Girl, Interrupted

Though not initially aimed at teenagers, a massive “young adult” audience, among other readers, turned Girl, Interrupted into a monumental bestseller. What are some of the central features of adolescence in American culture? How do you think the book understands this period in life? Is the young Kaysen pathological, unusual, typical or something else entirely?

11 thoughts on “Girl, Interrupted

  1. Virginie Caspard

    As most of the previous commentators point out, Girl, Interrupted evokes a number of universal experiences from adolescence. Kaysen feels restricted, uncomfortable and awkward in her own skin, and longs for experiences that lie beyond what is considered socially acceptable. She also forms strong connections, another big aspect of adolescence, with the other young women at McLean, and these bonds are, in many ways, steeped in the angst they all feel. Reading the book reminded me of my own time as an awkward and uncomfortable teen. For that reason, I am not at all surprised to hear that it gained popularity among young adults, as I have no doubt that others could relate to Kaysen and her friends.

    The fact that I could relate to Kaysen without ever having come close to being admitted to a mental hospital, however, calls into question the validity of her diagnosis. It also recalls a fine line we often discuss in class: where does odd behavior, defined by social norms existing at the time, end and mental illness begin? Personally, I believe that Kaysen’s behavior can be characterized as pathological because it is at times self destructive. For example, she gnaws through her hand after coming to the irrational belief that she no longer has bones, and she also experiences a serious panic attack after waking from her anesthesia at her dentist appointment. Both of those experience were not only odd, but they harmed her physically.

    While I would characterize Kaysen’s behavior as pathological, I think her diagnosis was nonetheless sloppy and potentially inaccurate. I was shocked to read that a quick evaluation could result in such a lengthy stay at a mental institution. Reading about Kaysen’s behavior in McLean also reminded me of some discussions my podcast group had regarding how being in a mental institution could potentially worsen someone’s mental state. Not only would being in McLean probably wear on someone’s psyche (despite it being so much more humane than the asylum Nelly Bly documented), but so could barring a young woman from experiencing what she longs to, despite those experiences being daring or atypical.

  2. Grant Friedman

    In American culture, one of the key features of adolescence is that it is a period of change, as it is very literally the time between childhood and adulthood. To this day we have an understanding that this is a very difficult time for those going through it, and I think for these reasons, as others have suggested, it is understandable how this book might attract a young adult audience, even if not initially directed toward that group.
    Kaysen discusses many issues which would resonate with others of this age group. When talking about the young student nurses, about her age, who rotate through the hospital, she says that in them she sees an alternate version of herself, if she had been able to put in the required work in school. The stress about school and getting good grades is oftentimes a new concern for adolescents, and one which produces a lot of stress. As well, in discussing her watching of the arrest of Bobby Seale on television, she says, “We looked at him, a tiny dark man in chains on our TV screen with the one thing we would always lack: credibility” (93). The desire to have a voice, to have credibility in the wide world is a common desire at this age, as is the feeling that one’s views are not being adequately respected. ‘Young adult’ readers would thus sympathize with this idea as well. Finally, Kaysen speaks about her trouble with boys, and the theme of relationship troubles would also resonate with readers of this age group.
    Even if many of the difficulties which Kaysen faces do embody these ideas regarding adolescence, there are many specific difficulties, such as hand-biting, as Christina cites, which are unique to her. In this way, I agree with Dyaln, that Kaysen comes to occupy a space somewhere between unusual and typical, not entirely one or the other.

  3. Dylan Salzman

    I found this book fascinating because of the way in which it links the themes we’ve talked about throughout this course with American adolescence. First, the incessant need to medicalize and diagnose madness; Kaysen is only in the doctor’s office for 20 minutes, most, before she’s sent to the asylum (although the documents indicate otherwise). And Kayser explains that she’s not sure if the doctor actually thought she was insane or if it was a knee-jerk reaction to what he perceived as adolescence drug use (40). I was also interested in the prose that the book uses to depict Kaysen’s stay in the “loony bin,” as she calls it. It reminded me of the writing in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; very matter of fact, objective, describing events in the asylum from an internal, everyday perspective.

