Girl, Interrupted Critical Essays

Susanna Kaysen


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Kaysen was not committed to McLean by her parents, but the depression that landed her there seems to have resulted from her inability to measure up to their image of what she should be. As Kaysen memorably puts it in Girl, Interrupted, “Lunatics are similar to designated hitters. Often an entire family is crazy, but since an entire family can’t go into the hospital, one person is designated as crazy and goes inside.”

Kaysen does not know if she was crazy in 1967, and she does not know if she is crazy still. As she said about that period of her life in an interview, “I was desperately unhappy, but I’m not sure it’s the same thing.” Indeed, Kaysen’s diagnosis, something called “borderline personality disorder,” partakes more of a sense of social maladjustment than of mental disorder. The symptoms of this malady seem to consist of “uncertainty about several life issues,” such as self-image, sexual orientation, and long-term goals, which manifest themselves as promiscuity and excessive shopping. As one of her psychiatrists tells her, a “borderline personality” is “what they call people whose lifestyles bother them.” Kaysen cannot help but note that the diagnostic manual says that this vaguely defined mental illness is “more commonly diagnosed in women,” adding, “Note the construction of that sentence. They did not write, ‘The disorder is more common in women.’ It would still be suspect, but they didn’t even bother trying to cover their tracks.”

As Kaysen argues, most young people caught up in the turbulence of the late 1960’s suffered from what the larger society perceived as personality disorders. She makes the case for the general craziness of the times most compellingly in a chapter called “Politics,” which features a young inmate named Brad Barker. Brad has been committed because he has delusions that his father is an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who works with two individuals named Liddy and Hunt, “guys who will do anything.” As Kaysen notes, what happens in the parallel world of the loony bin is a tryout for the real world: Years later, Bernard Barker, G. Gordon Liddy, and E. Howard Hunt would be connected with the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Although she conveys her story of her tenure at McLean with considerable irony, Kaysen does not deride her experience there. She seems to have valued, above all things, the sense of protection that it afforded her at a time in her life when she was feeling...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)