Welcome to the second installation of #mentalhealthmonday! I’m going to start up this series properly with a review of a classic memoir about mental health – Girl, Interrupted by 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.
I’ve mentioned this all over my blog before, but I love memoirs about mental health. This is a classic, and because I’ve read a couple contemporary novels about mental health, I thought this would be a good change of pace.
The main difference between this memoir and others I have read is that the events recounted take place in the 60s. I had a sort of vague knowledge about the leaps and bounds we’ve made in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses, but until reading this I didn’t really know what exactly they were. One of the main differences that struck me was the difference in terminology. In the 60s, Susanna was diagnosed with a ‘character disorder’ – now known as borderline personality disorder. The implication that her illness was with her ‘character’ is one that both fascinates and horrifies me. I would be very interested to read a paper or essay about how the terminology of mental health has changed.
Not only is Girl, Interrupted about a fascinating topic, but it is also interestingly written. A lot of the chapters begin with handwritten notes from Susanna’s psychiatrists, as well as documents from her doctors, such as her admittance form. I will admit though, my copy was a little bit small, so some of the handwritten material was a bit difficult to read. What I could read, however, was very interesting. I think this contrasted really well with the relative simplicity of the main text, because some of the doctors’ analyses differed hugely to Susanna’s understanding of herself.
This was especially because Susanna is an unreliable narrator, despite this being a memoir. At first it isn’t really obvious – in fact, the only real mention we have of it is that Susanna almost constantly tells us that she was committed to McLean Hospital after only 20 minutes with a new doctor. She later tells us that the doctors say she was with the doctor for 3 hours. She breaks down the ways in which she would have spent this time, and makes equally valid cases for 20 minutes and 3 hours. From here on, I was constantly on my guard about her assertions. I loved being kept on my toes like this.
By necessity, Girl, Interrupted isn’t the most up-to-date memoir about mental health. However, the differences between it and current memoirs are extremely interesting, and I can certainly understand why it is regarded as a classic.
NB: this was my free choice for Diversity Bingo 2017.