Kaysen–Girl, Interrupted (Group 2)

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?

6 thoughts on “Kaysen–Girl, Interrupted (Group 2)

  1. Colston Merrell

    I’m not surprised that Girl, Interrupted was ultimately popular among YA audiences, mostly because Kaysen’s frank but ontologically-minded voice calls to mind that of narrators like Holden Caulfield. Toward the end of the book, Kaysen makes a somewhat provocative point that gives us a clue as to why young people in general (i.e. the non-institutionalized) might connect to her memoir: “‘[I]nstability of self-image, interpersonal relationships, and mood… uncertainty about… long-term goals or career choice…’ Isn’t this a good description of adolescence? Moody, fickle, faddish, insecure: in short, impossible” (152). While she goes on, in the rest of the chapter, to detail some of her own adolescent behaviors that more clearly delineate the line between her condition as a young person and that of the average, angsty teen, it’s not a coincidence that the symptoms of Kaysen’s diagnosis (whatever we think of its legitimacy) so neatly align with more general characteristics teenage development. Like Holden and (a little less interestingly, I would argue) the narrator of essentially every John Green book, Kaysen finds herself in the midst of an experience that feels both totally unique and alienating. At the same time, it’s difficult for her to understand how these feelings that she’s having are not more widely shared, and how people in the outside world seem so capable of neatly packing away their existential malaise and neuroses. While I can’t speak to why, I think there’s something very appealing (to young people broadly and maybe just people) about the fantasy that nobody understands us and that our worries and pains and infatuations are being felt for the first time as we feel them. There’s a way in which the desire to be special and inimitable overwhelms the desire to be whole and healthy; we would rather be uniquely sick than perfectly normal. Our tendency to correlate mental illness with artistry and artistic beauty also plays a role, here; when Kaysen talks about McLean alums Ray Charles, Sylvia Plath, and James Taylor (“…was it that poets and singers specialized in madness?”) she doesn’t need to say the rest (48). All this rambling to say that adolescence is a time of loneliness and awkwardness and feeling misunderstood, and it is often (or, at least, it was for me) first through literature that we get to hear other people communicate some of those same intimate fears that start to burble up within us.

    There’s something terribly enticing about getting to romanticize our own pain, and I can imagine reading Kaysen’s neat and hyper-literate philosophical renderings of her pain as a young person and feeling that this was a person who understood me. To an adult reader, lines like “The meat was bruised, bleeding, and imprisoned in a tight wrapping. And… so was I” can come across as melodramatic, but adolescent audiences, perhaps because they feel more, are also more forgiving of earnestness (38). It should not be surprising that a narrator who says fuck and has sex but still experiences, on the inside, all this beautiful pain, would be appealing to young people. At the same time, there is a danger in assuming that, just because Kaysen has a lovely prose style and we’ve all felt versions of these emotions she’s describing, her experiences were totally typical and that she didn’t need treatment. Her own opinions about her institutionalization seem to generally be more nuanced than that, and when she talks about her wrist banging and attempted suicide, I’m not entirely convinced by her insistence that she wouldn’t have tried to kill herself again. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I would condone the sort of leper-colony treatment Kaysen received during some of the most formative years of her life, but I do believe that the pain she was experiencing was more acute than that of the average teenager and that she probably needed help of some kind. It’s interesting and disgusting to me (though perhaps we’re not getting all the details, here) that the teenage Kaysen was repeatedly described as something like medically promiscuous when she was pretty clearly groomed and abused by a male authority figure in her life and that, subsequently, all of the blame for her pain seems to be placed on her own body and mind.

  2. Annabella Twomey

    It is so interesting to read a book about a situation so different from my own adolescence (and in a different time period) but also locate so many universal elements, personality traits, and mannerisms that are universal in adolescent girls. To reference Andreya’s point about the prevalence of nonconformity and lack of belongingness, I would add onto that to say not only is this idea characteristics of adolescents, but also the sense of casual-ness/dismissal of large, important issues in their lives. Granted, it could be a coping mechanism for being at McLean, but Kaysen frequently references her and other girl’s severe actions in a very casual manner. For example, when speaking about Polly, she said “One girl among us had set herself on fire. She used gasoline,” (32). It is the non-reactive and purely factual way she describes this that makes the reader take pause. Not soon after, Kaysen does it again in describing her own aspirin overdose, saying “I had an inspiration once. I woke up one morning and I knew that today I had to swallow fifty aspirin. It was my task: my job for the day,” (35). There is this nonchalance in Kaysen’s narrative voice that I think can sometimes be typical of other adolescents, although not always. Alternatively, they could be dismissive of these types of events because of how doctors treat and condescend them, so they are just projecting this dismissal and lack of consideration toward the girls’ feelings.

    I am currently in a Psychology course called “Adolescence” and we are studying adolescent development through a variety of lenses. We talk often about how adolescence is marked as an emotionally turbulent time for all, no matter what your circumstances are. I honestly believe Kaysen captured a lot of aspects of typical adolescence very well in her novel. Of course, there were abnormal behaviors that marked mental illness, but the typical reluctance to engage/distrust with certain authority figures and overall angst is very typical.