    Kayser is obviously not entirely “typical”—her attempt to kill herself and subsequent obsession with patterns and insecurity in her own body (105) is indicative of what we today would consider to be some sort of mental illness—but I appreciate the ways in which the book forces us to consider that she could be considered a lucid and functioning member of society despite being in the asylum. One of the most interesting pieces to me was when Jim Watson came and offered to spirit Kaysen away: “I think I’ve got to stay here” she replies (27). She also reflects on how she could have resisted her incarceration much more vehemently than she did (40), and explains that she’s really not sure if she “should” be in the asylum or not. I think this helps contribute to a larger point about how what we consider to be “insane” is a fairly arbitrary designation.

  4. Isaac Feldman

    Along with the others who have posted, I am also not surprised to hear that Girl, Interrupted gathered a large teenage following. However, I do not think this is because the novel defines a search for identity – far from it. Kaysen is overwhelmingly unique. Not every teenager takes fifty aspirin. And like Kaysen says, not everyone can meet the demands of a successful suicide: “good organization and a cool head, both of which are usually incompatible with the suicidal state of mind” (36). Many teens would find this idea unrelatable, as well as others Kaysen espouses in her struggle to define and redefine her mental illness – if she can even call it that. In many ways, the difficulties Kaysen endures are entirely her own, individual and unique. In point of fact, who am I – who are we – to name her story a “difficulty,” as though the traits of her personality are somehow wrong, a problem to be overcome? But Kaysen’s teen readers may easily comprehend her feeling of entrapment. In modern American society, every step is planned, every action prescribed. Many teens, filled with a burgeoning sense of agency, are consistently barred from using it. Kaysen says, “My self-image was not unstable. I saw myself, quite correctly, as unfit for the educational and social systems” (155). The relatability of Girl, Interrupted does not come from a search for identity, but a denial of it.

  5. Christina Puccinelli

    When asked to consider the central features of adolescence in American culture, the phrase “teenage angst” immediately comes to mind. Without requiring a precise definition, this phrase is commonly associated with feelings of isolation, acts of rebellion against controlling parents and outbursts of emotion. Thus, adolescence is widely considered to be a turbulent – yet natural – period in one’s life, and it is fascinating to consider Susanna Kaysen’s diagnosis of mental illness with these thoughts in mind.

    As I was first reading the memoir, I was particularly struck by the chapter entitled “My Diagnosis,” which provides a ten-page “annotated diagnosis” of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) (150). Returning to this chapter now in the context of this blog post, I see that I was largely struck by the relatable nature of many defining aspects of the disorder. For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) highlights one crucial feature of BPD as an “uncertainty about several life issues, such as self-image, sexual orientation, long-term goals or career choice, types of friends or lovers to have…” (150). Considering that Kaysen was only eighteen years old at the time of her institutionalization, these specific uncertainties seem rather reasonable, if not expected, for a young woman her age. In fact, I am six weeks away from graduating college and I am still trying to determine my long-term goals and career aspirations. Moreover, the DSM states that individuals with BPD will exhibit “inappropriately intense anger with frequent displays of temper,” highly reminiscent of the emotional outbursts I listed above in describing teenage angst (156). Even Kaysen is quick to point out that the DSM provides a “good description of adolescence…moody, fickle, faddish, insecure: in short, impossible” (152).

    As Elizabeth and Isabel appropriately clarify, the similarities between borderline personality disorder and the common adolescent experience do not necessarily suggest that Kaysen was of sound mental health when she was admitted to McLean. In fact, the phases of face-scratching and wrist-banging that she describes are rather alarming, not to mention the incident in which she begins frantically searching for her own bones, shoving her “hand in [her] mouth and bit[ing] it, to see if [she] crunched down on something hard” (102). Thus, it is certainly possible that the psychiatrist who sent Kaysen to McLean identified within her several self-destructive tendencies that warranted professional care within an institution. That being said, the specific diagnosis of BPD still remains concerning. As Kaysen’s psychiatrist said, ‘borderline personality’ seems to be just “what they call people whose lifestyles bother them” (151).

