I finished Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen last night and it brought back so many memories. Because, you see, when I was a teenager I was also locked up in the loony bin. And as Kaysen so refreshingly asserts, being in a crazy environment can make you question your sanity.
It’s much like the chicken and the egg: Were you crazy to begin with or does being locked up and continually analyzed and watched and medicated make you crazy?
Whatever the case, I found Girl, Interrupted to be a jumbled yet surprisingly smooth read. Written in short segments that don’t always follow a linear time pattern (much like being crazy, no?), it includes segments of Kaysen’s actual hospital charts, which add an air of authority and also a bleakness: Reading, it’s impossible to forget that Kaysen had been locked up for almost two years due to a “personality disorder.”
This personality disorder is never quite defined. Possibly, it was simply a facet of late adolescence. Possibly, it was more. It’s hard to know and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is Kaysen’s insights, and the distant and almost calculating eye she cast on her own life. She never fishes for sympathy; she doesn’t attempt to sway the reader to her side. She simply tells her story:
For many of us, the hospital as as much a refuge as it was a prison. Though we were cut off from the world and all the trouble we enjoyed stirring up out there, we were also cut off from the demands and expectations that had driven us crazy. What could be expected of us now that we were stowed away in a loony bin?
Of course, most people have probably seen Girl, Interrupted the movie, with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. The book casts a different flavor, a more in-depth journey into the mind of a girl who flits on the brink of madness, mostly due to being too self-involved with her own thoughts, though again the question, as Kaysen poses more than once, of what came first: Was she so self-involved because she was crazy or was she so self-involved because she was locked up with no responsibilities or schedule or anything to do day after day after day?
“It’ll be okay, won’t it?” I asked. My voice was far away from me and I hadn’t said what I meant. What I meant was that now I was safe, now I was really crazy, and nobody could take me out of there.
Even if you’ve seen the movie, the book deserves a read. It’s honest and carries a self-derogatory humor that makes you want to reach inside the pages and hug Kaysen, pat her thin shoulder, tell her, “I know, I know.” It’s that kind of book.
I give it five stars.
Reading this, it brought back memories of my own time in the loony bin. When I was sixteen, I overdosed and was rushed to the hospital, had my stomach pumped and was promptly admitted to the psychiatric ward. It was fall, I remember, for there were Halloween decorations on the hospital windows. I was on the adolescence ward, though we mingled with the grown-ups during occupational therapy (where we made moccasins and painted ceramic cats) and exercise and meal times.
I was in that hospital, confirmed crazy, until my insurance ran out. Then I was quickly deemed cured, kicked back out into the real world and returned to high school, where I was seen as a freak, a rebel, which surprisingly made me more popular than I had been before I had gone crazy.
That hospital was crazy. We all sat around and smoked, even those of us who would never smoke again, and we told stories, we made up stories, all of them lies and we knew they were lies but our lies comforted us. We lied and smoked and evenings, I crept into the kitchen and stole food. I did this with Jeri, a woman who was dying from brain cancer.
This is how crazy that hospital was: Jeri was in her early thirties, recently married and dying of a brain tumor. Her doctor admitted her to the psch ward because she was depressed. I mean, why in the hell wouldn’t she be depressed? She was young. She was fucking dying.
Jeri and I would sneak into the kitchen at night and steal the food labeled with other patients’ names. Family and friends were allowed to bring us food and this was doled out to us a little at a time, as a reward. Jeri and I stole cookies and cakes, sandwiches, puddings, and then crawled beneath the white-tableclothed tables and ate with our bare hands, eating and laughing until we could barely stand it.
That’s another crazy thing about that hospital. We ate at wobbly tables covered with white tablecloths, even though we ate with plastic silverware.
I had a boyfriend in there, a tall, blond-haired boy named Bill who was in because he threatened to kill his father after his girlfriend dumped him. We sneaked into supply closets and bathrooms and kissed until we were breathless and limp. After we both got out we dated for a while but it didn’t work. Without the restrictions of the hospital, without the sneaking around, the thrill of getting caught, there was nothing holding us together.
What I remember most about that hospital, though, is the endless hours, how they pressed down with such agony, with such slowness, until I could barely stand to remain in my own skin.
We were all medicated. I was on antidepressants, tranquilizers and sleeping pills. My head whirled and I walked around in a dumb stupor until I learned to slip the pills behind the corner of my tongue and spit them out later. I could trade them for food or books or favors. We all did this so that we were either high on someone else’s medication or anxious from lack of our own medications.
I saw a psychiatrist each morning. He was dark-haired with a beard shadow, even though he was closely shaven. He asked me three questions: How did I sleep? Was I eating? What did I dream?
I was labeled as anti-social. Neurotic. Bi-polar. I was put on lithium for one hellish week, and I retained water and my skin puffed up until the doctor abruptly decided I wasn’t bi-polar after all, I was sexually immature, I was acting out, I was hysterical. I was moody, I was suicidal, blah, blah, blah. The doctor recited these each day until I no longer heard the words.
Surprisingly, after I was released, I slipped back inside a fairly normal lifestyle. I was still depressed, and that depression would follow and flirt with me for years, but from the outside, I looked like any other young girl. I was on the school dance team, which performed during halftime at football and basketball games. I ran on the cross-country and track teams and got a running scholarship to college. A few years later, I began winning writing awards and realized that my fickle mind, my maybe-crazy mind, was a gift of sorts.
Yet even now I’m afraid of being locked in, of the sound of a door closing behind me, of not being able to go outside when I want, of having my freedoms snatched away. Some things you never get over. Some things stay with you. Some things define and shape you and no matter how you try, you can’t get over making a distinction: This was my life before, this is my life after.
Kaysen understands this, of course, for she ends Girl, Interrupted in the most perfect of ways, by describing Vermeer’s painting of Girl Interrupted at Her Music (and you’ve got to love Vermeer, who was probably crazy in his own right):
The girl at her music sits in another sort of light, the fitful, overcast light of life, by which we see ourselves and others only imperfectly, and seldom.
Don’t miss this: Monday, Julie Valerie stops in for a visit, and I think you’re all going to love her as much as I love messy and fat and partially crazy Vermeer (though Julie is not messy and fat and partially crazy, she’s beautiful and together and runs the most wonderful book blog). See you all then.