A. Brief Summary
Girl, Interrupted is American writer Susanna Kaysen's much-acclaimed memoir published in 1993. The book deals with Kaysen's reflections on her two-year in-patient stay at McLean Hospital from 1967-1969. Relying much on her memory, she recollects what it is like to be admitted at the Belknap ward as an adolescent teenager after attempting suicide. From how she got in at McLean and whether she really belonged to the institution, along with everything she experienced at the ward, people she met, to every treatment she had received, were encapsulated in short, succinct chapters that unspool as her narrative thread (Kaysen, 1993).
Kaysen also gives accounts of moments on the ward, such as what it is like being followed around and her dealings with nurses and doctors. She alternates her observations inside the ward with retrospective contemplations of the relevance and rationale behind the years that interrupted her life. She also does not miss a beat alternating her personal narrative of confinement to how the mental institution serves as both haven and jail for people living on the ward (Kaysen, 1993).
Learning about all these details and reasoning in Kaysen's life before and after her committal at the McLean Hospital contributes to our understanding of her condition, and in general, of women in a mental institutions using sociological perspective. For instance, what do we do when she wonders whether what we call sanity is just an illusion that people make to feel normal? Is she a victim of a massive psychiatric faux pas that diagnosed patients ad hoc in order to fit the fading social environment? Is her disagreeing a lot with society's imposed norms and values, which oppose with other's views makes for a plausible case against her to be relegated under persons with mental illness?
There are also aspects in the autobiographical book that tackles Kaysen's healing outside the residential psychiatric hospital and the stigma attached to being entered in a mental institution. These, along with the contrasting gap between Kaysen's views and her parents, can be said to emerge in part as a result of our out of lack of understanding of how it was like to become an adolescent American, belonging in the upper-class culture Kaysen was brought up in, and living in the tumultuous era in America.
When more deeply considered, Girl, Interrupted is neither merely a simple tale about a single white female suffering from some mental condition nor her recovery after her confinement in a cold, prisonlike facility. Kaysen's memoir offers varying social-based themes for study, such as the self, social conformity, gender, female roles, social class, stigma and more. Sociological, anthropological and psychological perspectives may offer more illuminating insights about the issues present at the memoir of Kaysen and to make sense of her diagnosis that both haunts and perplexes her.
In this memoir that can be likened to a confession, Kaysen is able to flesh out the deeper recesses of her internal battle which blends with the different side of her emotions of sadness, anger, happiness, and bitterness. Yet, the overpowering tone remains that of a girl whose defiant tone wages opposition against society's gendered norms and mores. However, there are still a lot to appreciate as well as explore about the book which shows Kaysen's seeming inability or deviation to adhere to gender normalization (e.g., being perceived as rebellious of authorities), which could possibly be all she need to her stay in the mental hospital (Kaysen, 1993).
The approach used by Kaysen is diary-like, which in many ways offers a more relatable, candid and trustworthy chronology of her days at McLean. Readers will be more likely connect with Kaysen's depiction of her emotions in a sense deeper than one would from a fiction work. Diary, unlike novels, lead readers to believe the testimonial of the author, albeit identification which account of memories are real and invented were never considered. Nevertheless, the emotional fidelity of Kaysen seems more reliable, which presents less of a challenge to investigate or pare it with sociological discourses (Kaysen, 1993). Thus, when Kaysen reveals the absurdity of the observations of supposed medical experts, her chosen approach proved effective in convincing readers that not all expert diagnosis are legitimate and fool-proof.
Overall, the autobiographical writing is essential in developing theory-based claims about mental disorder, trauma, production of gendered pedagogies, and the likes. In many ways, it also seems her diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) does not point to her brain as the culprit, but her identity. Clearly, this can be connected to how it is more social norms that is the tipping point of her being committed on the cold, prisonlike realm of McLean than being diagnosed with a mental disorder.
It is interesting to note how Kaysen would discover that there was not much of a difference outside than it was inside the mental facility because the social normalcy she so defiantly fights against was imbedded in and inseparable from the psychiatric practices. McLean, Kaysen would later realize, is equipped against rebellious culture and that it is prone to diagnose and institutionalize patients more on grounds of their social deviance rather than true psychiatric disorders.
There is also an important point to consider about the changing American culture and public social opinion about adolescents. Apart from biological and social factors, there are other causes of psychiatric illnesses. Thus, it can only be hoped that the implications of these diagnoses would be taken more seriously now than they were in the late 1960s.