  6. Kathleen Criscitiello

    While reading this book, I was greatly reminded of previous discussions we have had in class about using mental health diagnoses to control people’s behavior. While I do not want to imply that Kaysen was not mentally struggling, it does seem that a lot of her diagnosis is based on the fact that she was not following the societal rules of her gender and class. However, while she is unusual in the fact that she rebels against these roles, she simultaneously exhibits fairly typical characteristics of an American adolescent. Adolescence is synonymous with rebellion and the search for identity outside a person’s family–exactly what Kaysen was doing. Ironically, in the hospital Kaysen engages in stereotypical teenage activities such as smoking cigarettes and sexual experimentation without major repercussions, as if to say that the behavior that society has deemed as “adolescent” is best performed outside of “society.” As a result, Kaysen is suspended in an abnormal normalcy as she spends two years of her life in this liminality (in a way, this is the exact definition of adolescence). She only gets out when she ceases her societal rebellion and adopts her societal “role” by becoming a wife.

    1. Laura Dillon

      I agree with Kate that adolescence is synonymous with rebellion in American culture. I want to point out two more things that Susanna tells us throughout the novel to support this point. She writes, “I have to admit, though, that I knew I wasn’t mad. It was a different precondition that tipped the balance: the state of contrariety. My ambition was to negate” (42). She then lists all the ways that her abnormal behaviors were just ways of going against what she was supposed to be doing. Becoming an adolescent means having the agency to decide what you’re going to do in even menial, everyday tasks. If you want to explore what it would mean to stay up when you’re supposed to go to sleep, you can do that. Sometimes it feels good. Susanna writes, “All my integrity seemed to lie in saying No” (42). Sometimes it gets you labeled mad.
      She also includes a chapter titled “Nineteen Sixty Eight” in which she describes her excitement while watching the countercultural events of 1968 unfold. She watches protests that include university takeovers and people “sticking their tongues out” (92). She doesn’t seem completely informed on what exactly these events are about, and yet just because they’re going against the authorities that be, she cheers them on. Adolescence in American culture often manifests as rebellion, and whether or not Susanna Kaysen was “mad”, her rebellious actions/thoughts were strong enough that they got her locked up during the era she lived in.

  7. Sydney Warren

    As Lizzy mentioned, Girl, Interrupted has very clear coming-of-age themes which would certainly grasp the “young adult” reader. From the beginning of the memoir, Kaysen positions the book for an adolescent audience. She vividly details scenes and experiences that many teens share. For instance, when Kaysen first goes to the doctor, he points out a pimple on her face. Her internal monologue is one that many teenagers have said to themselves before: “I’d hoped nobody would notice” (7). This interaction, although minute, speaks to the way in which Kaysen’s experience is a typical teenage experience – she, like most “young adults”, is just trying to find herself, to come into her own skin. This is the unifying message that connects all adolescent readers. Kaysen does not present a nostalgic or moralized picture of growing up, but rather, depicts the complexities and contradictions of adolescence, meaning teens would identify with the characters, bolstering the novel’s success.

    The story cannot, however, be read without gender in mind. In truth, the memoir addresses constructions of girlhood, much more so than adolescence as a whole. Kaysen’s institutionalization and diagnosis as mentally ill during her pivotal years can be read as a critique on how society attempts to police young, female bodies. Kaysen’s promiscuity (if we can call it that) is one of the reasons why the doctors categorize her as ill. Kaysen highlights this in her discussion of the differences between the sexual development of boys and girls: “How many girls do you think a seventeen-year-old boy would have to screw to earn the label “compulsively promiscuous”? Three? No, not enough. Six? Doubtful. Ten? That sounds more likely. Probably in the fifteen-to-twenty range, would be my guess—if they ever put that label on boys, which I don’t recall their doing. And for seventeen-year-old-girls, how many boys?” (158) This passage demonstrates the double standards among adolescent girlhood and boyhood. Boys are deemed men when they reach sexual maturity. Girls are deemed crazy. In the end, Kaysen is able to leave the institution once she gives in to traditional conventions of femininity, accepting a marriage proposal.

    1. Gemma Laurence

      Building on Sydney’s argument that ‘Girl, Interrupted’ is a story about American adolescence and, specifically, on what it means to be a young woman going through BPD, I would like to highlight the significance of the book’s title. Taken from Vermeer’s ‘Girl Interrupted at Her Music,’ the title of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir alludes to the ‘interruption’ that mental illness has in her otherwise ‘typical’ adolescence. Furthermore, in its reference to a work of art, the title also contains the story’s heroine within a painting, trapping her onto a wall just like the subject in ‘Girl Interrupted at Her Music,’ or even Isabel Archer in Henry James’ ‘Portrait of a Lady.’

