Review: ‘Girl, Interrupted’ by Susanna Kaysen

I’ve just finished reading ‘Girl, Interrupted’ by Susanna Kaysen, and so I thought I would write a review, while it was still fresh in my mind!

‘Girl, Interrupted’ is an autobiographical novel (written as fiction) about Susanna Kaysen’s experience at McLean hospital, a hospital for those struggling with mental illness. She is admitted to a women’s ward in 1967, and this book follows her journey, until she leaves a few years later.

This hospital is ‘famous’ for admitting troubled writers, artists and musicians. One of my favourite authors, Sylvia Plath, spent time here, and so this is what pushed me to finally read this book. It’s incredibly short, and I read it in a day. Despite only really taking place in a mental hospital, it’s surprisingly fast-paced, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Something which really hit me when reading this book was the problems with the medical system during the 1960s. Throughout the book, Kaysen includes excerpts from her medical records from the time, detailing what was actually “wrong” with her, and why she was sent to this hospital.

Throughout the book, she cannot work out why she has been referred to McLean, and, while this could be to do with the fact that she cannot understand the extent of her depression and suicidal feelings, ultimately the incompetency of the mental health services is highlighted, particularly in its attitude towards women. Susanna is supposedly battling suicidal tendencies, and depressive behaviour. But as far as I could tell, all the nurses did was drug her up.

“”I’m not safe,” I said suddenly.

Valerie was back, with a full medication cup.

“Valerie, I’m not safe,” I said.

“You take this.” She gave me the cup. I could tell it was Thorazine from the color.”

Another issue highlighted in the book was attitudes towards women. Yes, it is clear that Kaysen harboured some depressive feelings, but when she goes through her medical report at the end of the book, it becomes clear that, like so many other young women at this time, she was sent to McLean because she did not conform with the image her parents, and society, had created for her. She was ‘temperamental’, creative, and aspired to something other than college or marriage, and this alone labelled her as odd, and perhaps a little insane.

Throughout the book, Susanna’s ‘bad’ behaviour before being admitted to McLean is suggested as acting promicuously, and Kaysen makes the key argument that this was seen as a very female issue. The idea of someone being locked up in a mental hospital because of having too many lovers is seen as ridiculous, but at this time it was all too true for women in America.

“How many girls do you think a seventeen-year-old boy would have to screw to earn the label “compulsively promiscuous”? Three? No, not enough. Six? Doubtful. Ten? That sounds more likely. Probably in the fifteen-to-twenty range, would be my guess- if they ever put that label on boys, which I don’t recall their doing.

And for seventeen-year-old girls, how many boys?”

One thing I really liked about this book was the honesty of the narrator. I liked how she chose to write her memoir as a piece of fiction, but still placed small bits of fact throughout the text. Her experience certainly had hints of Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar.’ This honesty also translated into wit, and I liked the witty comments made by her friend on the ward, Lisa.

Some of the comments Kaysen made throughout the text really made the modern reader laugh in disbelief and shock at the mental health services of the time.

“”A writer,” I said when my social worker asked me what I planned to do when I got out of the hospital. “I’m going to be a writer.”

“That’s a nice hobby, but how are you going to earn a living?”

… Luckily I got a marriage proposal and they let me out. In 1968, everybody could understand a marriage proposal.”

As well as the dry wit of the narrator, I also liked her interactions with the other girls. Without realising, she built up a community with the girls on the ward, and I liked this aspect of the memoir. The character of Lisa- witty, funny, sarcastic- was also refreshing. She was labelled a sociopath, although as far as I could see she was just  a bit cutting sometimes, coming up with savage remarks about those around her, and challenging authority more than the other girls. I doubted whether she even needed to be in a mental hospital, just as I doubted Kaysen’s reasons for being In McLean.

Overall, I thought this was a witty, interesting and honest portrayal of life in a mental institution. Seeped in history, it really appealed to me. While there are many issues with the mental health services today, the 1960s were certainly a difficult time for those struggling with depression, or even those labelled as ‘other.’

