Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted

Girl, Interrupted - Susanna Kaysen

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. [ synopsis from goodreads ]



So I have read this book previously and have now reviewed it twice. So this review will be in two parts....


New 2016 review:
I was going to say I originally read this book in high school but based on the dates in my original review down thataway (pretend like you're seeing an arrow point down right here) I guess I read it when I was just beginning my freshman year of college. The point it, it was several years ago. And I was at a much different stage in my life. And to read this book at two different stages of my life was quite an amazing experience.

The first time I read this book, I was the same age as Kaysen was when she was in the hospital. That reading experience was almost like a comparison. Had I experienced the same things? Were we the same? Because of that, I probably didn't pick up on the same things I picked up on this time.

This time, I could appreciate the book for more than the age similarities. This time I could truly understand and appreciate the deeper meanings and the stark look at how mental illness was treated in the 60s. Because that's exactly what this book gives you. In the 60s, mental illness was not see as it is today. In fact, there's even a point in this book when Kaysen says that her diagnosis basically meant that her lifestyle "wasn't approved of". Yes, she was depressed and yes, she attempted suicide. But the deeper roots of her official diagnosis were basically unfounded. And for that, she lost a year and a half of her life.

I think books like this need to be written and need to be read. When I was a psychology major, cases like this used to fascinate me. They still do. But no longer to the same degree. At some point I realized I related more to the patients than the doctors and that's when I started seeing the significance of books like this.

There are lots of fictional accounts of hospitals like McLean and cases like Susanna's out there. But they're just that. Fictional. That's not to say that they're not grounded in truth. But I think what makes this one so much more powerful than all of this is because it's written by a real patient looking back at her life. She did eventually leave the hospital "cured" (though I'm not convinced she was even "sick" in the first place) and live her life with no intention of ever going back to a place like McLean. But she was also gracious enough to share this story with us. And I'm glad she did.

I like to hope the days when "different" is synonymous with "crazy" are long over. And cases like these don't happen anymore. After all, most of the horror stories about mental hospitals come from the 60s and 70s, don't they? (I'm a 90s product so forgive my possibly inaccurate timeline.) And, as Kaysen even said, the book changes. Things that were once considered mental illnesses are no longer considered "diseases". Times change and hopefully our practices do too.

But, yet, these stories still need to be told. And that's why I believe this is a book everyone should read. Because this is a story that's needs telling. And a story that needs reading. Plus, it's just beautifully written. There are so many poetic passages. And it's very easy to read. You can pretty much fly through it in a couple of hours. And even though it can be read very quickly, it will resonate with you forever.

Original review from August 20 of 2010:
Wow. Just wow. I liked this book so much better than the movie. For some reason, some of the characters just really rubbed me the wrong way in the movie. But in the book, I just loved them. I felt they had more defined personalities and I could understand them better in the book. That and Susanna Kaysen is just a wonderful writer. She describes everything beautifully. And, when finishing this, you will really fell as though you KNOW what she went through and that you made it out with her. This is just an overall amazing book. Definitely a wonderful read!!


review originally posted on goodreads