Girl, interrupted

by Susanna Kaysen

Paper Book, 1994

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Vintage Books, 1994.

Description

In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she'd never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele--Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles--as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary. Kaysen's memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a "parallel universe" set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.… (more)

Rating

½ (1947 ratings; 3.6)

User reviews

LibraryThing member elliepotten
I have to say, I was disappointed by this book. I'd seen the film, which had quickly catapulted its way into my 'favourites of all time', and was eager to read Kaysen's story for myself. Unfortunately, this was a case of the movie being better than the book, memoir or no memoir.

I enjoyed the movie
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because it had style. It had a lot of humour, a lot of heart, whilst never shying away from the darkness and turbulent reality of living in a mental institution. There was a story, a chronology, and I cared deeply about each and every one of the women so that when bad things happened, I was devastated, and when good things happened, I smiled too. Being manic depressive myself, I related to them in their spirited and joyful moments as well as in their miserable and frightened ones.

Kaysen's book, by contrast, just doesn't work that way. It is extremely disjointed, with no chronology to speak of, and therefore rather confusing. The small, sometimes bizarre episodes skip between times and places, and are never long enough for the reader to become attached to anyone. The good and bad of these tormented lives doesn't have the same resonance, and so I ended up reading the whole book without being moved at all. I can see what Kaysen was trying to do - to show the reader how her mind was working, how images and memories and hallucinations melded into one whirlwind of madness, how time moves differently in an institution - but so much is lost this way that it almost cancels out its own meaning.

On the other hand, some of the the descriptions of difficult concepts and experiences are brilliantly written. Moments of psychosis are evoked with brutal clarity, giving a vivid picture of the bizarre images and terrifying emotions that can overtake even the brightest minds.

Ultimately though, this was an empty book for me. I found its style and construction interesting enough to write my A-level coursework on it, but like 'The Bell Jar' and 'Catcher in the Rye', those other beacons for alienated teens everywhere, it just didn't shift the earth for me. I haven't kept my copy and I'll be sticking to the movie in the future!
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LibraryThing member anotherjennifer
Susanna Kaysen shares an episodic account of her two-year stay in a mental institution during her late teens. She recounts the ailments and behavior which led her to the hospital, while also questioning her diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, as well as the manner in which mental
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illnesses are treated. In order to portray her experience and the experiences of the other young women she encountered within the institution accurately, Kaysen recounts a variety of occurrences, ranging from the grim to the lighthearted. Among Kaysen's recollections are one girl's experience with shock therapy, her own attempt to bite into her hand to ensure that she is "real," and the girls' humorous outing to an ice cream shop.

Copies of Kaysen's medical records are juxtaposed against her personal accounts, often making the tone of the former documents unsettlingly cold and detached. Her personal account is often moving, and even the logic Kaysen uses to explain some of her most unusual behavior can make sense. At the same time, she strives for a relatively objective account of her interaction with mental health professionals. Kaysen presents a strong case to support her belief that the line between "normalcy" and mental illness is often muddied,--a thought she summarizes beautifully at the beginning of the book, writing that "Every window in Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco"-- without becoming overly critical of those who diagnosed and treated her.
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LibraryThing member Awesomeness1
I enjoyed the book even if I'm not all that sure about the message.

This book was the true story of Susanna Kaysen who was committed to a mental hospital when she was 18. The chapters were short and crisp, and could most likely be read as short stories in themselves. The book was also interspersed
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with official forms documenting Kaysen's two year stay at McLean, which Kaysen only got the rights to many years after with the help of a lawyer. Kaysen kept her writing humorous and curt as she talked about the various patients, doctors, and incidents at the hospital. I liked these chapters, but got bored later on in the book after she left the hospital and began to describe the bounds of her illness. I'm a teenager myself, and my attention span is short.

I enjoyed the book for its quirkiness and memorable characters, where others might like it for its comments on mental illness and the treatment of the mentally ill in the 60's.
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LibraryThing member brokenangelkisses
'Girl Interrupted' is a fascinating memoir, organised in a chaotic way that reflects Kaysen's life during the period she describes. This slim volume (it just stretches to 169 pages in the 1999 Virago edition) consists of a mixture of vignettes and photocopies of hospital records which
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simultaneously illuminate and contrast each other to give the reader an impression of a fragmented and occasionally nightmarish stay in a psychiatric hospital. Kaysen's history is fairly famous since the 1999 film of the same name starring Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder but the book is worth reading for its precise and strangely absorbing accounts of life in a 'parallel universe'.

