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 in 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.
“The only way to stay sane is to go a little crazy.”
After a phone call to her boyfriend to advise him of her impending suicide, Susan swallowed 50 aspirin then remembered her mother asking her to pick up milk and headed for the store. Her halfhearted suicide attempt, she states, was not an attempt at death but rather an attempt at partial suicide to get rid of the part of herself that no longer wished to live. A year later on June 15, 1967, she has an appointment with a new psychiatrist and twenty minutes later she’s agreeing to a two week stay at McLean, a psychiatric hospital, for a rest the psychiatrist insists she needs. She remains there until she’s eventually discharged on January 3, 1969.
‘In a strange way we were free. We’d reached the end of the line. We had nothing more to lose. Our privacy, our liberty, our dignity: All of this was gone and were stripped down to the bare bones of our selves.’
Girl, Interrupted is a collection of nonlinear essays that tell of her time spent at McLean hospital. She describes in detail the constant room checks, the punishments, the medications and treatments, the hovering nurses and how their memories of privacy quickly became a thing of the past. The writing is simplistic but powerful and quietly brings to life the claustrophobic horrors of being incarcerated. What was truly startling to me though was the ease in which Susan found herself in this position. Twenty minutes spent with a new psychiatrist and he quickly classified her as having Borderline Personality Disorder and is putting her in a taxi to the local mental hospital. The same hospital that at one time housed Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and even Sylvia Plath.
‘…my discharge sheet, at line 41, Outcome with Regard to Mental Disorder, reads “Recovered.”‘
These essays are not only a glimpse into life inside a mental institution but are an insightful look into “recovery”. Borderline personality disorder isn’t something that someone can be cured of so her recovery is more or less watching her come to terms with her disorder and learning how to live with it. Girl, Interrupted is a distressing read but one that is replete with immense strength and perseverance.