Tuesday, January 20, 2015

O.o.O.C: "Girl, Interrupted" by Susanna Kaysen

Out of Orbit Critiques (O.o.O.C.) are on books not in my usual genres that I review about once a month. This book is a memoir.

Mental health is a difficult subject to talk about, and even more so is the treatment of those afflicted with mental illness. This memoir details an eighteen-year-old girl's experience with the mental health care facilities of the sixties, specifically the one that Sylvia Plath also went to when she was recuperating. It is unpleasant to think of all the procedures we once thought helpful to the mentally ill: electroshock therapy, excessive medication, and ice water baths, and this book deals with the aftereffects of all of those on a group of Susanna's fellow patients.

The Plot: (As Seen on Goodreads)
'In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she'd never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele -- Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles -- as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.
'Kaysen's memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a "parallel universe" set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.'

This memoir also brings the subject of how we define mental illness, and at what point is someone nonfunctional in society. Although we don't have the doctor's side of the story, Susanna didn't appear that bad off (from what I could tell with the written account) when she was sent away to the facility. How can we really tell if someone is in danger of taking their own life or hurting someone else? If you pay any attention to the news, we all should know that sometimes there are no signs, or the signs seem so inconsequential that we ignore them and the results are dire. Girl, Interrupted may have been written in 1993 about events happening the 1960s, but it remains a relevant book on the subject of mental illness and its treatment.

Sexism also comes into play throughout the course of this book. 'Promiscuity' is one of the traits that is attributed to the disorder Susanna was diagnosed with. But what might be deemed promiscuous of girls is often shrugged off when the patient is male- in ways, males are expected to be highly sexually active. And, let's face it- when the events of this book played out, it wasn't that unusual to be sexually active with different partners: free love, anyone?

This quote sums up many of the ideas in this memoir perfectly:

"In a strange way we were free. We'd reached the end of the line. We had nothing more to lose. Our privacy, our liberty, our dignity: All of this was gone and we were stripped down to the bare bones of our selves."

    ~Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, page 94

Girl, Interrupted is one of my favorite memoirs. It straddles the line between introspection and storytelling, but also addresses the issue of mental illness in a cohesive fashion. If you want to know what it was like to live in a mental health facility circa 1967, this is the book for you.

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for a compelling memoir about mental illness.

Content: Ages 16+ for coarse language, gruesome imagery, mentions of suicide, drug use, and blow jobs.

Page Count: 168 pages in my paperback edition.

Fun Fact: The title for this book came from a painting by Vermeer: Girl Interrupted at her Music, which Susanna admired when she was a teenager.


  1. I've seen the movie, but I don't think I've ever read the book. Mental illness always fascinates me, so I may have to go back and pick this one up!

    Tammy @ Books, Bones & Buffy.

    1. I think the movie is quite a bit different from the book, but has the same feel to it (plus with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, you can't really go wrong). I don't pick up many memoirs, but this one is definitely worth reading and is short enough to breeze through in a few days.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Tammy!
      ~Litha Nelle


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