Kaysen's written style is simple, precise and evocative. Short chapters focus on key incidents, characters and reflections in an almost poetic and often darkly humorous manner. The vignettes are not organised chronologically, although they do begin by describing Kaysen's memory of the interview that resulted in her hospitalisation. Throughout the book Kaysen refers back to this episode, which she feels convinced consisted of a twenty minute interview and a promise of rest, but which resulted in an eighteen month stay in the McLean Hospital. Her half-hearted suicide attempt she describes as an attempt to kill the part of her who wanted to kill herself, and it is clear that she does not feel she needed to be institutionalised. The doctor comes across as patronising and overly analytical, imbuing a simple physical act Kaysen commits with undue psychological significance. It is clear that Kaysen accepted her committal, waiting for the taxi and signing herself in at the hospital, but the imperfections in the systems of 1967 that allowed her to be incarcerated after such a brief examination are also highlighted and encourage the reader to question the professionals' judgements.
As the memoir progresses, the reader is introduced to a range of characters with brief summaries of their condition, progress and methods of coping with institutional life. The sense of time dragging on endlessly is captured perfectly in the monotony of 'checks' and cigarettes, watching and waiting, meds and curse words. Often we are given a focused account of a key incident from their incarceration. The characters are interesting and well-realised, although their histories, and often their futures, are under-developed, which leaves the reader wondering what really happened to them.

Kaysen's history outside the hospital is also often unclear. She gets married and the marriage fails, but due to the unconnected nature of the book and the focus on the actual time spent in the institution, her relationships with her parents and her husband are sketchy, their characters absent from what is essentially an exploration of her history. This has frustrated some readers but it does not detract from the powerful nature of the central issues the book explores.

The photocopies of hospital records which are interspersed throughout the book emphasise the clinical manner in which a very personal struggle was treated by the nurses and doctors. Although Kaysen is only occasionally explicitly critical of specific professionals, the whole system appears to be set up to follow routines, rules and drug programmes rather than to cure patients. As Kaysen's account veers between episodes it becomes apparent that being in hospital did not help her, except by giving her some respite from responding to people in the outside world. It did, however, encourage her to question her diagnosis as she clearly feels she is in a different category to inmates who receive shock-therapy or rub their faeces on their walls and bodies.

As the book draws to a close, Kaysen begins to consider the differences between 'mind' and 'brain' and between 'mental illness' and 'difference', questioning whether she really met the criteria of the personality disorder she was diagnosed with - and whether those criteria are just. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the book as the reader is drawn into these questions and inspired to consider how fine that line between sanity and reality can be.

Overall, this is a powerful and fascinating read which raises important issues. It is not to be confused with a self help guide as there is not great recovery scheme or advice, merely a sense that Kaysen was never really crazy, simply interrupted in the death throes of adolescence.
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LibraryThing member jjmiller50
In brief, the book describes a young woman's experience with the McLean mental hospital of the late 1960's. This is done with short chapters, each with a simple subject. The book is not a long one. As a person reads it, however, one might find one's self wondering if it isn't like a Blake poem:
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much depth under the simplicity of the language.

Ms. Kaysen does not drop dark hints of things not said. She writes down a set of experiences and hands them to you, her reader. This transaction invites some thought. She wrote the book more than 20 years after the events. Publishing a book is not an afternoon's work, or at least wasn't in the early 90s; she was motivated to communicate. As I read, I looked for markers for who she had in mind as her reader. She selected from more than a year and a half's experiences, and 20 years of time to reflect on them, just this set of things. She wanted to tell me something when she did this. I want to hear her.

Some of her messages are emphasized boldly. For example, there is a chapter "Calais is engraved on my heart", a quotation of Queen Mary. In the chapter, she presents her experience of a patient she calls Alice Calais. I think this name is surely chosen for the use of the quotation it affords; using a patient's real name is past unlikely. I think Ms. Kaysen has chosen to shout: "this is important" about what she describes, and what she describes is how a really seriously deranged person looked to her and her friends, even as they lived in a mental hospital themselves. We never find out what became of Alice. There's not even speculation. "Everything's relative" may have been her judgement and the fear of going where Alice was, was very evident. The last line of the chapter is "Don't forget it". Ms. Kaysen has not, and now she has told us too.

Ms. Kaysen's use of pages from her hospital record interspersed with her chapter snapshots of experience is interesting: she shows you how it lived and how it was recorded. The contrast is striking. She puts this contrast before you without comment.

Ms. Kaysen tells us in some detail how she got into McLean, but rather less about how she got out. She questions her exit diagnosis of "recovered". A woman that can be worried by the later experiences she notes is as recovered as one gets, I think. With black humor she says herself: "I can honestly say my misery has been transformed into common unhappiness, so by Freud's definition I have achieved mental health". Indeed.

She presents, finally, a comparison of an earlier and later viewing of the painting occasioning the book's title. It is here that I think she writes down her whole hope when she wrote the book: she says to the girl in the painting, "I see you". And then records a comic non sequitor reaction from her boyfriend when she tells him: "don't you see, she's trying to get out". He doesn't see.
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LibraryThing member bell7
In 1967, Susanna Kaysen was diagnosed with "borderline personality disorder" and sent to McLean's in Cambridge at the age of eighteen. She stayed there for nearly two years, and in short, non-chronological vignettes describes her life there and shortly after being released.