  3. Andreya Zvonar

    A central feature of adolescence in American culture is feeling like one does not belong (nonconformity). Kaysen draws on this feeling by asking herself throughout the memoir if she is nonconforming or mentally ill. There is a fine line between the two, and it can be very hard to discern that which sets them apart. Kaysen questions the way in which she was diagnosed, particularly the fact that it only took twenty minutes to give an 18-month sentence. One might argue that every teenager can fit the description of one with borderline personality disorder. In the end, who has not questioned their own self-image, or their own dissociation from society at large. I would argue that it is more worrisome if one does not question these things than if one does. Nevertheless, there are other patients in the ward who are indeed mentally ill (Alice, Polly, etc.). However, the need to classify patients/teenagers into one of a few “types of people” becomes such an overarching desire that it is detrimental to the likes of Kaysen, who is on the fringe. As a result, further mental illness develops.

    The book interprets this period in life very well. I might classify it as a coming of age novel, despite its somber and more serious tones. Like many youth, Kaysen feels misunderstood and rejected, and this ultimately influences her personal development. As such, I would consider her typical. Lastly, she notes that the diagnoses of mental illness are much more prevalent among women. This, combined with her affluent background, reminds me of our earlier discussions of neurasthenia. Perhaps she is commenting on a new societal “fad” for mental illness.

  4. Carl Langaker

    I think one of the main reasons that this book might have been very popular with young adults is because of how human it feels. Much more so than our previous readings, my impression from Girl, Interrupted was that this is a character who is very easy to empathize with. While there are moments where her hints of insanity are abundantly clear, she still makes them feel very innocent. In this regard, the scene when she inspects the ligaments of her hand comes to mind – I found myself pressing the tendons on my own hand as I was reading, making the same discoveries as her (I always just assumed those were bones). Though she then proceeds to bite her hand open and try to pick away her skin to actually see her bones, it still feels very sincere, almost as if there is a childlike innocence tied to her curiosity. Due to this I would say that Kaysen does not belong in the same category as most of our previous protagonists, as she feels like she very much could be sane, despite some of her more irregular and irrational behaviors. I think Michael makes a really great point in that the 60s and 70s are often associated with drug use, which is very on brand in this work. I am interested by ease and casual tone employed by the women when discussing their lackadaisical use of drugs, as it feels representative of a big societal shift in the way people regarded a woman being independent and indulging in actions more often associated with men – here I am reminded by Vandover and the Brute, where it is distinctly the men who are the drug-users living outside the norms of society.

    On a side-note, in a weird way this book felt really similar to “The Breakfast Club”, where you see characters who are seemingly unrelated put together in a small space and forced to simply ‘work it out’.

  5. Elizabeth Srulevich

    I agree with Michael’s observation that the novel embodies the defiant spirit of youth in the late sixties. The girls in the story experiment with sex, drugs, and rebelling against authority. They explore the bounds of “normalcy” and “abnormalcy” in roughly the same ways their non-institutionalized counterparts did at the time. All of this, coupled with the fact that the story takes place in the same psychiatric hospital that once treated the likes of Sylvia Plath, Ray Charles, and other cultural icons, probably played a role in the novel’s popularity with “young adult” readers.

    That said, when I was around fourteen or fifteen years old, I was really into Tumblr and was part of the massive community of generally angsty (and sometimes fairly mentally-ill) teenagers that populated the platform. “Girl, Interrupted” was hugely popular among that crowd, and I distinctly remember constantly coming across screenshots of Angelina Jolie as Lisa with edgy quotes from the film adaptation pasted onto them. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young people related to Susanna Kaysen’s story and the characters she wrote about. This all suggests to me that Kaysen would be considered typical and not pathological today.

  6. Michael Taylor

    I often associate the cliche “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” with the 1960s and 70s. While Girl, Interrupted pays little mind to the Beatles or Rolling Stones, it certainly places sex and drugs at the center of the American adolescent experience. Inside the hospital, patients experiment with sex and, evocative of the contemporaneous 1967 “Summer of Love,” with the idea of sharing a boy with one another (66). A step ahead of society at large, as Kaysen remarks, the patients also live a life deeply influenced by an alphabet soup of synthetic drugs: “Thorazine, Stelazine, Librium, Valium” (87). Life seems to be much the same outside of the hospital. The patients develop close relationships with the nurse interns who visit them, relating closely and providing helpful counsel for their adolescent problems, though the exact varieties of the nurses’ “sex and drugs” may differ from the patients’ (over-eager fiancés and Alcoholics Anonymous rather than ward boyfriends and psychoactives) (91). As such, Kaysen is in many ways typical. Though she is in the hospital for a suicide attempt, which would certainly be considered atypical, she is REALLY in the hospital because of drugs (50 aspirin) and sex (a liaison with her English teacher). Kaysen could in fact be understood as a scapegoat for her generation, a girl taken so far by the tides of the 1960s that society chose to make an example of her.

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