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We Are All a Little Loony: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

24 April 2024


We Are All a Little Loony: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen


Well let’s start here: Girl, Interrupted is a memoir by Susanna Kaysen detailing her two-year experience in a psych ward (McLean Hospital) from ages 18 to 20. Kaysen was admitted 27 April 1967 after ingesting a full bottle of aspirin and then meandering off to the market and nearly passing out over the raw meats in a butcher shop. McLean is the same hospital into which Sylvia Plath was admitted in 1953 after ingesting a full bottle of sleeping pills and crawling under her front porch, hoping to die.


I’ll admit, I have such vivid recollections of this book’s movie adaptation, with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, that despite having read the book before watching the movie, the impression both left upon my mind was one of fiction, not memoir. Not truth. Re-reading this story some twenty-plus years later, having since completed extensive coursework in CNF, this book appears an entirely different species to me. Its craft is something other than what I thought it was—or even what I expected it might be. Kaysen’s memoir is structured loosely chronologically but often focused on snapshot incidents or particular characters/inmates of the hospital. The chapters rarely span longer than five pages, and the book itself is only about 50,000 words, so short. Very short.


Who do I suspect is the audience, or discourse community, for this memoir? Well, if it were published in the 70s, I’d have suspected the audience would be the general public in a culture that did not want to believe in the prevalence (or profundity) of mental illness. Kaysen writes:

Lunatics are similar to designated hitters. Often an entire family is crazy, but since an entire family can’t go into the hospital, one person is designated as crazy and goes inside. Then, depending on how the rest of the family is feeling, that person is kept inside or snatched out, to prove something about the family’s mental health. (95)

In this, Kaysen does some (fair) finger-pointing at mental illness denial in families of the time, but she didn’t publish until 1993. Ostensibly, the discourse community could have been the same, just further along the road. Perhaps the intent was awareness. Perhaps…like the rest of us writers…the achievement of publication was an end in itself.


Intentional or not, discourse community in mind or otherwise, what the book accomplishes—and the reason I turned to it—is to provide an interior view of one woman’s experience of living with borderline personality disorder. My first time reading the book, in my twenties, I must not have registered the meaning of borderline. Then, the movie did little (in my recollection) to illustrate or emphasize the diagnosis. I recall thinking that based on the movie’s representation of Kaysen’s experience, she must’ve been misdiagnosed: the movie exhibited too few borderline traits in Kaysen’s character to make any diagnostic sense.


This read-through, now that I have a much tighter handle on the disorder, was insightful insofar as it provides paperwork clearly identifying Kaysen’s official diagnosis and two full chapters describing the disorder (according to the DSM of the time) and mapping those behaviors and symptoms directly to Kaysen’s lived experience (145-59). While the craft and structure of the book as a memoir are fascinating, they are less important to me at this time than the insights about borderline personality disorder from which I will sculpt my own protagonist’s mental state, relationships, and actions.


One thing I want to add to close this out: I loved how Kaysen makes mental illness universal by pointing out that in some ways we all feel a touch of it. There were parts of this text that landed particularly close to home for me, for example, when Kaysen writes,

Don’t ask me those questions! Don’t ask me what life means or how we know reality or why we have to suffer so much. Don’t talk about how nothing feels real, how everything is coated with gelatin and shining like oil in the sun. I don’t want to hear about the tiger in the corner or the Angel of Death or the phone calls from John the Baptist. He might give me a call too. But I’m not going to pick up the phone. (125)

I saw a reel on Instagram today (yeah, that wealth of credible, academic knowledge) where against a nay-sayer in the medical community, a girl defended the volume of late-life female autism diagnoses. This nay-sayer blamed social media for an influx of autism diagnoses, and this content creator’s response was, “So what?” The truth is that perhaps we should inspect the institutionally accepted definition of mental “health.” Who gets to decide what’s “normal” or “healthy” for a mind? What if the definition is far broader than our medical community (a white hetero androcentric world) would admit? For too long, we’ve insisted such things are black and white—when really, what’s most likely happening is that very “normal” minds are suppressing their abnormalities for the sake of societal acceptance.

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