“Girl, Interrupted”: Navigating the Labyrinth of Mental Illness

Title: Girl, Interrupted

Author: Susanna Kaysen

Type: Memoir, 168 pages 

Publisher: Turtle Bay Books

Price: $14.40


Mental illness is a dark labyrinth for the mind and soul. Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, serves as a guide through that maze. Kaysen’s memoir is an account of her getting diagnosed with borderline personality disorder when she was eighteen-years-old. She frames her story with a series of vignettes that recount her experience with borderline personality disorder, depression, and suicide. Kaysen is known as an advocate for mental health reform due to her experience as a patient in McLean Hospital in 1967.

Kaysen’s inspiration for the book title came from the Vermeer painting “Girl Interrupted at Her Music” which she describes as a metaphor for her own life. She states, “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… What life can recover from that” (p. 167)? Girl, Interrupted places readers in Kaysen’s mental state in order to help them live vicariously through her internal experiences. Although the story is not a linear narrative, Girl, Interrupted is a culmination of personal narratives that give the reader a sense of hope and guidance in dealing with mental illness.  

Kaysen’s memoir is not a conventional tale. There are no heroes, no villains, and no universal threat to overcome. Instead, Kaysen describes humanity and the flaws of dealing with a mental illness. Her story revolves around her fellow patients at McLean. She gives an element of humanism to all of the people in the hospital, including the staff members. She speaks about her friends: Lisa Rowe, a diagnosed sociopath who constantly escapes and causes mayhem to everyone in the hospital, Polly Clark, a pyromaniac who suffers from schizophrenia and depression, Georgina Tuskin, Kaysen’s roommate who was also diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Daisy Randone, a pompous girl who is addicted to laxatives and was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. While these ladies do not seem like the ideal clique, Kaysen humanizes them so that readers are able to empathize with their journeys.  

In describing the behavior of her peers, Kaysen uses vulgar language and obscene imagery to paint a picture of living in a psych ward. There is an overwhelming array of dark humor in the book, which, I have to admit, made me chuckle at times. Needless to say, Kaysen’s take on mental illness is one that finds humor in the darkest moments of life. Her analysis of mental illness is also very thought-provoking. For example, she tackles certain themes such as the impact of mental disorders on an individual’s psyche, the importance of community when dealing with mental illness, the common misconceptions of labeling someone with a mental disorder, and the difference between treating a chemical imbalance in the brain and treating an emotional scar within the soul. 

In terms of addressing the problems of labeling someone as a “crazy person,” Kaynes states, “lunatics are similar to designated hitters. Often an entire family is crazy, but since an entire family can’t go into the hospital, one person is designated as crazy and goes inside” (p. 95). She also claims that people often feign vulnerability just to assess their own mental state in comparison to others. She states, “‘you spent nearly two years in a loony bin? What was wrong with you?’ Translation: I need to know the particulars of craziness so I can assure myself that I’m not crazy” (p. 125). 

I enjoyed Girl, Interrupted because it gives insight into the mind of a broken teenage girl and her healing journey. Kaysen’s memoir reveals a beautiful picture of community and how it is essential for treating mental illness. This memoir is very important for understanding someone who is suffering from mental illnesses such as borderline personality disorder and depression. Kaysen’s memoir is a great addition to your library and it is also helpful to have in academic settings. This memoir would be perfect for psychology classes as well. I also recommend watching the 1999 film adaptation to get a visual representation of the book’s themes. Overall, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted is a thrilling memoir that depicts the challenges of living with a severe mental disorder and finding hope in great tragedy.

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