Girl, Interrupted interrogates how women are ‘mad’ when they refuse to conform – 30 years on, this memoir is still important

Why was Susanna Kaysen really hospitalised? Her memoir Girl, Interrupted turns 30 this year. It investigates whether she was ‘mad’, or medicalised for a ‘chaotic’ life that defied gender norms.

She was admitted, aged 18, in 1967. A few months earlier, she had taken 50 aspirin in a state of despair. Late in the book, she reveals she had a sexual relationship with her male English teacher at school.

In June 1967, the formal medical notes from her admitting doctor stated she had “a chaotic and unplanned life”, was sleeping badly, was immersed in “fantasy” and was isolated.

Kaysen was admitted as “depressed”, “suicidal” and “schizophrenic”, with “borderline personality disorder”.

While the psychiatric diagnoses used in the 1960s still exist, the borderline diagnosis is now controversial. Progressive psychologists and feminist psychologists are more likely to use the term “complex trauma”. Some of the other young women in the memoir had traumatic life experiences of sexual abuse and violence, which manifested as eating disorders and self harm.

We can also read the book as an exposé of the controlling world of psychiatric institutions for people in the 1960s. The vast majority of people with psychiatric conditions were confined in public institutions, in often overcrowded conditions. Abuses happened, and violence was common.

McLean’s own “biography” is the subject of another book. Gracefully Insane shows its reputation as housing sometimes idiosyncratic and wealthy people whose families wanted them to be hidden, fearful of the stigma of mental illness in the family.

Plath’s The Bell Jar fictionalises her hospitalisation at McLean in the 1950s, following a suicide attempt.

Revisiting Girl, Interrupted, I am struck by its raw and honest recognition of the way women have sometimes experienced relationships with men as inherently oppressive. The structures of psychiatry and romantic love intersect throughout this book.

Kaysen, like Plath, sees the family as a toxic institution. Male psychiatrists loom over both women, imposing in their authority to diagnose.

Source: Girl, Interrupted interrogates how women are ‘mad’ when they refuse to conform – 30 years on, this memoir is still important

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