Susanna Kaysen, reflecting upon her time in a psychiatric institution, notes that when she tells people about her experience they always ask her: “How did you get in there?” What these people really want to know, Kaysen says, is “if they are likely to end up in there as well.” Kaysen cannot answer their question, but assures her readers that it is easier than one would think to “slip into a parallel universe.”
Susanna Kaysen begins her memoir by exploring, right off the bat, one of its most profound questions: what is the difference between sanity and insanity, and what makes one sane or insane? The older Kaysen, writing from a vantage point of twenty-five years past her institutionalization, still does not have the answers.
Kaysen writes that her roommate on the psych ward, Georgina, fell into the parallel universe “swiftly and totally” one afternoon during her junior year of college. While sitting in a movie theater, a “tidal wave of blackness” enveloped Georgina, and she knew immediately that she had gone insane. Most people, though, Kaysen says, pass over slowly and incrementally, repeatedly making small perforations in “the membrane between here and there” until an irresistible opening makes itself seen and known.
The framing of the world of the sane and the world of the insane as two different realms separated by a porous membrane is a recurring idea throughout the text. In this passage, Kaysen examines how the barrier between these two worlds can be traversed in many different ways, but the bottom line remains that it is easier than one would think to tip from one “world” to the other.
Once one passes through the membrane, Kaysen writes, one finds that the rules of the parallel universe are not bound by the laws of physics. Time flows differently, and “the very arrangement of molecules is fluid.” Kaysen writes that one cannot know these facts before entering the parallel universe—they only become apparent later on.
Susanna Kaysen attempts to relay the sensory and emotional landscape of the “parallel universe” of insanity while remaining allegiant to her thesis that it is both more accessible than one would think, and also difficult to anticipate without actually plunging into it.
The strangest feature of the parallel universe, Kaysen writes, is that although it is invisible from “this side”—the world of the sane—once one is in it, the “real” world remains totally visible. Kaysen concludes the chapter by writing that “every window on Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco.”
The observation that Kaysen makes at the end of the chapter can be interpreted to mean that, from the prison of insanity, the safety of the world one once knew can still be seen clear as day. Though the world of the insane is difficult to see or understand from the world of the sane, the barrier between them is easily traversed, and once in the world of the insane, the world of the sane remains painfully and eternally clear and visible, taunting those who have crossed the barrier away from it with memories of their former lives.