With startling clarity and honesty, Susanna Kaysen is able to recreate the terrible confusion of her institutionalized years: her feelings of depression and hopelessness; her obsession with the patterns found in things like rugs, tiled floors, and curtains; and her increasing disconnection from reality. But at the same time she examines the circumstances of her admittance to McLean. She contrasts her own account of that day with the doctor's, raising questions about each of their stories. And in the end, Kaysen can offer no definite answer as to whether or not she really did belong in that hospital. To her, it is all a matter of whose story you believe: "That doctor says he interviewed me for three hours. I say it was twenty minutes... We can't both be right. Does it matter which of us is right?" The paradox that makes GIRL, INTERRUPTED so astonishing is that Kaysen often doesn't seem sure of her own version. The girl, interrupted, has become a woman, searching -- for the true narrative of her own life.
The unsentimental depiction of the psychiatric hospital and the people in it is another strength of GIRL, INTERRUPTED. Kaysen paints searing portraits of the other young women on her ward -- Lisa, the sociopath; Polly, who set herself on fire and was left with a permanently deformed face; Daisy, who hoarded chicken carcasses under her bed. Naturally, Kaysen got to know her fellow patients and no doubt felt some kind of unspoken bond with them, but at no time does she allow herself or her audience to forget that the setting of her memoir is a mental hospital, and the patients there are very seriously ill. In contrast, at times throughout the movie adaptation, it is hard to tell if the girls are in a psychiatric hospital or a boarding school. In Kaysen's McLean Hospital, there was real sickness, and although the patients sometimes dealt with this sickness with humor and some compassion toward each other, there was no late-night bowling and girl-power bonding as seen in the recent film adaptation.
GIRL, INTERRUPTED offers few conclusions and puts forward few definitive statements. Instead, and more enticingly, it raises many questions: Was Susanna Kaysen crazy? Was she the unfortunate victim of a faulty system? If she wasn't crazy to begin with, did she go crazy while she was in the hospital? Kaysen is clearly grasping for the answers to these questions, too. The tension created by this uncertainty is part of what makes the audio so engrossing and unforgettable. Kaysen's reading gives this powerful audiobook an added dimension. Lacking the smoothness of a professional, Kaysen reads with the emotional turbulence of a person who has lived through the events but is still looking for a clear interpretation of them. At times her narration is choppy, and at other times her voice is more confident, even challenging, and I preferred this variability, which seems natural and unaffected, to the polished, distanced performance of a veteran reader.
But there is one point in which it is clear that she has come to terms with her past and, perhaps, has settled some of her own questions. It comes at the end of her narrative and is one of the lasting and haunting impressions left by the audio. Kaysen describes how, at seventeen, she came across a Vermeer painting and had an unnerving feeling that the girl in the painting "was warning me of something -- she had looked up from her work to warn me." Returning to the same painting sixteen years later, the girl only looks sad, and for the first time Kaysen notices the name of the work: "Girl Interrupted at Her Music." "Interrupted at her music: as my life had been, interrupted in the music of being seventeen, as her life had been, snatched and fixed on canvas: one moment made to stand still and to stand for all the other moments, whatever they would be or might have been." The fact that Kaysen never illuminates whether the interruption occurred in her own mind or in the psychiatrist's office where her fate was sealed is particularly poignant and reveals the ultimate significance of GIRL, INTERRUPTED.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Kaysen's startling account of her two-year stay at a Boston psychiatric hospital 25 years ago was an eight-week PW bestseller. (Apr.)
