Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted (Group 3)

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 3)

  1. Alexandra Lawson

    As others have noted, I think a central feature of adolescence in a privileged American culture is that of rebellion and emotional turbulence. In adolescence, individuals begin to recognize and assess how they fit into the world around them through different social spheres and environments. With this comes emotional responses, that often adolescents are not able to fully recognize or grapple with. In a more positive light, this could be viewed as a sort of ‘self-discovery’ but implicitly in discovery there is also a lot of malleability, which is why adolescence can be a sort of turning point in one’s life. Again, as others have noted, this assumes privilege. What privilege adds is the ability to explore this social and mental development, without the stress of needing to fulfill basic needs. Kaysen and the book seems to understand adolescence similarly to this. Throughout the hospital, Lisa, Kaysen, Georgina and others often search for rebellion. One scene I found particularly interesting, was when the younger nurses student came to visit. Kaysen describes how “when we looked at the student nurses, we saw alternate versions of ourselves… they were our proxies” (90-91). When they arrived, the girls were well behaved. To me, this is a perfect representation of the malleability of adolescence, and the strength that role models can provide. Further, it hints at the ways in which in adolescence individuals often hit a number of cross-roads that shape who they are later in life.

    The question of whether Kaysen is unusual or typical is difficult. I do think that Kaysen’s tendencies, such as the attempted suicide and the scene where she became preoccupied with her bones, point towards some sort of pathological disorder. These examples seem slightly too extreme to be simply the ‘emotional turbulence’ we associate with adolescence. However, the role of one’s environment in neurodevelopment (especially in the critical stage of adolescence) is extensive. So, while, I don’t think Kaysen was typical, I do believe that her time in the hospital likely exasperated these issues rather than lessening them.

  2. Haley Glover

    As the slides suggest, adolescence is defined by the in-between period from childhood to adulthood. Such a period is one that is ever-changing and growing toward the definition of adulthood proposed by society. In this time, teens are considered volatile, angsty, and rebellious as everyone has mentioned; however, they are also constantly reaching for adulthood, the alleged escape from the confines of childhood. Thus, even adulthood and how it is defined, shapes adolescence. Specifically, teens are more disposed to idolize certain adult figures and shape themselves around these idols; hence, raging teen fandoms surrounding adult celebrities. Among such idolization, teens tend to be less centered and constantly phasing in and out of fads, all in their plight towards self discovery. This in turn leads to a seemingly “chaotic” lifestyle as defined by those adults long since grown out of adolescence. For example, in the opening of Girl, Interrupted the doctor interviewing Kaysen attributes her admittance into McLean to “the chaotic unplanned life of the patient” as the first reason. As a young woman, Kaysen was unhappy with her boyfriend and job, as most young adults are. She was searching for a reason for her unhappiness and the doctor instead villainized her adolescent-like lifestyle by admitting her to the hospital rather than listening to why she attempted suicide. Instead, the doctor focuses on her adolescence and and highlights teen traits such as picking at a pimple as restless and needing institutionalized.

  3. William Koch

    I think it’s fair to say that American adolescence, particularly in the late 60’s, is defined by its rebellious attitudes. Kaysen notes this in her memoir when she alludes to the summer of ’68 and the protests and riots that emerged following the assassination of MLK, the assassination of RFK, and the Chicago Democratic Convention. Yes, it’s political unrest, but it’s unrest in which the youth plays a central role in stoking social change. I think Kaysen embodies a rebellious spirit, particularly in the latter third of the memoir when she really begins to question the definitions of Borderline Personality Disorder and the subjectivity behind defining mental health. I do think that her attempted suicide and her biting of her own tendons are objective pieces of evidence that would suggest her behavior leans more towards the unusual than the typical, but otherwise I think the attitudes she displays are more in line with typical adolescent behavior. When she notes the DSM3 definition of Borderline Personality Disorder, the features it lists are not features that we now associate with insanity, but with adolescence. These include “shopping sprees, psychoactive substance abuse, reckless driving, casual sex, shoplifting, and binge eating” (148). If these were still the standards for defining personality disorders, then nearly every student at Middlebury would be diagnosed. These should not have even been the standards for her own era, and I think that’s the point Kaysen tries to make. Her girlhood was interrupted because the standards of mental health operated against her indulging in her youth. In that sense, how can we say whether she was a typical adolescent or not?