      In perhaps the most heartbreaking scene of the book, when Kaysen returns to the Frick to see this painting , she has a Joycian epiphany upon reading its title: “Interrupted at her music: as my life had been, interrupted in the music of being seventeen, as her life had been, snatched and fixed on canvas: one moment made to stand still and to stand for all the other moments, whatever they would be or might have been. What life can recover from that?” (167). Seeing herself in the painting, having “changed a lot in sixteen years” and appearing “sad,” “young and distracted,” and “looking out, looking for someone who would see her,” Kaysen whispers “I see you” (167). Recognizing herself in the beautiful yet trapped woman in the painting, subject to the scrutiny of the male gaze, Kaysen breaks down (to the frustration of her boyfriend). “Don’t you see she’s trying to get out,” Kaysen pleas, to which her boyfriend spits, “All you ever think about is yourself. You don’t understand anything about art,” before storming off (167). It is in this moment of disillusionment that Kaysen realizes that her confinement did not stop when she was released from the asylum. In a Plathian commentary on the role of women in upper middle class 1960’s America, Kaysen illustrates how the domestic sphere is no less confining than an asylum cell.

  8. Isabel Lindsay

    Along with Lizzy, I didn’t find it surprising to learn that Girl, Interrupted amassed a sizable YA audience. I deeply related to Susanna’s struggles to complete high school English papers and biology assignments – after all, homework is universal to the adolescent (and college!) experience. And, like Susanna, discussions about the college process decorated my teenage years. In fact, the female patients’ fascination with boys and each others’ romantic relationships reminded me of my first co-ed dances.

    As Lizzy aptly wrote, identity crises are hallmarks of adolescence. Susanna does not hesitate to admit that she struggled to solidify her identity among the millions of people around her. Further, societal norms only seemed to complicate her efforts to search for her identity; Susanna details the pushback she faced when trying to move against the tide, such as by writing poems for English class instead of papers or deciding not to matriculate to college. With identity crises and “acting out” being characteristic of a person of Susanna’s age, I was horrified that the doctors were not able to place themselves in her shoes and recognize that they had faced similar challenges at her age, too. I found their inability to isolate characteristics of adolescence from characteristics of mental illness deeply worrying. Thus, I was particularly struck with her diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. Given my Paul Frank phase followed my boy band phase, I am the first to admit that I tried on a series of identities throughout my teenage years. This is not to argue, however, that Susanna’s tendencies did not echo symptoms of mental illness, but I do contend that her doctors should have considered adolescence more when evaluating Susanna’s mental state.

  9. Elizabeth Vinton

    There are very clear coming-of-age themes in Girl, Interrupted that would absolutely amass a clear adolescent following. First of all, there’s a serious element of distrust of adults, which I think we can all agree is a central part of being a teenager—by 18, most teenagers have learned that adults aren’t perfect, and in fact, can be just as flawed as other humans. So when the initial therapist sends Kaysen to McLean hospital after only a 30 minute interview, it provides teenagers with more evidence to use against trusting adults and authority figures, encouraging empathy (71-72). Secondly, a common experience of adolescence is that of feeling trapped in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable skin. Kaysen’s work really runs with this theme as she has physical manifestations of needing to prove that she’s human (102). She also says “they were all seventeen and miserable, just like me. They didn’t have the time to wonder why I was a little more miserable than most” (156). I think this really gets a the crux of adolescence—most 14-19 year-olds are struggling and trying to figure out their place in the world, each with their own demons. Kaysen’s particular journey through adolescence just happens to include a pit stop at a mental hospital. Of course, there are particular elements to Kaysen’s memoir that suggest an underlying pathology, which we come to find out was diagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder, but there are many parts of her story that are reminiscent of youth: the camaraderie among the Kaysen, Georgina, Lisa, and the other patients in the ward; the way Kaysen courts her eventually-to-be husband; and the way that Kaysen defies the social expectation of going to college, instead pursuing her passion to be a writer. I think that despite the elements of distinct mental disorder, this memoir is very much a coming of age story that shares the unattractive parts of growth.

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