Girl Interrupted: The Memoir About Life At A Mental Institution

At the age of eighteen, Suzanna Kaysen is placed in McLean Hospital after a twenty-minute visit with a psychiatrist. A two-week visit nearly turned into a two-year stay at a mental institution and cost Kaysen some of the most valuable years of her adolescence. Girl, Interrupted is a memoir that provides the reader with small glimpses of Kaysen’s life at McLean Hospital while touching several important matters including female adolescence in the US and gender inequality to define her mental illness.

Kaysen begins her memoir with a copy of the first page of her case record, “Legal Status at Admission: Voluntary” and “Established Diagnosis, Mental Disorder: Borderline Personality”. However, throughout the memoir, she informs the reader that the doctors at McLean Hospital weren’t initially sure of what diagnosis she fell under. Later, she includes a vignette with a revised section of Borderline Personality Disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd edition. Here, individuals with her diagnosis are described as having an “instability of self-image, interpersonal relationships, and mood, beginning in early adulthood”. At the time, these symptoms were seen as abnormal, suggesting signs of mental illness. However, as Kaysen returns to look at her case records, she refutes the diagnosis. “My self-image was not unstable. I saw myself, quite correctly, as unfit for the educational and social systems. But my parents and teachers did not share my self-image. Their image of me was unstable, since it was out of kilter with reality and based on their needs and wishes”. Susanna reveals to the reader that her opposition to the “educational and social systems” are seen as a lack of self-esteem and as signs of rebelliousness by those around her.

Furthermore, there are other factors including her age, gender, and financial status that put her into the ranges for mental illness, more specifically Borderline Personality Disorder. Susanna was only eighteen at the time that she was put into McLean Hospital, right around the time when her classmates were going into college, having relationships, and getting jobs. The manual also states that this disorder was “more commonly diagnosed in women”. In fact, many disorders were “more commonly diagnosed in women,” they didn’t bother to clarify that it was “more common in women”. This is because the attitudes and characteristics of women are seen as more fit to those of BPD. Which is unfortunate due to the When the girls watched the arrest of Bobby Seale on TV, she says “We looked at him, a tiny dark man in chains on our TV screen with the one thing we would always lack: credibility”. In addition to the stress brought by school, the eagerness to speak up was a characteristic often seen in individuals her age. Susanna’s instability, curiosity, and rebelliousness all alluded to her age. These behaviors were normal when it came to adolescents at her age. In the “Mind vs. Brain” vignette, Susanna refers to the experience of being on a train, next to another train, in a station. When the other train starts to move, one may feel like their own train has moved; it can take a while for the brain to inform the mind that it is, in fact, the other train that’s moving. This image of the two trains portrays the thin line between experiences that are considered as abnormal and those that are considered normal. Many of Susanna’s actions were misplaced under the “abnormal” category by her doctors.

During her time at the psychiatric ward, Susanna feels restricted and controlled in a way that she has never felt before. She made friends, acquaintances, and formed bonds with the other girls and keepers in her ward — her only friends. A supervisor was required during the most private moments; Susanna had to be watched by someone who was only four years older than her while shaving her legs. All of her belongings that could be seen as dangerous (including her belt) were taken away from her, and the girls could only go out with the presence of a supervisor. Everything was done for the girls at the ward, they didn’t have to cook, do laundry, or clean. So even the littlest things reminded them of the life outside the ward. For instance, in the “Keepers” vignette, Susanna reveals that, “when they looked at the student nurses, they saw alternate versions of themselves,” the nurses reminded the girls of the lives they might have been living if they hadn’t been admitted to McLean Hospital. Susanna was always in the search for something new, excited to learn about the things that were going on outside McLean Hospital; she always took advantage of any opportunities to explore the world outside.

One thing that kept crossing Susanna’s mind was if she was actually mentally ill. Susanna displays some signs of mental illness, however, she wasn’t experiencing Borderline Personality Disorder. The main sign of mental illness was her suicide attempt, “I called Johnny up, said I was going to kill myself… took the fifty aspirin” she explains. In another instance she describes, “I began scratching at the back of my hand. My plan was to get hold of a flap of skin and peel it away, just to have a look. I wanted to see that my hand was a normal human hand, with bones”. These are a couple of instances at which Susanna exhibits symptoms of mental illness. Eventually, the experiences Susanna goes through with her friends at the ward have lead her to question her normalcy and the extent of her mental illness.

In addition to the time that Susanna spends with her friends in her ward, she also sees three separate doctors. Susanna indicates that the view from her therapist’s room was “restful: trees, wind, sky” which was often silent compared to the silence on their ward, she liked coming here for that reason. Melvin and Kaysen had a mutual relationship and this made her feel a little less crazy. When Susanna visited the dentist to get her wisdom teeth removed, she was put to sleep for a while. This triggered her, and she wanted to know the exact amount of time during which she was asleep. In “Do You Believe Him or Me?” Susanna goes through a series of thoughts to calculate the amount of time that she had spent in the psychiatrist’s office before arriving at McLean Hospital. Her experience at the dentist’s office had reminded her of this time, which made her question the seriousness of her illness. In short, Susanna’s doctors were not helping or worsening her condition in any way.

Overall, Susanna Kaysen’s encounter of mental illness can be defined by her experiences at McLean Hospital. Although her symptoms at the time may have been considered as “Borderline Personality Disorder” there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that she fit under that category of mental illness. Susanna did exhibit symptoms of mental illness, however, these symptoms were generally seen in many patients and were temporary given her age at the time. 

16 December 2021
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