Just like with ‘The Bell Jar’ this book made me question the society of the time, and why these bright young women felt compelled to kill themselves, or harbour negative thoughts about themselves. I often wonder if, had they had more options and freedom, and their intelligence hadn’t been so stifled, sacrificed for their husband, would so many of them have been referred to places like McLean.

And Kaysen raised the point of whether these women needed to be kept in places like McLean, given shock therapy and drugged up. The problem was clearly with society, not the women, and yet they were the ones who were treated this way. It all seemed very unfair. This book certainly made me think, and it was brilliantly written. I would recommend it to fans of Sylvia Plath, or to those interested in honest, personal accounts from the 1960s.

There’s a film version of this book, featuring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. I definitely want to check that out at some point. Plus, if anyone has any info on the upcoming film version of ‘The Bell Jar’- hit me up!

Have you heard of this book? Would you consider reading it, or maybe watching the film? Are there any memoirs you enjoy reading? Let me know any thoughts in the comments below!

Happy reading!

Picture credits here

32 thoughts

  1. I’ve wanted to read this book for a while, since it raises the question of whether the problem lies with the patient or the “caretakers.” Books laden with symbolism and societal questions are my cup of tea, so I would say your review has shot the book up even higher on my TBR list. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw the movie years ago, and that one scene with the bathroom and the eerie song still makes me shiver. The book sounds interesting though! I’d consider reading it now that I’ve had SO LONG to get over the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The book gives a good insight in what Borderline Personality Disorder is like, it wasn’t understood back then (still not so much today). The movie is a lot more dramatic, great movie but not a good representation of bpd. I have read the book many times ☺️

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, it is a disorder rarely discussed, and for sure at the time the book was set in, no one had any idea really what to do. I can imagine that they dramatised it a bit, but it’s a great book, and I’m glad you enjoyed it as well! Thanks for dropping by ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, I always do that with films, I feel so dumb when I’m caught out! But it is a great book, I would recommend it 🙂 I’ve had a lot of people recommending the film as well if you preferred a more dramatised version 😉 thanks for dropping by ❤️❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved the film of this novel but I couldn’t quite get myself to read it all the way through. Same with The Bell Jar. I really want to make myself read them both one day.

    I do love memoirs though! I highly recommend A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown and if you’ve not already read it: A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. I’ve got more if you need ’em. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The problem was clearly with society, not the women, and yet they were the ones who were treated this way. – You summed it perfectly with one sentence. I can’t believe that having a different view and being happily husbandless accounted to being labelled mentally ill. While we still have a long way to go, we have come very, very far indeed today.

    I was just debating (5 or so minutes ago) whether I should read this, as it’s on my must read TBR but I haven’t read a preview, so now I definitely feel that it is well-justified to be on my list. Excited to read this!

    I hear Angeline Jolie essayed the role of Lisa in the film adaptation and won an Oscar for it and based on the description you’ve given of Lisa, it seems like the perfect role for her. I can’t wait to watch the film and the upcoming Bell Jar film and I haven’t even read the book yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much- and you’re so right, society was at fault here! It’s crazy, and I’m books such as this, or the bell jar, there’s no wonder women felt driven to do awful things to themselves in this oppressive society.

      Ah, I’m so glad I managed to give you an appropriate preview, and I hope you enjoy both this and the bell jar if you end up reading them. I really need to watch the films, I can’t wait for the bell jar to come out!

      Like

  6. A great, thorough review. I always draw comparisons with “The Bell Jar” too. I think the film “Girl, Interrupted” is totally worth checking out. It is one of my favourites, actually. Despite some critics’ criticism, the performances are very good there, and I enjoy the character study and the feel of the film. It is James Mangold, after all. In fact the film made my list of top 10 films featuring a mental hospital.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I loved this book – I’m glad that you enjoyed it! The film is really good, but it’s NOTHING like the book. I still recommend it – I read the book after viewing it, but thought both were excellent. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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