I have always been interested in reading about madness so when I signed up to do the Eclectic Reader Challenge, I decided to use Girl Interrupted for the memoir category as I had been meaning to read it for a bit. I had re-read The Bell Jar not so long ago and was interested to see what comparisons there would be in Kaysen’s memoir of the same hospital, in roughly the same era.
And there were some similarities. Both Plath and Kaysen seem distanced from life, unable to envisage the future or find joy in the things that were supposed to be joyful for girls their age. The difference came in the fact that Kaysen’s life outside of the asylum is not shown, simply the time she spent in hospital and, of course, in the fact that Kaysen survived to be able to look back on this period of her life.
Kaysen does not seem particularly insane. A lot of the time, her voice is reasonable with the odd descent into hysteria. Even then, like when she demands to know how long she has been unconscious during a tooth extraction and no one will tell her, there is something understandable about it. Maybe you or I wouldn’t continue to obsess about it but it was surely a reasonable request.
The ward is described in unrelenting detail and it is possible to imagine the horror of it. Every minute of their lives are accounted for. But what really comes across is the relationships between the women and the way they help each other. There are casualties along the way but there is no time to mourn and perhaps dwelling on it would be too difficult.
Towards the end of the book, Kaysen includes the description of her diagnosis – Borderline Personality – from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III and reflects on whether it was apt and whether she has recovered. For me, this was the most interesting part of the book. She is finally allowed to leave the hospital, not because she is cured, but because she has a marriage proposal. It does seem that a lot of the problem was to do with the narrow opportunities for women at that time. One of the symptoms of Borderline Personality is social contrariness which seems to point to social causes rather than medical ones. The fact that she is released in order to get married reinforces this fact.
Kaysen’s conclusions about her own madness reflect how I imagine a lot of people feel about themselves, a constant checking to make sure that we are not that crazy, an internal questioning and striving for normality that may evade us to a greater or lesser extent. She didn’t seem out and out crazy, more like there but for the grace of god type crazy. The sort of crazy you could imagine going.