This is a powerful and moving account of the 17 months Kaysen spent on a ward for teenage girls at McLean Psychiatric Hospital. McLean was the hospital of choice for such famous patients as Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles. Kaysen, author of the novels Asa, As I Knew Him (Vintage Contemporaries: Random, 1987) and Far Afield (Vintage Contemporaries: Random, 1990), tells her story in a series of short chapters that capture the experience of madness. Her observations about the other young women patients are sharp and touched with a feeling of surrealism that pulls the reader into her world, where the line between sanity and madness becomes murky. As in other works about psychiatric hospitals, this book has its ``good guys'' and its ``bad guys,'' but the author is fairly even-handed in her treatment of both. Included between some of the chapters are copies of documents related to Kaysen's diagnosis and treatment. This is a well-written account of one woman's journey into madness and back. Recommended for general collections.-- Lisa J. Cochenet, Rhinelander Dist. Lib., Wis.
When Kaysen was 18, in 1967, she was admitted to McLean Psychiatric Hospital outside Boston, where she would spend the next 18 months. Now, 25 years and two novels (Far Afield, 1990; Asa, As I Knew Him, 1987) later, she has come to terms with the experienceas detailed in this searing account. First there was the suicide attempt, a halfhearted one because Kaysen made a phone call before popping the 50 aspirin, leaving enough time to pump out her stomach. The next year it was McLean, which she entered after one session with a bullying doctor, a total stranger. Still, she signed herself in: "Reality was getting too dense...all my integrity seemed to lie in saying No." In the series of snapshots that follows, Kaysen writes as lucidly about the dark jumble inside her head as she does about the hospital routines, the staff, the patients. Her stay didn't coincide with those of various celebrities (Ray Charles, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell), but we are not likely to forget Susan, "thin and yellow," who wrapped everything in sight in toilet paper, or Daisy, whose passions were laxatives and chicken. The staff is equally memorable: "Our keepers. As for finderswell, we had to be our own finders." There was no way the therapiststhose dispensers of dope (Thorazine, Stelazine, Mellaril, Librium, Valium)might improve the patients' conditions: Recovery was in the lap of the gods ("I got better and Daisy didn't and I can't explain why"). When, all these years later, Kaysen reads her diagnosis ("Borderline Personality"), it means nothing when set alongside her descriptions of the "parallel universe" of the insane. It's an easy universe to enter, she assures us. Webelieve her. Every word counts in this brave, funny, moving reconstruction. For Kaysen, writing well has been the best revenge.
From the Publisher
"Poignant, honest and triumphantly funny. . . [a] compelling and heartbreaking story." --Susan Cheever, The New York Times Book Review
"Tough-minded . . . darkly comic . . . written with indelible clarity."--Newsweek
"[A]n account of a disturbed girl's unwilling passage into womanhood...and here is the girl, looking into our faces with urgent eyes."--Diane Middlebrook, Washington Post Book World
Read an Excerpt
Toward a Topography of the Parallel Universe
People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can't answer the real question. All I can tell them is, It's easy.
And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe. There are so many of them: worlds of the insane, the criminal, the cnp-pled, the dying, perhaps of the dead as well. These worlds exist alongside this world and resemble it, but are not in it.
My roommate Georgina came in swiftly and totally, dur-ing her junior year at Vassar. She was in a theater watching a movie when a tidal wave of blackness broke over her head. The entire world was obliterated--for a few minutes. She knew she had gone crazy. She looked around the theater to see if it had happened to everyone, but all the other people were engrossed in the movie. She rushed out, because the darkness in the theater was too much when combined with the darkness in her head.
And after that? I asked her.
A lot of darkness, she said.
But most people pass over incrementally, making a series of perforations in the membrane between here and there until an opening exists. And who can resist an opening? In the parallel universe the laws of physics are suspended. What goes up does not necessarily come down1 a body at rest does not tend to stay at rest1 and not every action can be counted on to provoke an equal and opposite reaction. Time, too, is different. It may run in circles, flow backward, skip about from now to then. The very arrangement of molecules is fluid: Tables can be clocks; faces, flowers.
These are facts you find out later,though.
Another odd feature of the parallel universe is that al-though it is invisible from this side, once you are in it you can easily see the world you came from. Sometimes the world you came from looks huge and menacing, quivering like a vast pile of jelly1 at other times it is miniaturized and alluring, a-spin and shining in its orbit. Either way, it can't be discounted.
