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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Taking refuge in rage: ‘Girl, Interrupted,’ 30 years later

Susanna Kaysen, author of “Girl, Interrupted,” visited Porter Square Books for her memoir’s 30th anniversary.

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Susanna Kaysen is pictured at Porter Square Books on Apr. 12.

“Somebody asked me a long time ago: ‘From what emotion did you write this book?’, and I said, ‘rage,’” Susanna Kaysen shared about her 1993 memoir, “Girl, Interrupted.” To a room of curious listeners, each clutching their own copy of the book, this insight struck a chord. In a time when mental health wasn’t talked about openly, Kaysen wrote on her experience authentically and powerfully. Her words continue to captivate readers, and bookstores continue to shelve this literary classic. If art is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, Kaysen has succeeded.

On April 12, Porter Square Books hosted the Cambridge-born author for a 30th anniversary book talk on her best-selling memoir. Kaysen’s memoir is an account of her time at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric institution in Belmont, Mass. At 18 years old, Kaysen was brought to the hospital in a taxi and admitted for 18 months, from 1967–68. She wrote of the women she met, the hospital staff and the experience of being kept away from the outside world. The hospital was a parallel universe with different facts of life, inspiring a new perspective on the world outside McLean’s walls. As she put it, “Every window on Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco.” 

Since its release in 1993, “Girl, Interrupted” has gained a devoted following. For many, Kaysen’s account of her time in a psychiatric hospital still resonates. As of 2018, there were 1.5 million copies still in print in the U.S., and the book has almost 250,000 reviews on Goodreads. The memoir’s popularity surged after its adaptation into a 1999 film starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, the latter of whom won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Lisa.  

Girl, Interrupted” is especially popular among young women who relate to Kaysen’s experience as an 18-year-old woman dealing with mental illness. There are more than 80,000 TikTok videos under #girlinterrupted, and multiple audio clips from the movie have gone viral on the app. The movie’s characters are frequently included in Pinterest mood boards, and Kaysen’s story is often categorized under the “sad girl” aesthetic. Alongside other female-focused stories involving mental illness, “Girl, Interrupted” is a canon film and piece of literature in this internet subculture.

Kaysen described the process of writing “Girl, Interrupted” as a deviation from her usual process.

“Most of the time, I find writing very difficult, but writing this book was not very difficult. It was like a movie playing out. It felt very vivid to me.” When asked by one of the bookstore’s two employee interviewers about her intentions for the book, she responded that it was not meant to be an exposé but more of an anthropological study of the hospital’s environment.

For Kaysen, the memoir’s popularity came as a shock. When asked how she felt about the book’s reception, Kaysen expressed the initial surprise she felt and continues to feel. “It still surprises me that people are still reading it.”

Kaysen’s author visit at Porter Square Books was especially impactful due to the store's location in Cambridge, as McLean Hospital is just over a 15-minute drive away.  During the Q&A session, it became clear that multiple people at the event had spent time at McLean themselves. To be able to communicate directly with the author of a memoir so deeply relatable was a visibly sentimental experience for these guests. In those moments, the room felt a lot more like a community of neighbors with shared experiences. One woman who’d been hospitalized at McLean shared a particularly ironic memory with Kaysen.

“Some of the girls and I tried to watch “Girl, Interrupted” as a movie night, and they did not let us,” she recounted, drawing laughter from the crowd.  

Throughout the audience’s questions on her hospitalization, Kaysen made a point that her time at McLean had its highs as well as its lows. “It’s a rift, being put away from yourself, from regular life. It’s a strange rifting life and I don’t think that ever goes away. I made that experience, though, into something that brought me a lot of happiness.”

Despite some of the chaos that ensued during her 18-month stay, Kaysen ultimately described McLean as a refuge. “It was also a refuge. It was an irritating, frightening, bothersome refuge, but it was a refuge.”

Over 50 years after her hospitalization, Kaysen continues asserting control over her narrative, while seemingly harboring little resentment. Time has been crucial in the formation of a clearer perspective. “I think it takes a while to see the funny side of bad things,” she said in response to a question on how she incorporated humor into the memoir. Her advice to fellow memoir writers is to wait. “Many people now do not wait long enough,” she said. Time is necessary to digest the experience. In the case of “Girl, Interrupted,” the observations and feelings of Kaysen’s 18-year-old self remain timeless.