One girl on the psych ward, Susanna writes, set herself on fire with gasoline before she was even old enough to drive. Her neck and cheeks scarred the most, leading Susanna to suspect that the gasoline had pooled in her collarbones. The girl, whose name is Polly, is covered in scar tissue—tissue which “has no character,” and is a “slipcover” meant to disguise what’s underneath. Susanna writes that Polly, despite her grisly attempt at suicide and prevalent burn marks, was “never unhappy,” and in fact provided kindness and comfort to those on the ward who were.
As Susanna arrives at McLean, she begins to meet her fellow patients, and comes to understand the depths of pain, suffering, and instability that mark the lives of the other girls on her ward. Polly, whose body is burned and scarred as a result of her suicide attempt, most clearly stands out to Susanna as someone who is unwell because of the marks which cover her body, but in fact Polly is a source of stability and comfort to many other patients who are not doing as well internally as Polly seems to be.
No one on the ward knows why Polly set herself on fire, and nobody dares to ask. Susanna wonders, over and over, what the moment of decision to kill herself had been like for Polly—if she had had a moment of “inspiration.” Susanna describes her own “inspiration,” explaining that she woke up one morning and decided that she needed to swallow fifty aspirin. She considers the cowardice of her own attempt compared to Polly’s, and wonders where and why Polly set herself on fire. Susanna writes that Polly’s ever-present smile had something underneath it—the indication that she hard “burned” fear and pain out of herself.
Susanna believes that her own suicide attempt pales in comparison to Polly’s. The mystery and grotesquerie surrounding Polly’s self-immolation is compelling not just to Susanna, but to the other girls on the ward as well, who are always comparing their own realities to the realities of the girls and women around them. Susanna begins to engage in this behavior as she settles into the ward, and she feels both admiration for and fear of what Polly’s “bravery” represents.
One morning, Susanna awakes to somebody crying loudly, but does not think much of it, as mornings on the ward are noisy, and there is often crying and fighting early on in the day. After breakfast, though, when the crying hasn’t stopped, Susanna begins to ask around about who’s crying. A patient named Lisa, who knows everything about everyone, tells Susanna that it’s Polly who’s been crying. As Polly continues wailing throughout the day, her crying becomes screaming and she begins to shout, “My face! My face!” As the women on the ward get ready for sleep and crawl into bed, they can still hear Polly screaming. Susanna realizes that while she will probably get out of the hospital someday, Polly is “locked up forever” in her ruined body.
Susanna and her fellow patients listen as Polly—who had seemed to be cool, collected, and even transcendent for so long—begins to realize the horror of her unique situation. Even if her mind heals, her body will remain an external manifestation of the insanity and self-hatred which once ravaged her mind, and Polly will never be able to overcome what her body communicates to the world from the second she walks into a room.