Every window on Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco.
"You have a pimple," said the doctor.
I'd hoped nobody would notice.
"You've been picking it," he went on.
When I'd woken that morning--early, so as to get to this appointment--the pimple had reached the stage of hard expectancy in which it begs to be picked. It was yearning for release. Freeing it from its little white dome, pressing until the blood ran, I felt a sense of accomplishment: I'd done all that could be done for this pimple.
"You've been picking at yourself," the doctor said.
I nodded. He was going to keep talking about it until I agreed with him, so I nodded.
"Have a boyfriend?" he asked.
I nodded to this too.
'Trouble with the boyfriend?" It wasn't a question, actu-ally1 he was already nodding for me. "Picking at yourself," he repeated. He popped out from behind his desk and lunged toward me. He was a taut fat man, tight-bellied and dark.
"You need a rest," he announced.
I did need a rest, particularly since I'd gotten up so early that morning in order to see this doctor, who lived out in the suburbs. I'd changed trains twice. And I would have to retrace my steps to get to my job. Just thinking of it made me tired.
"Don't you think?" He was still standing in front of me. "Don't you think you need a rest?
"Yes," I said.
He strode off to the adjacent room, where I could hear him talking on the phone.
I have thought often of the next ten minutes--my last ten minutes. I had the impulse, once, to get up and leave through the door I'd entered, to walk the several blocks to the trolley stop and wait for the train that would take me back to my troublesome boyfriend, my job at the kitchen store. But I was too tired.
He strutted back into the room, busy, pleased with himself.
"I've got a bed for you," he said. "It'll be a rest. Just for a couple of weeks, okay?" He sounded conciliatory, or plead-ing, and I was afraid.
"I'll go Friday," I said. It was Tuesday, maybe by Friday I wouldn't want to go.
He bore down on me with his belly. "No. You go now.
I thought this was unreasonable. "I have a lunch date," I said.
"Forget it," he said. "You aren't going to lunch. You're going to the hospital." He looked triumphant.
It was very quiet out in the suburbs before eight in the morning. And neither of us had anything more to say. I heard the taxi pulling up in the doctor's driveway.
He took me by the elbow--pinched me between his large stout fingers--and steered me outside. Keeping hold of my arm, he opened the back door of the taxi and pushed me in. His big head was in the backseat with me for a moment. Then he slammed the door shut.
The driver rolled his window down halfway.
Coatless in the chilly morning, planted on his sturdy legs in his driveway, the doctor lifted one arm to point at me.
'Take her to McLean," he said, "and don't let her out till you get there."
I let my head fall back against the seat and shut my eyes. I was glad to be riding in a taxi instead of having to wait for the train.
This person is (pick one):
1. on a perilous journey from which we can learn much when he or she returns,
2. possessed by (pick one):
a) the gods,
b) God (that is, a prophet),
c) some bad spirits, demons, or devils,
d) the Devil1
3. a witch
Velocity vs. Viscosity
Insanity comes in two basic varieties: slow and fast.
I'm not talking about onset or duration. I mean the quality of the insanity, the day-to-day business of being nuts.
There are a lot of names: depression, catatonia, mania, anxiety, agitation. They don't tell you much.
The predominant quality of the slow form is viscosity.
Experience is thick. Perceptions are thickened and dulled. Time is slow, dripping slowly through the clogged filter of thickened perception. The body temperature is low. The pulse is sluggish. The immune system is half-asleep. The organism is torpid and brackish. Even the reflexes are di-minished, as if the lower leg couldn't be bothered to jerk itself out of its stupor when the knee is tapped.
Viscosity occurs on a cellular level. And so does velocity.
