Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Girl, Interrupted is Susanna Kaysen’s idiosyncratic account of the nearly two years that she spent in a mental institution, after she was “interrupted in the music of being seventeen.” In 1967, after having been interviewed briefly by a physician whom she had never seen before, Kaysen was put in a taxicab and sent to McLean Hospital, a private residential psychiatric treatment center.

Initially, Kaysen’s psychiatric treatment grew out of a failed—and fainthearted—suicide attempt involving fifty aspirin tablets, out of her failure to measure up to society’s expectations:[M]y parents and teachers did not share my self-image. Their image of me was unstable, since it was out of kilter with reality and based on their needs and wishes. They did not put much value on my capacities, which were admittedly few, but genuine. I read everything, I wrote constantly, and I had boyfriends by the barrelful.

This same diagnosis of social maladjustment, rendered with a particularly nasty misogynistic edge, is apparently what leads the psychiatrist to recommend Kaysen’s commitment after concluding that she has been picking at a facial blemish because she has trouble with a boyfriend. Several chapters later, almost as an afterthought, Kaysen reveals that this same doctor was later accused of sexual harassment by a former patient. It is characteristic of her style that she makes little of this observation, but like her, the reader cannot...

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Girl, Interrupted Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Girl, Interrupted was published to nearly universal critical acclaim. Although it is a highly personal account of one person’s journey through the world of modern psychiatric medicine, Kaysen manages to make her story emblematic of the dislocation experienced by young people—young women, in particular—beset at once by societal rigidity and social chaos. How, she seems to ask, can one grow into an individual when the slightest deviation from expected norms can result in a diagnosis of mental illness that will scar one for life? How, in the culture of the 1960’s, could anyone tell what the norm was?

Kaysen’s book is a poignant addition to the literature of women and mental illness, bringing to mind such classics of the genre as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), in which the spurned first Mrs. Rochester is confined to the attic of her husband’s mansion because she is deemed mad, and Jean Rhys’s prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which explains how youth and an alien culture served to “derange” Bertha Rochester. Kaysen’s mastery of irony and understatement, and the grasp of metaphor that she demonstrates throughout her book (nowhere better than in her explanation of her distinctive title), all make a strong case for placing Girl, Interrupted in such exalted, and decidedly literary, company.