Even before Winona Ryder produced and starred in the film with Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted was a strikingly honest memoir that exposed the consequences of rejecting traditional female gender roles for white, affluent girls in the late 1960s. In the book, Susanna Kaysen alternates memories of her stay at McLean psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts with analysis of a mental health system that recommended institutionalization for rebellious girls whose families could pay the $60 a day fee, an enormous expense that, as Kaysen ironically notes, could have paid for several college educations.
But Kaysen refuses to go to college, rejecting the upwardly bound expectations of her parents and teachers. Instead, she lives in a Cambridge boarding house, working various jobs without a plan for her future or any particular ambition other than to be a writer. When her self-obsessive thoughts lead to an aspirin overdose, a therapist suggests that she “needs a rest” after a consultation of only thirty minutes (the amount of time is debated in the memoir as an example of the medical profession’s acquiesance in institutionalizing young women from the right kind of families). He calls a cab and Kaysen checks herself into McLean for what she believes will be a short stay. Instead, she’s there for nearly two years.
One of the debates framed by the memoir is the definition of insanity. Kaysen admits that she knew she wasn’t crazy but instead living in a state of contrariety: “My ambition was to negate. . . . So the opportunity to be incarcerated was just too good to resist. It was a very big No—the biggest No this side of suicide.” At 18, saying No is easier than suggesting an alternative and Kaysen doesn’t yet have the wisdom or role models to find her Yes.
Kaysen is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, a diagnosis given more frequently to women than men and a familiar description of many young women who don’t follow social expectations: instability of self-image, interpersonal relationships, or mood; engaging in impulsive acts like shoplifting or spending sprees. BPD can also have a self-damaging side such as self-mutilation or suicide. Still, the diagnosis remains controversial because of its gender bias and because many young women experience these types of symptoms at some point in their adolescence or young adulthood. As a therapist later told Kaysen, “It’s what they call people whose lifestyles bother them.”
One of the delights of Kaysen’s memoir is the inclusion of her hospital records detailing observations by hospital doctors and staff. One admission form notes that Kaysen is “likely to kill self or get pregnant.” Which fate would be worse for an affluent white girl in those pre-women’s liberation days? The note also labels her “promiscuous,” but as Kaysen later writes, “How many girls do you think a seventeen-year-old boy would have to screw to earn [that] label?”
Another debate at the center of the memoir is whether McLean was a refuge or a prison for young women like Kaysen. At that time of countercultural upheaval when attitudes regarding women were changing but social opportunities had not yet met their pace, the options for girls who questioned the status quo were still limited. Trying to live independently of her parents or a husband, Kaysen is confronted with sexist attitudes about women and the lonely struggle to make a living. In McLean, however, she is part of a community of young women who support each other and accept each other’s idiosyncracies within the shelter of a hospital that cares for their every need–except to let them leave the way they are.
Eventually, Kaysen does decide to leave this ensemble of misfit girls in order to pursue her own life, but the admiration and love they’ve provided strengthen her belief in herself. It’s this community of women that makes the memoir so appealing to young women readers, who are drawn to the sisterhood formed within the walls of Kaysen’s imprisonment and the collective antics that fill the time. They relish its depiction of friendship offered fully and freely, like the young women I saw on campus yesterday, two with arms around the third one sobbing, letting her cry as long as she needed, willing to wait as long as it took. How iconic that image and how important to coming of age for young women today as much as in Kaysen’s time.
My students love Girl, Interrupted. In part they’re fascinated by the story of a girl who refused the script that they themselves are living—college in preparation for a comfortable and interesting life, one they hope will balance work, family, and friends. But they can also see the allure of the hospital as refuge for Kaysen, the appeal of being taken care of while the world’s craziness goes on outside. Still, they know the value of their youthful years and they empathize deeply with Kaysen’s insistence on accounting for each minute she’s lost.
Girl, Interrupted makes me think about my own teenage years and I hope to write more about them someday. It’s tricky, though, to tell those truths because if they don’t sound trivial, they certainly sound crazy, an admission of behavior somewhere between bad judgment and caution thrown to the winds of wanting more. If you haven’t read Girl, Interrupted, give it a try and then watch the movie too. You’ll root for these girls and their crazy lives, intercepted until the times can catch up with them.