Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted (Group 4)

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 4)

  1. Alexander Merrill

    The relationships that Kaysen and the other young women in the ward have with the adults and authority figures reminds me of the relationships students and teachers have in a high school and I could very much relate with them. For example, Valerie has earned the patients’ respect as there is a mutual understanding and respect, however there is too large of a cultural gap between the patients and Dr. Wick as well as Mrs. McWeeny. I think these types of dynamics and details most strongly give me feelings of adolescence when reading the novel.

    Another strong, consistent representation of adolescence in the novel is the idea of conformity, as others have stated. I think that the questioning of conformity on the part of Kaysen, and teenagers at large, is essentially just the pushing of boundaries in order to better understand both herself as well as society and its norms. I think the example that Henry brought up of Alice is a great example of this. After seeing the conditions of the maximum security ward, the girls vow to never behave like Alice in order to avoid that punishment. In other words, once directly faced with the consequences for this particular behavior that society (or at least the hospital) deems unacceptable, the patients decide to conform to this norm in order to avoid punishment.

    In regards to the question of whether Kaysen is pathological or not, I don’t know if there is an answer to that question. On one hand, this is obviously an incomplete picture of her life, behavior, and emotional state, which makes it hard to determine her stability. On the other hand, she attempted suicide and seems very detached and apathetic, and she is capable of behaving pretty impulsively/erratically. The question of whether Kaysen is pathological or not might just come down to where you draw the line between “normal” behavior and “unusual” behavior.

  2. Rachel Horowitz-Benoit

    I think one of the major themes that make Girl, Interrupted accessible to teenage audiences is both the fear and experience of being misunderstood. I’m thinking of the cliche of a teenager telling their parents that they’ll “never understand” them, which is cliche for a reason. There is a sense of isolation in not being able to convey emotions/thoughts to a receptive audience that is especially strong at the age when someone begins to negotiate independence. One of the major failures of the mental hospital that Kaysen portrays seems to be that the doctors, whose role is to listen to and understand the girls, rarely receive the emotions of the patients meaningfully. They are either old-fashioned or much too hasty, as is the case of the doctor who listens to Kaysen for 20 minutes before admitting her for 2 years. The structure of the institution, which provides care based mostly on conversation, is at odds with the abilities of those who ostensibly should provide it. One telling scene is when Kaysen attempts to explain the meaning of the hospital tunnels to Melvin, only for him to not fully understand and admit she is his first patient.

    This fundamental rift in communication is familiar to teenagers and young adults, particularly young women in the context of adult men in authority positions. Girl, Interrupted, as a piece of personal writing, is entirely dependent on Kaysen’s ability to properly convey her interiority in a way that is understood by readers. The very act is an attempt to explain a non-normative (whatever that means in this context) way of thinking, and to teenagers who feel that their ways of thinking are out of step with society at large, this certainly seems appealing.

  3. Jacob Morton

    One very specific, more tangible manifestation of adolescent culture I noticed throughout the book was an attention to looks–a perception of the body that seemed particularly teenage to me. There is the recurrent attention to skin and skincare in particular–a motif that is addressed several times by the narrator both in description of herself and others like Lisa. Its first appearance takes the form of a pimple on Susanna’s face–again, an especially age-related choice.
    ‘”You have a pimple,” said the doctor.
    I’d hoped nobody would notice.
    “You’ve been picking it,” he went on.
    When I’d woken that morning–early, so as to get to this appointment–the pimple had reached the stage of hard expectancy in which it begs to be picked. It was yearning for release. Freeing it from its little white dome, pressing until the blood ran, I felt a sense of accomplishment: I’d done all that could be done for this pimple.
    “You’ve been picking at yourself,” the doctor said.’
    Kaysen takes this universally adolescent predicament–a fairly innocuous high school anxiety–and positions it in a clinical context. It isn’t a parent pointing out the pimple, it is a nameless doctor. When Kaysen describes the pimple itself, she employs a searingly descriptive and figurative rhetoric; there is something jarring about an adult voice with a gift for symbolic and prosaic eloquence illustrating something so pubescent. The voice maintains the maturity and poetic wherewithal of our other texts–but this adolescent subject matter would not be caught dead being chronicled in a Cuckoo’s Nest or a Ten Days in the Madhouse. The doctor’s noting and ostensible disapproval of it also highlights the story’s theme of adolescence being muddled with mental illness–almost as if the doctor is clinically diagnosing the pimple and Susanna’s scratching of it.

