Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Girl, Interrupted

      According to the DSM-V, someone with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder exhibits “a pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning in early adulthood” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013*). Instability could manifest itself in recurrent suicidal behavior, chronic feelings of emptiness, inappropriate and uncontrollable anger, and more. When eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen had her stomach pumped following a suicide attempt, she was promptly sent to a psychiatrist who gave her the “borderline personality” label. The visit was disturbingly short before the doctor directed her to McLean Hospital for treatment. She voluntarily admitted herself to the famous institution (known for treating my girl Sylvia Plath as well as other celebs like James Taylor and Ray Charles) with the incorrect assumption that she would be court-ordered otherwise. The psychiatrist had originally insinuated that McLean would simply serve as a two-week repose from the stresses of everyday life. Kaysen’s stay ended up lasting 18 months and in her memoir, Girl, Interrupted*, Kaysen grapples with whether or not she belonged there for that long, if at all.
         The memoir discusses the gray areas of her diagnosis, emphasizing its vagueness when compared to something more straightforward and rooted in research like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Her insights blur the lines of how we conventionally perceive mental illness and how we delineate sane vs. insane. She was prone to depressive thoughts that clouded her world and diluted her relationships. She experienced visual disorientation that made everyday activities difficult to navigate. She indulged in the freedoms of imprisonment, often viewing the hospital as a refuge because it allowed her to avoid the demands and expectations set by society. Yet, she didn't display the sociopathic tendencies of fellow patient Lisa Rowe, an ex-junkie who relished her diagnosis and treated others with a coldhearted lack of concern. She didn't have an addiction to laxatives and an obsessive compulsive relationship with chicken like fellow patient Daisy Randone. She didn't invent fantastical stories about her father being a CIA agent or exhibit violence like fellow patient Wade. Is Susanna like the rest of these crazies just because she’s in the loony bin too? Kaysen challenges us by questioning what normalcy is. She posits that the patients of McLean Hospital are sacrifices for the “healthy population”, giving them a nice contrast so that they can live comfortably in the knowledge of their own sanity. This social commentary is accompanied by her scientific complaint that there is not enough cross-over between psychoanalysis and neuroscience. When she was hospitalized in the late 1960’s, there was not much communication between the two fields; psychoanalysts focused on the “soul” and neuroscientists focused on the chemical workings of the brain. Because little was (and is) known about the neuronal activity influencing personality disorders, this separation was particularly problematic for Susanna. How was she supposed to get better? Would there ever be a “cure”? What did recovery look like?
         When I read The Bell Jar, I adored Plath’s prose but I had mixed feelings about the ending. I knew that she had killed herself in real life, so the fact that I didn’t buy her recovery spiel isn’t surprising. I didn’t buy it because she didn’t recover. I took issue with this from a literary perspective; I thought that Plath intended to convince readers that she had gotten better and she failed at doing that, for me. Kaysen’s memoir didn’t have this problem because she gets right to the heart of the validity of recovery. Her writing style is admittedly less poignant and piercing compared to Plath’s, but I never doubted the sincerity of her experiences.
        As many readers know, Girl, Interrupted made it to the big screen in 1999 with an all-star cast including Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Brittany Murphy (RIP), Elizabeth Moss, Jared Leto, and Whoopi Goldberg. The acting in this film… Oh. My. God. Ryder had me simultaneously cheering for her to be freed and deeply concerned that her afflictions were irrecoverable, perfectly encapsulating the tug-of-war mood of Kaysen’s memoir. Jolie played a phenomenal villain, embodying true craziness-- I think this is her best performance to date. Did the movie honor the book in terms of factuality? In some ways, yes. We see that Susanna is stuck in a helpless situation where she doesn’t fit in anywhere. She doesn’t belong “outside” because she has these distressing afflictions and she doesn’t belong “inside” because she isn’t textbook mad like the others. On the other hand, there were several nonfactual plot developments presumably intended to add a more sinister element to the film.  For example, I don’t see how there’s an opportunity to gallivant around in the underground tunnels when the patients are supposedly being checked on every 15 minutes. Of course, this kind of practical lens gets in the way of a good chased-by-a-syringe-holding-sociopath story. Additionally, Susanna’s relationships with other patients are intensified in the movie and some new characters are added. Perhaps this serves to show the variability of “crazy” within the institution and to contrast Lisa to Susanna, hinting that the former was a hindrance to the latter’s treatment.
It’s worth noting that the movie was tremendous in its own right and my only qualms with it are its deviations from the memoir itself. Standing alone, I give the film 5 out of 5 camel humps. Similarly, I give the book 5 out of 5 camel humps.  I think that Kaysen was honest and careful in documenting her plight and she was able to express her feelings about her experiences in a compelling, heartfelt way. Of all of the mental-health books I’ve read and reviewed, I strongly recommend:
·         Girl, Interrupted if you want a brutally candid description of psychiatric hospitalization in the 1960’s. Pair with a glass of scotch and be prepared to reevaluate your own understanding of sanity.

·         The Bell Jar if you want to experience darkness and demise in the most poetic and beautiful way possible. Pair with a glass of red wine and be prepared to soft cry rather than soft smile.
·         Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness if you want to both terrify yourself and further comprehend the complexities of the brain. Pair with a vodka soda and pray that you don’t develop encephalitis.  
*American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.
*Kaysen, Susanna. Girl, Interrupted. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Print

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