Kaysen brings up
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questions about the definition of sanity - how do we know where the "border" is between sane and insane, especially when those definitions change over time? The disjointed narrative suited her account, but made it kind of hard for me to follow what was going on.
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LibraryThing member jayde1599
Synopsis: In 1967, Susanna Kaysen is hospitalized after taking 50 aspirin and a session with a doctor whom she had never met. She was put into a taxi to McLean Hospital in Massachusetts - the same psychiatric hospital that housed Sylvia Plath, James Taylor, and Ray Charles. The story is intertwined
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with Kaysen's thoughts of how being hospitalized is like a parallel universe and narrative of the client's stay.

Pros and Cons: I did see the movie before I read the book and I did enjoy it, so maybe that clouded my thoughts of the book because the book did not live up to my expectations. Don't get me wrong, it is still an excellent book and I really liked it, but not as much as the movie. I was hoping for more discussion on her stay and the other clients. Her thoughts were interesting and demonstrate what a smart and confused mind she had. It also gives a picture of what it was like to be diagnosed with mental illness in the 60's. I think it would be somewhat different, but eerily similar to get that diagnosis now. Recommended to read the book first and watch the movie second :)
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LibraryThing member susanbevans
In the Spring of 1967, after taking 50 aspirin in an attempt to kill off a part of herself, Susanna Kaysen arrives for a voluntary "rest" at the McLean Psychiatric Hospital. At first, she is told that she will only be staying for a couple of weeks, but the two weeks extend into a perpetual stay, as
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she ends up spending the better part of the next two years on the South Belknap Two ward at McLean. Her fellow patients on this voyage to sanity are: Georgina, her roommate and the most sane of the patients surrounding her; Lisa, an enigmatic sociopath; Polly, a schizophrenic burn victim; and Daisy, a laxative junkie. During her stay at McLean, Susanna confronts the societal ideal of sanity, and finally comes to terms with herself through "recovery."

Kaysen's descriptions of her life in the hospital are sharp, witty and deeply ironic. She chronicles the details of her "breakdown" with incredible honesty and poetry. Girl, Interrupted is brief but mesmerizing - I read it quickly in one sitting. That being said, had it been any longer, I'm not sure I would have been able to finish it.

The "characters" lack any perceivable depth. Although they were written with a sort of black humor, they come across only on a very superficial level. Largely because of the cursory treatment, the story never really developed into anything relevant or consequential.

The best and most interesting parts of the book for me, were the ones in which Kaysen looked inward, trying to decide if she truly understood the difference between sanity and insanity.

"I often ask myself if I'm crazy. I ask other people too.
'Is this a crazy thing to say?' I'll ask before saying something that probably isn't crazy.
I start a lot of sentences with 'Maybe I'm totally nuts,' or 'Maybe I've gone 'round the bend.'
If I do something out of the ordinary - take two baths in one day, for example - I say to myself: Are you crazy?
It's a common phrase, I know. But it means something particular to me: the tunnels, the security screens, the plastic forks, the shimmering, ever-shifting borderline that like all boundaries beckons and asks to be crossed. I do not want to cross it again."


