The title of Girl, Interrupted originates from a painting by Renoir that depicts a girl staring pleadingly from her prison-like frame, victim to the gaze of all passersby, but also almost willing them to stare. However, it is also a metaphor for the life of a girl, swept into a mental institution and suspended there without physical, temporal or emotional connection to the outside world for two years.
This is the true story of Susanna Kaysen told though a combination of her own view at the time, and what she has come to understand since. Interestingly, it also embeds copies of the doctors notes and medical records of the time which, when decipherable, provide a heart-wrenching double perspective of a life changing diagnosis. It makes you question the sense and ethics of mental health care in the 70s, but also makes you question the narrator’s reliability. It is never entirely clear who’s perspective is to be trusted.
Undoubtedly, Kaysen was suffering. She recounts ‘arm banging’ episodes of self harm, delusions about the passage of time and in one particularly difficult episode seeks to scratch out her bones to check that they are there. Yet at the same time, her treatment is cold and patronising. Her diagnosis is based on symptoms that ring true of pure adolescence and, at a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness, it is difficult to trust the judgement of the ‘professionals’. She is at first shuffled off into the institution by what seems to be an uninterested doctor, and when a later doctor attempts to use her as a test subject for his analytical skills, she mocks his basic psychoanalytical theories with her own Freudian interpretation of his lifestyle. This further shows the subtleties of what is deemed insane and what is deemed normal – this is not a binary.
The jumpy narrative is extremely effective and
serves to amplify her obsession with the passage of time and her need to allocate and document her own time exactly. It also interrupts the reader’s experience of the narrative which not only reflects the otherworldly nature of the isolation, but also gives a real sense of the interruption of life that the institution causes.
The patients watch the news with a detached sense of understanding and vie with each other for the more serious diagnosis. I did find it uncomfortable how some of the patients behaviours and delusions appear to be displayed for effect. One patient called ‘the Martian’s Girlfriend’ is particularly explicit and seems to be used for sickly comic value. Whilst I don’t doubt the reality of Kaysen’s account, it did jar with me that the girls’ conditions seemed to serve as a vehicle for shock and entertainment.
The entire novel is unsettling. In this horrific, glaring memoir, Kaysen makes the reader feel a fraction of the painful experience of a young girl alone and confused, both outcast from society and member of a complex community, and so we should feel unsettled.