Wednesday, 4 April 2012

75/111 - Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

I've read this book before, but I decided to watch the movie recently so I decided to read it again and see how it compared to the film. It's an autobiography of a young woman who is admitted to a psychiatric hospital back in the sixties. She goes for what she thought would be a couple of weeks and ends up staying there for almost two years, and the book is partly about her time inside and partly about her efforts to make sense of the journey that led her there now that she is older. The book is also pretty critical of the institution of psychiatry as a whole.

It's a very short book, and I read it all in one sitting but it definitely packs a punch. It's incredibly easy to read, which was great after Jasper Fforde, and each chapter is kind of a vignette which is loosely knitted together with the other chapters of the book. Through these, we are introduced to Susanna's situation and to  some of the other patients in the hospital. There are a lot of sad bits, but also a lot of funny bits too, and even though the glimpses into the world are very brief, I thought they did an excellent job of illuminating the whole story.

Throughout the book, there are also copied records of Susanna's medical files from her admission to the hospital until her release date, which she struggled hard to get. I would have liked to have seen these in more detail, but I have a crappy edition of the book and so everything is pretty fuzzy. Throughout the book she critiques the medical side of things, for example there's a quite chilling question that Susanna has been struggling to answer. Before her admission, she was seen by a doctor she never met before who admitted her almost immediately to the hospital. According to his notes, he examined Susanna for three hours, however according to her recollection, it can't have been more than half an hour. Once she has her medical records she goes back in and tracks the timeline from the rest of the paperwork, admitting along the way that she could be an unreliable witness. However the outcome is that her timings add up - in just half an hour and she is institutionalised for almost two years.

She also critiques her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, which, according to the literature is 'more frequently diagnosed in females' and the characteristics of which are more prejudiced against 'female' activities, like shopping and self-harm. One of the 'symptoms' is promiscuity, and Susanna makes the point that none of these symptoms are quantified - how many men would I have to sleep with to be considered promiscuous? How many women would a man have to sleep with for the same label?

Lots of interesting stuff.

I can't say I enjoyed the film as much. It was good, but a little too different. I thought that Winona Ryder was good as Susanna, and Angelina Jolie was good as Lisa, but they expanded her role in the film a lot. Same with Whoopi Goldberg, who plays the head nurse, Valerie. In the film, Susanna's and Lisa's relationship is seen very much as a kind of power struggle, and bordering on obsession. They escape together and kiss in the back of a van, for example. It's all a little too dramatic. Towards the end, there is also an awful montage scene where we see Susanna magically getting better, and it seems like once she has seen how low mental illness can bring you, she is snapped out of it and just sort of 'decides' to get better. The scene contains shots of her laughing and sitting on a couch gesticulating while her psychiatrist looks on with a knowing smile, and fading in and out is her voice, narrating.

I thought the film was a little harmful in a way - in several places Susanna is described by others as 'not being crazy' and just being a 'selfish little girl' - clearly she must have been more ill than she realised to be institutionalised?? I very much disliked the idea that she was just 'slightly troubled' and just had a few silly ideas, because I think this really trivialises things.

Good book, average film.

Next: not sure yet.

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