Girl, Interrupted

Girl, Interrupted Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Susanna Kaysen

Born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Susanna Kaysen, is the daughter of Harvard economist Carl Kaysen—once an advisor to President John F. Kennedy. Kaysen is the author of several books of fiction and memoir, of which Girl, Interrupted is by far her most well known. Her other books include Cambridge, an autobiographical novel based heavily on Kaysen’s own childhood, and The Camera My Mother Gave Me, yet another memoir which tells the story of Kaysen’s years-long struggle with debilitating pain, and explores the roles that sex, desire, and illness play in life and in society. Kaysen still lives in Cambridge.
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Historical Context of Girl, Interrupted

Susanna Kaysen’s hospitalization in the late 1960s coincided with a time of great societal and political unrest in the United States. In the background of Kaysen’s privileged upbringing in Cambridge, the Vietnam War raged on, claiming the lives of many young soldiers and leaving many of its survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder and related mental illnesses. US Government research shows that roughly 30% of Vietnam war veterans experienced “symptoms and related functional impairment associated with PTSD.” Depression, anxiety, and addiction also wracked the lives of survivors. With so many mental health issues suddenly rising to the forefront of the American public’s consciousness, the inadequacies in the American mental health system were also becoming clear. Institutional abuse of mental health facility patients had previously been explored through novels such as The Bell Jar and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but Kaysen’s memoir—released about twenty-five years after her stay at McLean—exposed, at the time of its publication, the deep inadequacy of mental health treatments and facilities in the late 1960s compared to the 1990s. The book served to humanize people seen as “crazy” while exposing the corruption and ineffectiveness of therapists, analysts, and other officials at institutions like McLean.

Other Books Related to Girl, Interrupted

Girl, Interrupted owes much to—and shares many common themes and even a common setting with—Sylvia Plath’s seminal 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, about a bright and promising young woman’s struggle with mental illness. The Bell Jar was based closely on Plath’s own experiences inside the McLean hospital in Massachusetts. Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 1994 memoir Prozac Nation, released shortly after Girl, Interrupted, chronicles the author’s struggles as a young American woman affected by crippling depression. Prozac Nation was also adapted into a major motion picture, starring Christina Ricci as a first-year Harvard student sidelined by depression and substance abuse. Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over The Cuckooo’s Nest, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Ned Vizzini’s 2007 young-adult novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story all deal with mental illness, institutionalization, camaraderie between mentally ill individuals, and society’s inability to properly care for those living with psychological disorders.
Key Facts about Girl, Interrupted
  • Full Title: Girl, Interrupted
  • When Written: Early 1990s
  • When Published: 1993
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir; nonfiction; mental health biography
  • Setting: The McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts
  • Climax: Shortly after beginning to undergo psychoanalysis as part of her treatment at McLean, on a snowy day, Susanna is taken by a nurse through a series of interconnected tunnels which run throughout the hospital as a means of getting to her session while avoiding the falling snow. Susanna realizes that just as everything in the hospital where she has been living for almost two years is secretly connected, so too are the disjointed but potential-filled facets of her mind.
  • Antagonist: McLean Hospital; doctors; orderlies; the mind itself
  • Point of View: First-person (Susanna)

Extra Credit for Girl, Interrupted

Screen Time. Kaysen’s memoir was adapted, in 1999, into a psychological drama, also called Girl, Interrupted, which starred Winona Ryder, Angelia Jolie, Brittany Murphy, and Whoopi Goldberg. Ryder worked as an executive producer on the film, and spent nearly seven years translating the story from the page to the screen. Though the film received mixed reviews, Jolie’s performance as the unforgettable self-proclaimed sociopath Lisa Rowe garnered the actress critical acclaim and three major awards for her supporting role: the Academy Award, the Golden Globe Award, and the Screen Actors Guild Award.