Kaysen–Girl, Interrupted (Group 1)

Though not initially aimed at an adolescent and post-adolescent audience, Kaysen’s memoir became very popular with a “young adult” reading demographic. What are the central features of adolescence in American culture? How do you think the book understands this period in life? Is the young Kaysen unusual (pathological) or typical?

4 thoughts on “Kaysen–Girl, Interrupted (Group 1)

  1. Paolo Gonnelli

    To answer the first question “is she typical” in terms of a teenager I think she is. It always stays with for some reason the dialogue between Kaysen and her doctor in the chapter “the taxi” because it is about the quintessential nemesis of most teenagers, pimples. “‘you have a pimple,’ said the doctor. I’d hoped nobody would notice” (Kaysen 7). It felt to me like a very normal conversation if only it wasn’t between a psychiatrist and a patient. Eventually, the doctor reads the pimple and the fact she had popped it as a sign for mental illness, which only makes the whole scene more ironic and dramatic all at the same time. So in a way we are presented this skewed view that adolescence equals mental illness, but what it really does is that it puts Kaysen on the our same level and presents herself as a completely normal person. At the same time, she does also show us a stolen youth, her teenage years taken away from her by being locked up in the mental hospital. And yet, somehow I always get the feeling that she was still a teenager, for example when she has conversations about sex and whether it is possible to do it in between the nurse’s “checks”. Even in the abnormality of the setting in which she finds herself, she is somewhat able to remain a teenager. So really, it does not seem all that unusual to me

  2. Thomas Dillon

    Adolescence is such a complex and intriguing topic, as noted in the slides, it carries a wide variety of meanings and interpretations, often guided by cultural boundaries or expectations. In this day and age, I believe that adolescence is defined as a period that entails high school, college, and post grad working life in an urban environment. This period does not truly seem to end until one is married and raising kids in a surburban environment; these are the quintessential features of adolescence in American culture during this day and age. With regards to Kayson’s situation and overall arc, I tend to agree with Karianne that her trials and tribulations make her a very relatable character because these are similar issues that adolescents struggle with today. These issues, while self-inflicted at times, are brought on by shifting cultura/societal narratives and expectations as I layed out earlier. These features and expectations are conducive to feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. What separates Kayson from us is that we fortunately live in a society that has somewhat destigmitized issues pertaining to mental health (though much work still needs to be done on this front.) The book seems to understand this period in life as much more of a black and white phenomenon where adolescents, primarily women, are targeted and punished for failing to oblige with and fulfill their predetermined societal roles and responsibilties. Kayson’s perceived autonomy and normalcy underlines an interesting paradox: she seems like a typical adolescent in our day and age ( I agree with Madison’s point about Kayson fitting in at Middlebury), but seems unusual in the context of the book’s time period, as she doesn’t display the same kind of overtly manic behaviors that other patients display.

  3. Madison Brito

    It is not surprising to me at all this novel appealed to adolescents. Kaysen’s writing style gives it the air of a diary rather than a story, the chapters reading more like journal entries interspersed with tokens from her real life (replacing the cliché concert tickets and notes from boys with hospital admission records and notes from doctors). This book not only speaks to the feelings and inner workings common to almost all adolescents, but is also literally written in a way a young girl could likely relate to. And, young adults probably loved the book for this reason of having someone or something that gets you, similar to how the girls in the novel love the younger nurse that acts more casual, doesn’t put on pretenses or act afraid of them, and is likely more similar to them than anyone else in a position of authority there. As noted in the slides, adolescence is now known to be a time of massive internal turbulence; suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young adults and depression and anxiety is rampant. We also now know a lot more about the scientific roots behind that. I.e. schizophrenia is related to the development of the prefrontal cortex, something that finishes developing in one’s early 20s, hence why it typically comes up at this age – but I don’t think that was known in the 60s (or perhaps it was only shortly before then), and this gap in knowledge would obviously greatly affect its treatment and how it is perceived. But also knowing this information more generally regarding how important this part of the brain is in a teenager’s development would help form opinions surrounding how vulnerable, confused, or unable to make proper decisions adolescents are. I think if Kaysen were to be plopped into Middlebury in 2021, her behavior would make her only ordinary here. If the same criteria noted in the novel that sent Kaysen to the hospital, like ‘excess nervousness’ or ‘cries easily,’ were liable to put you in a hospital now, I think it would be commonplace to spend time there. The feelings that no one understands her, or that she was robbed of a childhood, or that she cannot trust anyone, are universal to teenagers. Even the beginning of the novel which describes Kaysen picking at a zit is as common as biting your nails or any other compulsive but now normalized habit, and yet this seems to be implied as a central reason the therapist sent her to the hospital. These are all things we now deem ‘phases.’ Kaysen sums it up well on pg 152, speaking of her symptoms and saying, “isn’t this a good description of adolescence?” Her feelings are all so normal, and yet this shouldn’t discount them or say that she isn’t suffering – so when do we draw the line and say that an adolescent is just going through a ‘phase’ or acting up, vs. really in need of help? When is the suffering all young adults experience ‘bad enough’ to interfere with?

  4. Karianne Laird

    Kayson writes in a relatable way – appearing quite similar to you or I. Her nearly emotionless narration reflects detachment, leaving certain conclusions to her readers. Her matter of fact and rational descriptions makes her reliable and recognizable which makes her story powerful. Moreover, much of what she struggles with (such as questions of belonging, conformity and questioning oneself) are feeling that many people – especially adolescents feel. Therefore, it is not at all surprising to me that this book was highly popular amongst the youth. In the movie the taxi driver taking Kayson to the institution comments, “Well you don’t look crazy.” I think this highlights an important aspect of the protagonist – her duality of normalcy and “craziness”. The feeling and appearance of normalcy in combination with abnormality is a feeling I think many people can relate to – making her character much more relatable than, for example, the more extreme cases of Daisy or Lisa who do not appear as “normal”.

    Further I think this book touches on the societal forces and expectations guiding individual lives. It is clear that Kayson is surrounded by a society expecting her to fill specific roles – such as the pressure to go to college, to not be promiscuous etc. In this story it seems like the typical teenage self-obsession and self-reproach are being heightened by a society that has strict and narrow confines for what is deemed normal. Today, we are living in an age where diagnoses of eating disorders, anxiety and (as Middlebury students know well) “stress” are heightened. In our time one example of what might be causing this is an intensified focus on appearance exacerbated through social media. I think Kayson’s story highlights how increased societal pressures (and lack of acceptance for those who don’t satisfy societies expectations) affects individual lives and can lead to extreme consequences amongst vulnerable groups such as adolescents.

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