The first time Susanna went to the Frick museum in New York, she was seventeen, and accompanied by the English teacher with whom she would soon begin an affair. She was so enamored with her teacher that she didn’t notice two of the three Vermeer paintings there. However, as she walked past a painting featuring a “girl look[ing] out, ignoring her beefy music teacher,” Susanna recoiled, feeling that the painting was trying to warn her of something. Susanna abruptly left the museum to go to dinner with her English teacher. After dinner, he kissed her, and after the kiss Susanna went back to Cambridge, graduated high school, and then “went crazy.”
Susanna’s first encounter with a famous Vermeer painting is fleeting, but not quite poignant or memorable. Though Susanna felt that there was something the painting was trying to tell her, she disregarded it, and went on with her life. Susanna became ill and was, of course, eventually institutionalized, but the painting and its warning faded from her memory almost completely over the years. There is the faint suggestion that the warning that the painting’s subject may have been trying to offer was in fact Susanna’s subconscious mind trying to warn her of the affair with her teacher, though this is never discussed as a cause for Susanna’s mental break.
Sixteen years later, Susanna is at the Frick again, with a “new, rich boyfriend.” Though the two of them live lavishly and take many trips, this boyfriend often attacks Susanna’s character, chastising her for being alternately too emotional or too cold and removed. When Susanna’s boyfriend first suggested going to the Frick, Susanna excitedly said she had never been, though she right away realized that perhaps she had.
Susanna is back at the Frick, and is again visiting with a man who seems in no way prepared to meet her emotional needs. It seems as if Susanna has made great attempts to divorce herself form her past, to the point of blocking out her prior visit to the museum, but as the visit approaches her memories begin to bleed through.
When the two of them arrive at the museum, Susanna instantly recalls having been there before and remembers the painting she “love[d]” in high school. Susanna bee-lines for the painting of the girl with her music teacher, and now stands in front of her, observing how the girl in the painting has “changed” over the last sixteen years.
Susanna remembers having “loved” the painting of the girl and her music teacher, though in reality she had initially fled from it. Just as her memory of the paining has changed, Susanna feels that the painting itself has changed, too—or perhaps it is just Susanna herself who has changed so very much since her last visit.
The girl in the painting is no longer urgent, just sad. She is looking out, hoping that someone will see her. Susanna notes the title of the painting for the first time: Girl Interrupted at Her Music. Susanna sees that the girl is interrupted at her music as Susanna’s life had been interrupted “in the music of being seventeen.” She wonders what life can recover from such interruption, and she begins crying.
Susanna sees her own journey—and her own violent interruption—reflected in the painting and the girl’s sad, lonely expression. Both Susanna and the girl have been interrupted at a crucial moment, and both are processing the consequences of that interruption quietly and painfully.
Susanna’s boyfriend comes up behind her and asks her what the matter is. She implores him to see that the girl is trying to “get out” of the painting, but Susanna’s boyfriend condescendingly tells her that she’s only thinking about herself, and doesn’t understand anything about art.
Though Susanna’s careless boyfriend thinks she is overreacting to the painting, he does not know the intense emotional and intellectual realization Susanna is having, and belittles her for exhibiting emotion.
Susanna writes that since that visit she has gone back to the Frick many times to look at the painting of the girl, as well as the other two works by Vermeer collected there. The beautiful, ethereal light found in the first two paintings does not exist in the world anymore, though Susanna wishes it did. In Girl Interrupted, however, the titular girl sits in “another sort of light.” It is a “fitful, overcast” light by which one can glimpse oneself—and others—only “imperfectly and seldom.”
The light that characterizes the Vermeer painting allows certain things to be glimpsed only “imperfectly and seldom,” and in this way mirrors reality. Not everything can be seen or understood at first glance, and indeed, not everything should be. The “fitful, overcast” lighting in the painting mirrors the fitful and overcast “lighting” of Susanna’s adolescence—the simultaneous mania and gloom of McLean, the fits and starts of adulthood, and the changeable, prismatic quality of Susanna’s passage into womanhood.
One final insert from Susanna’s patient file—her discharge form—lists her intake date, September 4th 1968, and her date of discharge, January 3rd, 1969. She is stated as having “recovered” from borderline personality disorder.
Susanna earlier wondered what it means to “recover” from something like a “character disorder,” and the book leaves the answer open-ended. The recurring motif of the inserted case files calls into question the veracity of the forms, despite their official nature—yet another facet of the theme of perception versus reality. The documents appear to be the ultimate authority when it comes to Susanna’s health, but Kaysen slyly calls this into question, prompting the reader to wonder whether the professionals treating Susanna could know more about her than she knows about herself. The complicated questions Kaysen has raised throughout her memoir linger in the air, like the filtering, hazy light in the painting from which the book derives its title.