‘Girl, Interrupted’ by Susanna Kaysen

Warning: this is not a book. It’s a painting.

A reader looking for a clear storyline – that is to say a clear beginning, with a discernible central core, maybe an ordeal for the main character and a well-defined conclusion – would be quite disappointed.

There’s no storyline to follow, more like episodes, stories, memories.

A scrapbook of people and experiences from the concrete womb Susanna was locked in, to protect her – or maybe to protect the outside world, to provide some distance between the stigmatized mental illness and the sane, ‘normal’ people.

What Susanna Kaysen wrote is a portrait of mental illness, as if she was drawing brush strokes to compose a painting of her profound distress, a state of mind.

These are her own memories about the time spent in a psychiatric hospital, the McLean Hospital at 115 Mill Street – and go on explaining why you lived there for two years, to a potential employer – diagnosed as affected by a borderline personality.

Along with Susanna’s case, though, In McLean Hospital, there are of course much more complicated cases than a borderline personality.

There are sociopath like Lisa, schizophrenic like Polly and Georgina, victims of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder like Daisy, manic depressive like Cynthia and drug addict like Lisa Cody.

All of these deranged personalities are constantly clashing against the ‘sane’ members of the staff – despite the fact that the night nurse is herself completely nuts.

A clearer shade appears only when this work of memories sits beside the painting that had it all started. Or maybe it just brought it up to light.

Girl interrupted at her music
– Johannes Vermeer

“It’s the painting from whose frame a girl looks out, ignoring her beefy music teacher, whose proprietary hand rests on her chair. The light is muted, winter light, but her face is bright.

I looked into her brown eyes and I recoiled. She was warning me of something – she had looked up from her work to warn me. Her mouth was slightly open, as if she had just drawn a breath in order to say to me, “Don’t!””


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