    1. Rachel Horowitz-Benoit

      This is a really great point! I think this aspect is missing from the movie version, which features primarily beautiful actresses. It takes some of the punch out of the self-conscious aspect of mental health, specifically in the case of young adult women. They’re isolated from the outside population’s judgment of attractiveness, but the doctor stands in to “diagnose” the pimple in terms of mental health. It reminds me of Polly’s sudden realization of her appearance, not in the context of the mental hospital where it is almost a badge of honor, but how it will be perceived forever when she leaves.

  4. Henry Mooers

    In my view, there are a number of typical features of adolescence in American Culture. I think one of the more notable ones in this context is rebelliousness. It is common for a teenager to be portrayed as lashing out against their parents as the gain a higher level of awareness of both themselves and the world around them. Actions such as sneaking out and lying about whereabouts are common in media depictions of teenagers, at least in my opinion.

    Another feature of adolescence (again in my view), is the desire to fit in. As teenagers grow older and develop increased levels of awareness, it is common for groups of individuals with common interest to form. In many settings, (predominantly in school for this discussion), there are groups viewed as ‘popular’, and there are groups that are viewed more as outcasts. It is common for teenagers to be depicted as running away from being labeled as an outcast, and attempting to associate themselves more closely with the definition of ‘popularity’.

    Both of these themes appear in Girl, Interrupted in their own way, which makes sense why the book was popular with younger readers.

    There are many examples of rebelliousness as a theme in the book. When Valerie, the new head nurse, arrives for work, she is respected by the group of girls for her ability to stand up to the doctors. I sort of viewed this character as the student in class who is looked up to because they stand up to the teacher in situations where other individuals may not want to do so. Valerie, to me, represents the quality of rebelliousness in adolescents.

    In terms of fitting in, the book offers us some examples of the group dynamics between girls in the ward to demonstrate some hyperbolic scenarios that have similarities with adolescence in general. I believe that the part of the story involving Alice Calais illustrates this feature well. As we know, Alice has an unfortunate mental breakdown, which causes her to be sent to the Maximum Security part of the ward. When the girls go to visit Alice after being sent here, they are revolted by the conditions of this part of the ward, each vowing to not let that happen to themselves. Alice reinforces the behavior of the other girls in the ward, and demonstrates to them in this context the importance of conformity to norms.

    I thought this part was generally similar to the unfortunate manner by which adolescents are forced to conform to norms, whereby they will be ridiculed by peers if they are found to be doing something that is more closely associated with aspects of the ‘outcast’ culture.

    1. Gordon Lewis

      I really like what you’ve said here, Henry. When I first read the part where Valerie was introduced to us, I immediately had the same thought you did – rebellion. In a way (possibly because we just got done reading the book and watching the movie) Valerie’s character reminded me a bit of McMurphy from “Cuckoo’s Nest” in the sense that she became a symbol to the girls as someone who would stand up for them against the outer forces controlling them.

      Conformity has definitely been a recurring theme throughout the course, all the way from “Bartleby” up to “Girl, Interrupted”, and I think you hit the nail on the head there, too. Much like how young teens growing up in American society are constantly forced to adapt and conform to societal norms set by their peers (and sometimes, unwittingly, by cunning adults via marketing), those who suffer from mental health problems have historically been forced to conform to greater societal norms of what is deemed as “neurotypical”. As far as mental health treatment has come along over the course of a few centuries, I still get the sense from Kaysen’s testimony that, at least at the time of her writing in the late sixties, mental illnesses were very much seen as something that needed to be inherently “cured”. Even today, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health in the United States.

      One last thing I wanted to comment on, in terms of the popularity of “Girl, Interrupted” amongst younger audiences, is that the book reads remarkably easier than many of the previous novels and short stories we have read. You don’t have to squint and read between the lines to figure out what Kaysen is saying here – she puts everything out pretty plainly for the reader to see, for the most part. I think there’s something to be said about the raw honesty of this book – it’s what has stuck with me throughout my reading of it. Each short anecdote seems to reflect the mood and mental state of Kaysen at the time of the event in question, whether she is being introspective about the nature of the treatment of the mind or the brain, or relaying a story of a trip to the Frick to a frazzled doctor, or her use of short staccato sentences when she tears the flesh from her hand to see if the bones in her fingers were still somewhere underneath.

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