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Girl, Interrupted (Again) by Susana Kaysen: A Contemporary Outlook

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Thursday, Jul 30, 2009
A re-examination of Kaysen's memoir, which aims to reconcile young adult culture with mental illness, and capitalism, utilizing both contemporary and historical reference points...
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Girl, Interrupted

Susana Kaysen

(Virago/Vintage)

We live in an epoch of collective pessimism. Today’s youth, raised on falsely idealistic capitalist dreams have grown into a mass of self-possessed, hypochondriacs—afraid that the cancer of the world will spell their demise. OK, perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, but there still exists a certain grain of truth to this belief. As an active member of this very generation, I often find that there is a unanimous despondency amongst those around me. Small, personal traumas are elevated to magnanimous status, disavowing the historical context surrounding other members of our cohort, and our elders. The reasoning behind this is simple. We were promised the world, only to find that our parents had destroyed it with their greed. Of course, it is this very same ‘greed’ that has driven us into a state of chaos, and has made us unwilling to accept the more modest options available to us.


Whilst contemplating the melodrama surrounding young adult culture, I was compelled to return to one of my favorite pieces of autobiography, Susana Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. As many will already know, Kaysen’s seminal memoir released in 1993 became a best seller in the late 1990s after it was adapted into a Columbia motion picture starring Winona Ryder, and the now infamous Oscar-winner, Angelina Jolie.


The tale begins with an 18-year old Kaysen, just out of high school, being diagnosed with ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’. This judgment led Kaysen to an 18-month stint at the McLean mental hospital, which was notorious for housing many well-known figures and celebrities, including Sylvia Plath. Before, I divulge any deeper into the story or its subtext, it is worth considering the book’s tension between conformity and mental illness. Here, Kaysen is relegated to the outskirts of society, not so much because she was ‘mentally ill’, but rather, because she was unwilling to engage with the norms of capitalist society, desiring instead to lead the life of a writer. As expected, her parents, teachers and her analyst find this notion preposterous, concluding that she must be the subject of some significant malfunction.


With this consideration in tow, it is easy to see why youth culture can often be found crumbling at its seams. Capitalist society precludes conformity, and anyone who wishes to exist out with these bounds is in turn, considered delirious. He/She is subsequently left with very few options, but to manifest this anarchy through the vice of depression. The irony of course is that consumer society also acts as a double-edged sword. Those in society, who work their way up through the traditional hierarchy (graduating from law, business school and the like), may very soon find themselves wading through the erogenous ‘depression’ zone, when they realize that they can no longer keep up with their material desires.


Indeed, consumer society is driven by continuous ‘want’, but once the desire to ‘want’ subsists; the candidate may find that there is little else to ‘live for’. Equally dangerous is the despairing helplessness that can take place after a capitalist culture’s economic breakdown. An individual who exists in a consistently elevated middle-class will certainly find him or herself, incapable of functioning if the economy were to reduce them to a lower echelon in the hierarchy. It is no surprise then that the business centers of London and Tokyo are rife with as much suicide and ‘mental illness’, as those less affluent expanses of mainstream civilization.


This view of conventional culture is echoed throughout Girl, Interrupted. Kaysen uses sparse, documentary-like prose to study the characters in the enclosed institution around her, unmasking their motives through unabashed analysis. Let us consider the author’s representation of schizophrenic mental patient, Polly for instance. Polly has been sectioned because she had attempted to burn herself alive. But instead of portraying the young Polly as a helpless hermit, Kaysen chooses to emphasize her courage. She notes how Polly simply wanted to burn her troubled past away – and in a sense she emboldens her spirit. As a child of the post-grunge period, it is natural for me to draw parallels between this characterization and the youth who sought to reclaim self-harm as a viable means of expression. In high school, teenage girls and boys claimed it as ‘right’, and perhaps also had the misfortune of turning this very act into a form of ‘designer torture’.


This notion persists again with the author’s depictions of both Georgina and Lisa in the story. Lisa’s categorization especially, is marked by an exhilarating and untamed charm that could be compared to the likes of Jack Nicholson and his band of tormented Hollywood-era aficionados. This isn’t to say that her examination is entirely glamorous. The prose that expounds upon Daisy’s character, a sociopathic young girl addicted to laxatives is far more critical, for example. Instead of associating her with the wafer-thin poster children of the era, Kaysen delineates her life with a sense of unspectacular anguish.


Certainly, some will argue that the author had little intention in ‘commenting’ on or drawing such grand comparative analysis; after all, all of these portraits are based on real, living people. However, the word ‘based’ is the key to our understanding here. Like any writer in any medium, the work of the author will always to some extent be an ‘imagined’ reality. As such, I believe that each of these characters exists out with the realm of real life, and in its place serves as an allegory to greater social tensions at play in the conformist capitalist milieu.


In the end though, the most honest examination occurs when the author holds the mirror up to herself. Whilst recounting her suicide attempt, and her comparatively sheepish desire to damage her physical exterior, Kaysen is able to unravel a debate that challenges the reader to think about the tension between freedom (mental and physical), and the captivity that we are all subjected to by consenting to civil society.


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