Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

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Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Katherine Stanton
Reviewed by Katherine Stanton
Summary: A fictionalised account of the author's stay in a mental hospital lacks detail and entertainment value. For once we thought the film was better than the book. Not recommended.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 192 Date: February 2000
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1860497926

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Published in 1996, Girl, Interrupted is a documentary-style memoir of Susanna Kaysen’s two-year stint at the residential psychiatric facility, McLean Hospital, in Massachusetts. Kaysen was just 18 when she voluntarily admitted herself to the hospital in April 1967, a time that saw so much cultural change in America that I pity whoever was locked away for it. Kaysen published two novels before Girl, Interrupted, and it was during the writing of her second that memories from her stay at McLean began to surface. A legal battle ensued, which helped Kaysen retrieve her 350 page file from the hospital, extracts of which are featured in the novel.

The story is told through short retellings of events in non-chronological order. Characters and events are twisted and merged to protect identities. Kaysen introduces us to the other occupants of the ward – roast chicken and laxative addict, Daisy, serial escapist and wild child, Lisa as well as self-inflicted burns victim, Polly. Upon being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, the reader is pulled into Kaysen’s world of ups and downs, relapses and personal victories, as well as her eventual departure from the hospital, an apparently cured woman.

When it comes to true stories being adapted for fiction, they can go one of two ways – be absolutely magnificent or turn out complete bores. Girl Interrupted falls into the latter category.

Many authors, who set out to retell the stories of their lives, sometimes expect the success of the novel to ride on the autobiographical element alone. Facts cannot replace entertainment value – a mark that Kaysen has sorely missed.

Considering the subject matter, it could’ve been beautiful. Girl, Interrupted is a memoir of Kaysen’s two year stint in a psychiatric ward in 1967. Psychiatric wards are one of those ‘out-of-bounds’ places, a place that triggers curiosity in the perfectly sane among us. Psychiatric wards and those that belong there are what the average person wouldn’t get to witness except through the means of literature. Cue Kaysen, and thus disappointment.

She doesn’t tell us enough. The reader wants to know every little detail about what’s alien to them, and Kaysen doesn’t give us half as much as she should. The book lacks meat for the curious reader to feast upon. The characters are bare, we learn so little about them that they are easy to forget. There’s suicides, yes, ‘crazy’ moments, yes, but it’s all described with such emotional detachment that these events have little or no effect on the reader.

Girl, Interrupted wasn’t written for anyone but Kaysen herself. It’s like she used the publication of her memoirs as part of her healing process; they were written for nobody’s benefit but her own. I hope writing Girl, Interrupted was very therapeutic for her, because reading it did absolutely nothing for me.

If you are interested in mental illness in fiction we can recommend Crazy as Chocolate by Elisabeth Hyde. In The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness by Elizabeth Speller the author takes a factual look at the history of the women in her family to examine the root of her own mental illness.

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Buy Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen at


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