“People ask, how did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can’t answer the real question. All I can tell them is, it’s easy.” This is how Susanna Kaysen opens the memoir; poignant and honest, and it is how she remains up until the final page. She is offering us, as readers, a frank look into the lives, and more importantly the minds of mental patients that inhabit the ‘Claymore’ Hospital – a foil for Mclean Hospital – in 1960’s America. But, even from the opening lines I saw immediately it was not a run-of-the-mill ‘story’ about ‘crazy people’ that I have read so many times before, but what sets it apart is the sheer reality of it. Everyone is real, right down to Daisy’s cat that inhabits the novels pages, and so it becomes a candid confessional rather than a pretty little account of alienation and degeneration.
It was late in 1967 when Susanna Kaysen was put into a taxi by a friend of the family and was taken to McLean Hospital where she would stay for about two years, at just eighteen years old. This peculiar situation makes it obvious why the Sunday Times described Girl, Interrupted as “unexpectedly funny”. The candid tone collides with Kaysen’s piercing wit to produce a flawless account. The memoir is dark in its comedy; it is her odd sense of optimism that gives lines such as “Did the hospital specialise in poets and singers or was it that poets and singers specialise in madness?” its piercing hilarity. But at the same time, it lacks all hilarity entirely, due to its examination of Kaysen’s own imperfections and ‘madness’, but also the flaws of the system that diagnosed her.
Girl, Interrupted is such a fascinating and compelling read, heightened by the inclusion of pages from her 350 page hospital file which were obtained after her release with the help of a lawyer. She does not pull any punches. She does not skirt around a subject. And I think that is what I most admire about it; her complete, wholehearted honesty, made evermore powerful by the lack of a romanticised and flowery tone. Her eloquence collides with her vulnerability. Hilarity collides with anguish and madness collides with insight to make up an amusing, but heartbreaking memoir.