second interpreter?

She then uses an example. She writes, “Interpreter one: There’s a tiger in the corner. Interpreter two: No, that’s not a tiger, that’s a bureau. Interpreter one: It’s a tiger, it’s a tiger! Interpreter two: Don’t be ridiculous. Let’s go look at it” (139). She says that if you’re not crazy, the second interpreter’s interpretation that this is a bureau will be accepted, and if you are crazy, the first interpreter’s interpretation will prevail. The trouble here, she says, is that the first interpreter actually sees the tiger. There is a problem, however, with the communication between the two interpreters. This concept of the interpreter, and all the room in the mind left after neurons and chemical reactions, is so interesting, because we don’t know if it’s just neurons that make us up, or whether there’s something else, something more, in all this “space left in the mind”. I like Susanna’s role of the interpreters, and I like the example of the miscommunication between the two interpreters as perhaps a way of understanding the differences in what we see and what we interpret. However, is there a limit to the number of interpreters? I would think there must be many, specialized interpreters, that all work together, to account for our often complex and complicated views of the world and all the subtleties in it.

Kaysen then talks about her disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder. She writes, “If my diagnosis had been bipolar disorder, for instance, the reaction to me and to this story would be slightly different. That’s a chemical problem, you’d say to yourself, manic depression, Lithium, all that. I would be blameless, somehow. And what about schizophrenia- that would send a chill up your spine. After all, that’s real insanity. People don’t “recover” from schizophrenia. You’d have to wonder how much of what I’m telling you is true and how much is imagined” (151). Here, Susanna addresses how the readers view her story, and the different interpretations the story may get based on her disorder. She says that if she was bipolar, she would be blameless, and if she had schizophrenia, we’d have chills. However, she has a personality disorder, so she, in someway, in implicated, and perhaps even at fault. This concept of fault, and fault not being given to more “biological” conditions is interesting, as I would have thought a similar, if not more intense, more negative stigma existed with conditions like bipolar and schizophrenia. I would think the readers would be more concerned, perhaps more frightened, because these disorders may be thought of as having a more biological base, therefore more affecting the root of the person, rather than personality traits, which seem to be more alterable. Do we look for blame when we read about psychological disorders? Do we need some kind of blame, some kind of explanation, to know why these people have these disorders, and if we can get them too? If they’re biological, or chemically based, then perhaps they’re harder to “catch”. If it’s all about personality, and if, like Susanna, you can get a recovery slip, saying that you have recovered from this disorder, which implies that it isn’t permanent, and isn’t biologically etched in your system, then maybe you can catch these simply by talking, by sharing ideas, with the affected? The idea of “catching” a disorder seems exaggerated, but the question I’m trying to ask is do we stigmatize those with personality disorders more than those with more biological disorders, that are treated almost all the time with medication? Or is it a different kind of stigma- a different kind of blame, a different kind of interpretation, a different kind of judgment?

I really enjoyed reading Girl, Interrupted, both for the interesting ideas and theories Susanna Kaysen presents, as well as for the interesting story lines between herself and fellow patients. This book really makes you question mental illness, and the variation of stigmas associated with it. If this woman can write such a clear, such an interesting, and such a complex book about life, mental illness, and the world, then what is it that lent her once to be dubbed “crazy”? Perhaps it is this clarity after all that put her in the institution; the ability to see different sides, different worlds, different theories. Perhaps it was all of these choices, all of this bombardment, and having to find a way to make peace with the variations of the world she saw. Either way, this book will perhaps put a dent in the stigmatizing of mental illness, having readers realize that this woman is insightful and makes sense, and, perhaps, frighteningly to many readers, is quite relatable.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Mental health and the multiple perspectives problem

"this concept is so interesting, of not being able to see into the world of the insane, but of the “insane” being able to see outside"

I agree. It, and the issue of "interpreters", and your "perhaps frighteningly to many readers" idea all connect to some thoughts about schizophrenia. Yes, there are probably lots of "specialized interpreters" providing lots of points of view in all of us. And perhaps different people have different abilities of the story teller to amalgamate all of them into one coherent, stable story? Who is more "sane"? Those of us who recognize things can be seen in lots of different ways or those of us whose story teller hides that from us?