I just finished Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. It was pretty good. A little twisted, a little scary, but a real eyeopener.
I requested the book from the library thinking that it was a fiction novel. I received it and found that it was non-fiction… AND based on the life of the writer. It even includes copies of her medical records and reports from her stay in a mental institution. It was refreshing to see someone brave enough to share their own story and share it without it seeming overdramatized.
It starts out with why she was placed in a mental institution. She attended an appointment with a doctor she had never met before and only saw him for 15 minutes or so before he placed a call for a cab to pick her up to take her to the institution. She even lists details of the conversation where basically she just states that she’s tired and that she’s getting her days and nights mixed up. She later details that she had attempted suicide before with about 50 aspirin, but this was long before the appointment. It seemed unbelievable that a doctor would do this, but when I read about what institutions were like in the 1960s, it’s exactly what happened quite often.
Kaysen then details her experiences and her interactions with others. She was diagnosed with a “character disorder” and spent almost 2 years locked in a mental institution. Some of the activities were jarring and the behaviour of some of the nurses was appalling. She talked about everything from sex with visitors, to medications and the dreaded thorazine drip that turned people into zombies for days on end, to one of her fellow patients receiving weekly electroshock treatments. The very notion that electric shock would do anything besides calm people into a state of submission and terror is terrifying to me. And we did this as late as the 1980s in some institutions. I am a strong advocate of behaviour modification through positive reinforcement, choice theory, and lead management and this whole book terrified me. Working with individuals with mental health and developmental diagnoses is what I do for a living and I don’t think I could have done any of this back then. I would have lasted about a week and then quit. Not that I wouldn’t want to help these individuals. I just don’t think I could have handled it.
Kaysen then talks briefly about her life after leaving the institution. She seems stuck and can’t make her life or relationships work. The entire health system failed her and left her hanging after giving up two years of her life to find a “cure.” I still get the impression that she’s not “cured” even today, despite her being discharged as “recovered” because she received a marriage proposal (yes, that’s really why they let her leave).
The book was a brave account of one woman’s terrifying two years. It’s not as bad as many of you would think a mental hospital would be and I think it’s just more appalling to me because of the field I’m in, but it really opened my eyes to how it was 50 years ago. Women were treated as “hysterical” for being promiscuous and having depression. Some of the treatments actually involved sterilization and the removal of the uterus.Seriously.
Anyone looking for a quick read (it’s only 168 pages) and who’s interested in or even has a morbid curiosity about the mental health sector should pick this book up. It’s mind-blowing, fascinating, and down right frustrating. It’s also very Sylvia Path-esque and since I love all of her work, I loved this book as well.
Long story short: 4/5 stars