Her account regarding her own "borderline personality" were insightful and poignant. Read Girl, Interrupted for Susanna Kaysen's depiction of the madness eating away at her. Just don't expect the other characters to appear as any more than a thin background in the painting of her life.
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LibraryThing member Koroviev
It was quite boring.
LibraryThing member graceschumann
A most impressive read that takes the audience on a journey through the psyche of a depressed teenage girl stuck in a hospital for those with mental disorders. Kaysen paints a picture of her life back in the 60's and awes the reader with her lyrical writing. I loved this book. It moved me and her
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philosophical ponderings were quite interesting as well.
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LibraryThing member leelerbaby
Straight forward account of a girl's stay in a mental institution. She places no blame or passes judgement just recalls the experience as she remembers it. In the end your left wondering whether she needed or even benefited from being placed there or if it was all the result of a doctor
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overreacting to symptoms that most teenagers at that time were going through.
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LibraryThing member carmarie
Even though I've seen the movie, I picked up this book anyway. What a great writer! I'll be interested to see what else she decides to write. And even though most of the main elements are present in the book...it's almost a whole different story. I'm so glad I read it.
LibraryThing member livrecache
Fairly sketchily written. I didn't personally like the style, but I found the content interesting
LibraryThing member whimsyblue
I remember reading this book like it were yesterday. A quick read, I found it sad, pitching my moods to and fro.
LibraryThing member lorabear
Loved the movie...hated the book. Usually it is the other way around for me. I found this book difficult to follow, very hard to finish ( thank god it was short), and would not recommened it to others.
LibraryThing member samantha464
The middle of his book was great. I know it's sort of wrong, but I was in tears with laughing during a lot of it. As the book progressed though, I got a little irritated with it. Like Susanna, I started to wonder how real it all was and how much of her experience was based in fear of being alone.
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But it was a good memoir, entertaining, and an interesting look into a world that usually gets overdramatized.
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LibraryThing member rampaginglibrarian
I read this book a long time ago--years before the movie came out and wasn't terribly impressed. I found the writing somewhat immature and not much reason for the accolades poured on Kaysen--maybe i need to give it another chance?
LibraryThing member LibrarysCat
The author's sweet sharing of her time of madness and recovery is at times painful to read, but good to know.
LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
Interesting! All the way through the book I kept wondering, is she really mentally ill? or just a teen coping with typical teen stuff in a less acceptable way? Makes you think.
LibraryThing member olyra
a very good story, one that speaks to me emotionally. i liked the movie a little better, actually.
LibraryThing member nickelcopper
i was really let down by this book. i have no idea how they pulled such a wonderful movie from what seems like pieces of a journal. it never led to any certain cognitive train of thought. the medical records were interesting, but overall it was a very simple and quick read without making much of an
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impression on me. nothing stood out, her language, her voice...
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LibraryThing member Fluffyblue
Slightly slow and bitty start to this memoir but I did finish the book feeling satisfied by having read it.

I had previously seen the film, and comparing the two, I would probably say I enjoyed the film more, however that's probably because the film followed a sequence of events, and the book was
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quite choppy in that there was no particular timeline.

I am still not sure whether the author suffered from a personality disorder or not, and I'm not sure whether Kaysen is in denial about her mental health. I think if anything, clarity on that would have given the book a higher rating from me. Perhaps I missed the point?
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LibraryThing member stephxsu
Susanna Kaysen was eighteen years old when a psychiatrist she had never met before diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder and sent her off to McLean, a mental hospital in Massachusetts. Within the scarily strict confines of the hospital—“checks” every five minutes, maximum
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security, three doctors every day—Susanna witnesses the comings and goings of some eclectic patients, as well as the constancy of some more of her “friends.” Nearly two years later, Susanna is released from McLean. But is she cured? The doctors say she is “recovered,” but how does one recover from something that is extremely subjective in the first place?

GIRL, INTERRUPTED is a fantastically written account of a stay in a mental hospital, in a time of American history where mental disorders were undergoing a sort of baby boom themselves, with people being diagnosed and confined to wards left and right. Kaysen artistically challenges the rampant diagnoses of mental illnesses. Readers will shudder—and yet be awed—at the circumstances she underwent, and wonder, perhaps a little depressingly, whether they could possibly be diagnosed for mental illness as well in such an unforgiving and untrusting world. Highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member crazy4reading
Girl Interrupted is the story of a woman, Susanna Kaysen's time spent in a mental institution for just over a year in 1967. Susanna voluntarily admits herself into McLean Hospital when she is 18 years old. She is sent there by her doctor because she is depressed and has also tried to commit
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suicide.

While she is in the hospital you meet some very interesting, Lisa, Daisy, Polly, Cynthia and more. Each one is at their own level of mental illness. I felt as I was reading the book that sometimes these girls knew more about the difference between reality and that which was not real.

It was interesting to see how they argued with their inner demons. Some of the girls receive special privileges such as being able to go out side the hospital for ice cream, coffee or just to go shopping. The author talks about the different privileges she is rewarded with and how some of the girls will escape when they have a chance.

I now want to see the movie Girl Interrupted starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. The book is a very fast read and made me wonder about how our brains and minds really work.
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LibraryThing member emgriff
After an initial meeting with a new psychiatrist, eighteen year old Susanna is shipped off to McClean psychiatric hospital where she is to spend the next two years. Descriptions of the ward, the other patients, and Susanna's thoughts and emotions are vivid and often troubling. The narrative is
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disjointed and raises many more questions than it answers, in particular, who defines insanity. I disliked the portrayal of the mental health system in this book which shows all psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists to be clueless at best, cruel at worst. Though this book takes place in another time (1967), I fear that it might influence young adult readers today to avoid seeking help for fear of being locked away or mistreated. While this was a fast-paced, engrossing read, I think it is best suited for older teen readers because of the fairly adult themes and language. I would likely shelve it in the adult section as I see the Ann Arbor District Library has done. I would also look to balance it in my collection with other books in which troubled characters are able to get the help they need. The Language of Goldfish by Zibby Oneal comes to mind.
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Language

Original publication date

1993

Physical description

168 p.; 21 cm

ISBN

0679746048 / 9780679746041
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