I’ve been reading a lot of books about mental illness, the brain, & madness over the last few months in preparation for teaching a course with my colleague Stephen Casper, a historian, called The Literature and History of Madness. I’ve been reading mostly in the “popular” rather than the scholarly literature, which I will get to soon enough. Most recently, I’ve finished Michael Greenberg’s memoir of his daughter’s crack-up, Hurry Down Sunshine. One is not likely to read a less sentimental and more clear-eyed account of psychosis than this. Told with great sympathy for all involved, especially Sally, Greenberg’s daughter, the story is presented without a trace of sensationalism; but what I found most intriguing about Greenberg’s account is his exploration — almost entirely in asides and very brief digressions — of the the paradox of psychosis: that it is born of the basic human need to make sense of the world, often through language, but that when this drive goes wrong, when it seeks totality, madness results. (I still remember my friend B.A. lying on the couch in my Capitol Hill apartment in Seattle in 1975 listening to the radio because it was telling him the meaning of life & how everything made sense.) Greenberg’s daughter Sally, though “learning disabled” is a verbally brilliant teenager, who ultimately gets tangled up in her own twists & turns of language & meaning. There is a moment near the end of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, which is the ur-text of modern American psychosis, in which the wise psychotherapist who has drawn her patient out of hell vehemently insists that there is no connection between madness and imagination, psychosis & creativity; but if there is no necessary connection, there is a borderland across which the two entities regard each other, that’s clear. It is a borderland into which Greenberg’s sensitive account shines a narrow beam of light, revealing a few salient features of the place, which is perhaps all we can ask.
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.
*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.