In this brief memoir, Susanna Kaysen narrates her experiences at the age of 18 when she tried committing suicide and was placed in McLean, a psychiatric hospital where famous figures, such as Sylvia Plath, had been institutionalized there too. Kaysen stayed there for two years with other young women her same age who became her friends.
Through vignettes without chronological order, she narrates the disturbing way mental health was treated in the 60s. It surprised me how normal it was back then to use shock therapy on patients, regardless of whether the patient showed signs of improvement or not. While it’s still used today in certain places, its’ popularity overall has declined. The field of psychiatry had made some progress, but there is still a long way to go.
Amidst her diagnosis, Susanna Kaysen was lucid and observant of what was happening within herself and her surroundings. Her voice felt sincere and insightful. She knew there was something wrong with her, describing her odd thoughts vividly. But when looking in retrospect, she also doubts whether she really needed to be hospitalized. Had she been a teenager in the 2020s, would she have been placed in the hospital? Or would therapy have worked better in her case?
Those two years spent in McLean represent a loss, an interruption to what could’ve been a normal life. Because having psychiatric hospitalization in your record will stay there, permanently. Can normality be sought after that?
To be honest, I liked the book better than the movie. I felt the movie exaggerated certain aspects, especially with Lisa’s character. It’s definitely worth the read if psychology and mental health interest you.
P.S. The book is titled after a Vermeer painting, “Girl interrupted at her music” (1660).