Book Review: “Girl, Interrupted” by Susanna Kaysen, (with a bit of comparison with “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath)
It was a natural step after reading “The Bell Jar” to read “Girl, Interrupted”. On the surface the stories are very similar.
Both novels involve a young girl suffering a mental illness. Both made an attempt to take their own life. Both spent time in a psychiatric hospital (the same one, although years apart) and describe their treatment.
While Sylvia Plath changed the names of the characters and fictionalized her account, “The Bell Jar” is nevertheless held to be largely autobiographical. Contrastingly, Kaysen, in her book, is overtly autobiographical.
Kaysen wrote her account years after her illness, after she had secured access to her own medical records. Copies of various medical notes are included in the text to corroborate her tale.
Plath’s narrative seemed to be told for its own sake; Kaysen’s seemed more purposeful, somehow – she seemed more intent on explaining settings and systems and conditions and definitions. Perhaps this was her own way of processing her experience through the lens of the medical notes years after the fact – but I felt more involved as a reader in this account. The narrative voice was reaching out to explain things directly to the reader. Although “The Bell Jar” was also written in the first person, the character of Esther was not as personally engaging – but then, Plath had distanced herself from Esther, so that is perhaps unsurprising.
The opening of the novel is odd. She seems to be admitted to the hospital after a very brief meeting with a doctor. The circumstances of her admission are fragmented and she re-visits this moment several times throughout the book with memories and with documents. There is a chapter called “Do you believe Him or Me?” which begins, “The doctor says he interviewed me for three hours. I say it was twenty minutes.” This short chapter shows Kaysen genuinely grappling with the events of the past and engaging with the reader as confidante.
Some chapters are simple narrative and description – recounting the relationships and antics of the patients and staff. Some of these narrative chapters spring out of a reflection, or lead into reflection. Other chapters are explanations – such as the chapter ‘Velocity vs Viscosity’ which begins “Insanity comes in two basic varieties: slow and fast.”, and ‘Mind vs Brain’ that begins, “Whatever we call it – mind, character, soul – we like to think we possess something that is greater than the sum of our neurons and that “animates” us.”
Kaysen seemed very interested to understand her diagnosis which was “Borderline Personality Disorder” and she gives some time into a thorough analysis of the definition that she had and reflecting on her own self and, year later, how she felt about it.
I was interested in the title “Girl, Interrupted”. Kaysen explains that this had significance because of an emotional connection she had with a Vermeer painting called “Girl Interrupted at her Music”:
“Interrupted at her music: as my life had been, interrupted in the music of being seventeen, as her life had been, snatched and fixed on canvas: one moment made to stand still and to stand for all other moments, whatever they would be or might have been. What life can recover from that?”
Perhaps, instead of a canvas, Kaysen held the sheaf of notes documenting her stay in hospital – and, like the museum visitor she was years later, she was able to look back and see the life that was interrupted more objectively.
“The Bell Jar” and “Girl, Interrupted” have a great deal in common. “The Bell Jar” I would argue is a greater work of literature in terms of language, with a wider scope and sense of history and significance. “Girl, Interrupted” is more personal and more reflective – as it would be as a personal, reflective account. One is a novel, one is openly an autobiography – so, despite their common ground, they are tricky to compare. Which would I recommend? Hmm… If you were looking for literary genius, go for Plath; if you want to have a good old think about the nature of sanity and insanity, go for Kaysen.