  4. Joseph Levine

    Although the narrative takes place about half a century go, I would say the adolescent experience of today is quite similar to what it was back then, particularly in relation to the adolescent experience growing up in upper-middle class and wealthier households where one does not have to work immediately after high school. For one, although anecdotal, I felt similar disinclinations toward going to school and conforming to my parents expectations growing up in what was probably a relatively comparable household to Kaysen. It’s important to point out that I cannot speak for the experiences of those who grew up in less fortunate circumstances, and by association neither can Kaysen. I would speculate that the carry-over of the treatment from Kaysen’s time is due to two factors alluded to in the novel: the oppressive machinations of the American primary and secondary education systems, as well as the continued psycho-pharmaceutical approach to treatment of mental illness. Over the decades since the publishing of “Girl, Interrupted”, the methods of early education in America are largely unchanged besides augmented curriculums and changes in teaching modalities using technology The same values of achievement are stressed, and adolescents are forced to go to Biology and English classes probably not too dissimilar from the ones Kaysen went through. Moreover, the values that the American education rewards–conformity, diligence, intelligence, etc.–are largely the same ones as those in the 1960’s. Likewise, parents enforce similar kinds of rules of obedience and conditioning that align with the values of the school system. The pressure to be academically high achieving, particularly in upper-middle class Jewish households (like mine), is still widely pervasive. It’s no wonder that to facilitate the same systems of academics, similar systems of psychological treatment are applied in the propagation of the psycho-pharmaceutical industry. More and more adolescents are being medicated, and for similarly ambiguous disorders as the one ascribed to Kaysen. One of the most prescient observations made in the book is how the definitions of disorders changes over time; and they have, as the current 5th edition of the DSM is replete with new definitions compared to the 3rd one referenced in the novel.

    As to whether Kayson is pathological, I’d say she needed treatment to (attempt to) remedy her inclinations toward self-harm and suicide. But the conditions precipitating her symptoms were perfectly rational: she felt oppressed by a demanding and empty system of achievement, a feeling this is widespread, even among the high-achieving. It is distressing that some of the fundamental conditions affecting how adolescents grew up in in the 1960’s have not changed, which makes Kaysen’s novel all the more relevant.

  5. Michael Frank

    At the beginning of the book Susanna Kaysen is informed by her doctor that she “needs a rest,” though she claims she only needs a rest because she got up so early to see him. The residents are naked and vulnerable in the hospital, but “the hospital had striped them naked in the first place” (94). The absurdity and self-defeating nature of Kaysen’s reform seems to match the oft-inane transition into adulthood– Rules being given that only exist to serve themselves. While the culture of the patients is rebellious and youthful, the hospital itself seems to be a manifestation of the oppressive growing pains of the late teenage years.

    Having grown up in basically this exact area, I can attest to the numbing sensation of an adolescence in a leafy, Massachusetts suburb. Seeing how Kaysen was pretty well-off growing up, it seems fitting that a Greater Boston area hospital would be her purgatory. None of this is to make light of her situation, mentally or physically. However, it is understandable why confinement in New England in a beautiful complex where no one can walk on the lawn would resonate with a lot of young people. This is the first book we’ve read with a distinctly young narrator and the entire setting of the hospital seems shaped to match that identity. Even horrors like drug addiction and self-harm are delivered with a petulant, gossipy tone. The Lisa Cody tale, for instance, is sold as a rivalry of authenticity. It is a very interesting spin on the hospital that would be fundamentally relatable to young people.

  6. Dan Cielak

    Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted seems to try and explain adolescence as a very turbulent and demanding point of life. These sentiments are especially pronounced at the end of the novel in the “My Diagnosis” chapter where Kaysen described the lack of motivation and feelings of “[d]esolation, despair, and depression” she felt towards her later teen years (157). She notes that the demands placed on her by her parents and fellow classmates lead to feelings of uncertainty that she displaces by doing ‘rebellious’ things such as sleeping with her high school English teacher, blatantly failing her classes, choosing not to go to college, banging her wrists against a chair, attempting suicide, etc. The way Kaysen writes this narrative is particularly gripping because of the way she is able to explain the universality of this period. Evidently, the girls that Kaysen gets to know at McClean are also struggling to cope with the pressures of adolescence. While each one exhibits their frustrations differently, i.e., Daisy eats chicken and is addicted to laxatives, I think that the reason that almost everyone gets along is because the girls are able to sympathize with each others plight.
    I believe that Kaysen’s situation does not embody the typical American adolescent experience and her attempted suicide definitely warrants a drastic intervention, but besides that, she does not appear to be unusually pathological. Her ability to write the way she does in this book definitely adds a sense of normalcy to her point-of-view. And, parts of her account seem to suggest that the real issue with her is not that she is necessarily ill, but that she is not properly diagnosed. This idea is most prevalent when Kaysen talks about her initial consultation with the doctor who recommended her to McClean and how that meeting took only twenty minutes. Rather than look at young Kaysen’s circumstances and try to suggest an individualized therapeutical approach, he takes twenty minutes in deciding to ship her off to an institution where he thinks she will be ‘fixed.’ The generalized approach to mental health this particular doctor takes illustrates the tendency of other physicians to treat all patients the same. Ultimately, I think this book is a criticism of such an approach.

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