A. Violence and Mental Disorder in Women As A Gender Issue
The issue of sexism, which Kaysen recounts in her memoir, can be said to be more evident during her teenage years than as is today. The author writes about the prejudice and discrimination she face prior, during and post-hospitalization, all because she is a woman. Observing at the environment her typing job at Harvard, Kaysen mentions how the male populace dominate the supervisory staff there while the typing personnel is only women. She also complained at the inequality she faces in their Harvard workplace from how women are allowed to smoke but only in the bathroom to subjecting them to strict dress code. Then as soon as she set foot outside the mental institution, her job hunting presents another challenger to her discrimination to persons diagnosed with mental disorder were rampant. It was as if the only career women can take are jobs that are less demanding intellectually, such as service jobs.
Being diagnosed of borderline personality disorder is a gendered illness. Kaysen notes that unlike other mental illnesses, BPD is most commonly diagnosed in women. Even its symptoms, she tells her readers, are identified in women. Shoplifting, compulsive shopping, binge eating, and promiscuity, according to her, are subcultures and mores that also are often associated to women and not men (Ekleberry, 2000).
On the other hand, far more men are diagnosed with narcissistic behavior, antisocial, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Hence, herein lies the controversy about why more women are being diagnosed with personality disorders than men. According to Hartung & Widiger (1998), many experts are still on the side that diagnosis of mental disorders continues to be plagued by biases and methodological issues, in part as a result of overdiagnosis of personality disorders in women.
Then there is the issue of suicide and self-harm, which experts often associate with mental health disorders. As such, they are so easily pathologized (Pickard, 2015). Using mental health disorders as a lens, as when it is associated with suicide, self-harm and women, could change our grasp of the nature of such behaviors. In fact, it may not even be viewed as violence on account that women are non-violent beings. But, as Pickard (2015) points out, recognizing suicide and self-harm as violent acts would lead us to easily pathologize the same to be exemplifying irrationality bordering on ones tendency to be hysterical, emotional, and incomprehensible.
Moreover, Simone de Beauvoirs feminist stance that women are the gentle sex (1949) is useful in this analysis. Unlike in women, aggression and violence are natural tendencies of men. Hence, it is unnatural for women to be violent because they are culturally expected to fit in the archetype of a loving, nurturing, mother figure (Motz, 2008). But going against this cultural archetype of ideal woman would definitely shock society as when violence in women whether directed towards oneself or towards others are perpetrated. Thus, our view of violence in women as a manifestation of perverse, defiant, and sick persona because the broke the ideal female nature (Pickard, 2015).
This observation was noted in Silva's research about breakdown and recovery in female memoirs (2013), who contends that Kaysen was right about calling female madness as a gendered issue, however. Most characterizations of women as non-violent and emotionally unstable are not mental disorders per se but more relative to their deviance of their societal roles (Silva, 2013). She suggested that the conflict between the traditional patterns of femininity with having a career has been ignited by the countercultural movements after the Second World War in the United States. According to her, what emerges during those period of time were more deviant women writers who would not oblige to the dictates of social norms about their very specific roles in society (Silva, 2013).
B. Kaysen's Hospitalization: Questioning Paradox of Captivity and Freedom
McLean in Belmont, Massachusetts figured as the venue of Kaysen's institutionalization in a private hospital from 1967 to 1969. As described by Warner (2009), this mental facility was architecturally designed with therapeutic motives that did not strayed far from its roots of hundred years amid the popularity of psychosocial perspective. The memoirist, meanwhile, describes McLean as both a haven and a prisonlike facility for the living, even noting about McLean as a refuge as much as a prison. Once she enters the mental facility, Kaysen comes to realize the apparent difference of getting inside McLean as opposed to her expectations that is, not all captivity would require the surrender of one's liberty (Warner, 2009).
Moreover, in various chapters, she writes that the ward is organized and systematic, operating to keep patients under limited mobility because they become constantly subjected to scrutiny from nurses and doctors at all times. Except for the seclusion room reserved for out-of-control patients who pose risk and harm to others every room is public at McLean. When it comes to this room, Kaysen says that any patient may opt to be confined in this room. The seclusion room can allow patients to choose to be lone for certain period of time there, which in effect rid them from scrutiny and being in the company of other patients. To this remarks, McLean can be metaphorically be a microcosm for the entire experience of institutionalization to the mental facility.
Furthermore, Kaysen finds the paradox about captivity and freedom reinforced because patients confined there are eased of the burden of attending school, getting discriminated for a job because she is a woman, mandatory bills, parents, or dealing with the outside world. However, she also learns that in the outside world, this paradox between freedom and imprisonment is present. She comes to understand this when after completing her two-year stay at...
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