Saturday, June 30, 2012

GIRL, INTERRUPTED by Susanna Kaysen

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Bibliographic Information: Kaysen, Susanna. Girl, Interrupted. Turtle Bay Books, 1993. 168 pages. Tr. $17,  0679423664.

Plot: A memoir in which the writer describes her experience as a patient in the girls' ward at a famous psychiatric hospital. After a suicide attempt and a resulting aimlessness, Kaysen visits a psychologist in the suburbs who, after a quick evaluation, ships her off to McLean, a tony psychiatric hospital famous for its former clients (Ray Charles, James Taylor, Robert Lowell). Including actual hospital records and glimpses of the tumultuous events rocking the world outside the hospital, this episodic tale is a collection of fragments of memory about the characters the author met during her stay.

Along the way, Kaysen questions whether she should have been sent there at all. By her account, she is a rock of stability in comparison to the other girls (though there are some unsettling scenes in which she describes her own mental processes and one terrifying breakdown). To the author, the most fascinating of the patients is Lisa, bold, brazen, and disturbing, a girl whose uniqueness makes her, at different moments, a hero or a villain, tragically destructive or heroically rebellious. Kaysen captures the girls at this institution for the privileged in various stages of strength and decay.

Critical evaluation: At turns insightful, horrific, and humorous, Kaysen's memoir (which barely resembles the famous film) is a gripping look at a time and a place, but it also questions our definitions of mental illness. At the heart of the book is an investigation into what actually happened and whether or not she actually belonged there. The author calls into question our definitions of insanity. As in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the nurses, doctors, and other staff members often seem almost as unstable as the patients.

Reader's Annotation: A city girl, only 17, visits a new psychologist in the suburbs one morning. By the end of that day, she has been shipped by taxi to one of the most famous (and infamous) mental hospitals in the country. Why did she voluntarily admit herself? How, when she feels that she is generally sane, did she end up spending two years there? Who does she meet there? Does living with a group of troubled girls -- one of whom brags about being labeled "psychotic" -- help her or hurt her?

Information about the author: (two paragraphs):
A novelist and non-fiction writer, Kaysen -- the daughter of a Harvard professor -- was sent to a psychiatric hospital while still a teenager. She spent almost two years at McLean, a hospital famous for its celebrity patients. After her institutionalization, she married and divorced and launched into a career as a novelist, publishing Far Afield and Asa, As I Knew Him.

In 1993, she published Girl, Interrupted, her memoir of the time she spent at McLean in the 1960s. In 1999, a film inspired by the book and starring Winona Ryder was released. In 2002, she published The Camera My Mother Gave Me, about the author's experience with vaginal dysfunction.

Genre: Memoir
Curriculum Ties:
California Content Standards for Health -- Grades 9-12: Mental, Emotional, and Social Health
All elements of Standard 1 -- Essential Concepts (analyze signs of suicide, depression, describe how social environments impact health, well-being).

Booktalking Ideas:
  • Discuss the stereotypes we hold about mental illness
  • Talk about our ideas of what kinds of behaviors are sane/insane
  • Question: How could someone who seems sane end up institutionalized?

Booktalking Ideas: (one or two)
Reading Level -- sixth grade
Interest Level -- ninth grade and up

Challenge Issues:
Intense situations, sexual content, discussion of suicide and other forms of mental illness.
Challenge Defense:
Familiarity with content and critical reviews:
Library Journal review here:
New York Times Book Review

Why included? This book is a gripping and fiercely intelligent look at mental illness and the psychiatric institutionalization. It will force readers to think about our ideas about sanity, mental illness, and the people who make the distinctions between these two states.

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