When Susanna Kaysen was 18, she went to see a new psychiatrist for a conversation after what appears to have been a suicide attempt. She swallowed a large amount of sleeping pills, then regretted her decision and wandered out into the street to get help. The psychiatrist claimed to have spoken to and evaluated Ms. Kaysen for more than three hours, Ms. Kaysen herself claims the meeting was barely half an hour. The end result was nonetheless that she ended up committed to McLean Hospital, a mental institution, for nearly 18 months, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
The book doesn’t follow a chronological narrative, but rather jumps around, in a series of vignettes and recollections from Ms. Kaysen’s time in the mental institution and her thoughts about her own diagnose, treatment and the treatment of mental illness in the 1960s in general. She describes the ward where she stayed, the various girls who were in the institution with her, several of the doctors and nurses and a lot of the day to day life in the hospital. It is clear from some of what Ms. Kaysen relates that she was a troubled and conflicted young woman, she among other things had an affair with her English teacher, but whether she was so mentally ill that she needed to be institutionalised is unclear. From Ms. Kaysen’s in-depth explorations of what actually lies behind the justification for “borderline personality disorder”, quite a lot of young people just starting out in life fit into that profile and most do not end up heavily medicated and monitored in a mental hospital. Whether a confused and somewhat depressed young woman’s situation was made a lot worse by incarcerating her and surrounding her with actually mentally ill women is also one of the questions the reader is left with.
I had only ever seen the film version of this, with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. I saw it many years ago, and can remember not being all that impressed with it. When I saw the book was on sale in e-book recently, I recalled various Cannonball reviews over the years speaking positively about it, and decided to give it a try. Especially as it fit into several of my reading challenges this month, like the Monthly Key Word (girl) and the Monthly Motif one (which was Books turned into Movies for January). It’s a quick read. I actually read more than half of it on my Kindle app on my way to and from visiting a friend a bit outside Oslo. I finished the whole thing in less than four hours. The Hollywood film was mainly a showcase for Angelina Jolie’s acting than an interesting exploration of mental illness and society’s willingness to remove things that make it uncomfortable from sight. I would recommend anyone who has just dismissed the book because of a negative impression of the film (like I had) give the book a try. It’s good, really.
At the moment, the book is still on sale at Amazon, so if you’re interested, you can follow the link and get it (providing you don’t, like me live in Norway, where Amazon charges more) for $2.99.
Crossposted on my blog.