In contrast to viscosity's cellular coma, velocity endows every platelet and muscle fiber with a mind of its own, a means of knowing and commenting on its own behavior. There is too much perception, and beyond the plethora of perceptions, a plethora of thoughts about the perceptions and about the fact of having perceptions. Digestion could kill you! What I mean is the unceasing awareness of the processes of digestion could exhaust you to death. And digestion is just an involuntary sideline to thinking, which is where the real trouble begins.
Take a thought--anything1 it doesn't matter. I'm tired of sitting here in front of the nursing station: a perfectly rea-sonable thought. Here's what velocity does to it.
First, break down the sentence: I'm tired--well, are you really tired, exactly? Is that like sleepy? You have to check all your body parts for sleepiness, and while you're doing that, there's a bombardment of images of sleepiness, along these lines: head falling onto pillow, head hitting pillow, Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, Little Nemo rubbing sleep from his eyes, a sea monster. Uh-oh, a sea monster. If you're lucky, you can avoid the sea monster and stick with sleep-iness. Back to the pillow, memories of having mumps at age five, sensation of swollen cheeks on pillows and pain on salivation--stop. Go back to sleepiness.
But the salivation notion is too alluring, and now there's an excursion into the mouth. You've been here before and it's bad. It's the tongue: Once you think of the tongue it becomes an intrusion. Why is the tongue so large? Why is it scratchy on the sides? Is that a vitamin deficiency? Could you remove the tongue? Wouldn't your mouth be less both-ersome without it? There'd be more room in there. The tongue, now, every cell of the tongue, is enormous. It's a vast foreign object in your mouth.
Trying to diminish the size of your tongue, you focus your attention on its components: tip, smooth, back, bumpy, sides, scratchy, as noted earlier (vitamin defi-ciency), roots--trouble. There are roots to the tongue. You've seen them, and if you put your finger in your mouth you can feel them, but you can't feel them with the tongue. It's a paradox.
Paradox. The tortoise and the hare. Achilles and the what? The tortoise? The tendon? The tongue?
Back to tongue. While you weren't thinking of it, it got a little smaller. But thinking of it makes it big again. Why is it scratchy on the sides? Is that a vitamin deficiency? You've thought these thoughts already, but now these thoughts have been stuck onto your tongue. They adhere to the existence of your tongue.
All of that took less than a minute, and there's still the rest of the sentence to figure out. And all you wanted, really, was to decide whether or not to stand up.
Viscosity and velocity are opposites, yet they can look the same. Viscosity causes the stillness of disinclination, velocity causes the stillness of fascination. An observer can't tell if a person is silent and still because inner life has stalled or because inner life is transfixingly busy.
Something common to both is repetitive thought. Expe-riences seem prerecorded, stylized. Particular patterns of thought get attached to particular movements or activities, and before you know it, it's impossible to approach that movement or activity without dislodging an avalanche of prethought thoughts.
A lethargic avalanche of synthetic thought can take days to fall. Part of the mute paralysis of viscosity comes from knowing every detail of what's ahead and having to wait for its arrival. Here comes the I'm-no-good thought. That takes care of today. All day the insistent dripping of I'm no good. The next thought, the next day, is I'm the Angel of Death. This thought has a glittering expanse of panic behind it, which is unreachable. Viscosity flattens the effervescence of panic.
These thoughts have no meaning. They are idiot mantras that exist in a prearranged cycle: I'm no good, I'm the Angel of Death, I'm stupid, I can't do anything. Thinking the first thought triggers the whole circuit. It's like the flu: first a sore throat, then, inevitably, a stuffy nose and a cough.
Once, these thoughts must have had a meaning. They must have meant what they said. But repetition has blunted them. They have become background music, a Muzak med-ley of self-hatred themes.
Which is worse, overload or underload? Luckily, I never had to choose. One or the other would assert itself, rush or dribble through me, and pass on.
Pass on to where? Back into my cells to lurk like a virus waiting for the next opportunity? Out into the ether of the world to wait for the circumstances that would provoke its reappearance? Endogenous or exogenous, nature or nur-ture--it's the great mystery of mental illness.