Girl, Interrupted

“They had a special language: regression, acting out, hostility, withdrawal, indulging in behavior. This last phrase could be attributed to any activity and make it sound suspicious: indulging in eating behavior, talking behavior, writing behavior. In the outside world people ate and talked and wrote, but nothing we did was simple” (Kaysen 84).

Susanna Kaysen’s memoir begins by stating a question that people often ask her: “How did you get in there?” She claims, though, that the question is not really, How did you get in there? but rather, Am I going to be sent there, too? Kaysen asks reflective questions intermittently throughout her narrative about the definition of sanity, exploring the possibility that everybody is insane like herself, but simply acts as though they are not. Sanity is a term with which Kaysen struggles. In attempting to understand her own sanity (or insanity), Kaysen, of course, compares herself with those considered sane, those of what she calls “the outside world.” The issue becomes that there is no way of actually seeing into another’s mind, and some may simply be better at hiding the aspects that would condemn them as insane. According to this particular realization, sanity could very well be a construct that appeases people, making them feel normal when it is applied to them. Labels help us to achieve self-realization, and human nature leads us to be fascinated by this type of categorization, especially of ourselves; this is why personality quizzes like the Myers-Briggs personality test are extremely popular.

In considering the temporal context of Kaysen’s story, 1967 to 1968, her diagnosis could be a result of the misunderstandings between the generations, as we have briefly discussed in lecture. As a young woman in her late teens in the latter part of the 1960s, the period was one of great rebellion and revolution, particularly in those her age. Her lack of drive to attend college after high school was seen by older generations and guidance counselors as personality instability, when really it was just nonconformity. So, although Kaysen does struggle through a period of serious depression, she feels that she is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder essentially because she did not seem normal, she did not conform.

Labels are a way we categorize ourselves, but the term “sane” or “insane,” both onerous labels, attributed to a young woman by a doctor, has great implications for the development of self. Kaysen’s presence in McLean, and her being the constant object of observation by dozens of people including several different nurses and at least three doctors, could have caused of some of her depersonalization issues. Kaysen was surrounded by the “insane” (others who had been categorized by a doctor previously), and so she came to identify with it. Simple things like “eating behavior, talking behavior, writing behavior” are analyzed within the walls of a psychiatric ward with paramount gravity, but in “the outside world” (as Kaysen commonly refers to it), these behaviors are absolutely normal. With the label, a borderline personality patient indulging in these behaviors is unsavory, means for investigation and further needling into the psyche. It shows the power of personality categorization and the ripple effect that stigmatized words have on self-image especially when applied officially and rationally by credible people – on a medical record by multiple doctors. Kaysen feels that she spent two years in a psychiatric hospital where every page she wrote in a journal and every meal she ate would be “indulging in behavior” because one man, at one specific moment in her life, described her as having a borderline personality on an official medical record, a hasty categorization of a young woman going through a difficult time in her life.

Kaysen, Susanna. Girl, Interrupted. New York: Turtle Bay Books. 1993. Print.