Small Demon
May 092010
 

Notes on Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. I ignored this when it came out a few years ago, consigning it to the category of Chick Lit. That was a mistake. The memoir focuses on the year and a half during the late 1960s that Kayman spent as a patient at McLean Hospital. She was eighteen when she went in and twenty when she came out, “stabilized” but skeptical of conventional wisdom, a trait that makers her a good writer. There isn’t a wasted word in the 168 pages of text. The portraits of her fellow patients — other adolescent girls — are moving and funny, but not sentimental. Kaysen refers in passing to some of the famous people who have passed through McLean — James Taylor, Robert Lowell* — establishing the class affiliation of the patients. She points out that you don’t get to stay there unless someone keeps paying the bill each month.

When the teen-aged Kayson refuses to consider going to college despite her obvious intelligence and verbal gifts, I found myself reacting with incomprehension until I realized that this was the most radical form of rebellion a young person of her class could engage in, whereas, where I came from, going to college was very often considered a kind of betrayal of one’s family. Remember Huck’s father berating him for going to school? Something like that. Going to college, I aspired to transcend my class; Kaysen does the same thing by “attending” McLean Hospital.

Kaysen’s personal recollections are for the most part objective, with a minimum of interpretation, so that when she does reach for the larger meaning of her madness her observations are grounded in direct experience; furthermore, she rejects easy conceptualization at every turn, refusing to create meaning where she does not see it. This gives the book an unsettling quality that emerges from this rhetoric of negation and refusal. The effect on the reader is a sense of the author’s integrity. Girl, Interrupted presents a fragment of the 1960s. From her genteel madhouse, the young Kaysen looks out on the assassinations, riots, the hippies & the Yippies, the Vietnam War & Watergate. These details are sketched sparingly, like the distant city in a Renaissance landscape, but they serve to establish both the cultural and personal context for the story.

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*She might also have mentioned Alice James, sister of Henry & William — and perhaps William himself, the records are missing and there is only circumstantial evidence.

  2 Responses to “Girl, Interrupted

  1. I used this Kaysen book (she has one or two others) for my Madness and Society class. My career almost came to a crashing end on two occasions: First, I failed to note the title of one chapter, “The Accidental Blowjob.” Second, in the midst of our discussion of the book, one student asked if everyone in class that was taking an SSRI please raise their hand. Before I could I could say anything about the inappropriateness of the question, about 75% of the class had their hands up. It was sure a fun class that aged me considerably.

  2. Hmmm . . . I would have had to raise my hand. Well, SNRI.

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