On a snowy day, rather than walking Susanna to her therapist’s office through the wintry weather outside, a nurse leads her through a series of underground tunnels which connect the separate buildings of the McLean psychiatric facility. Susanna has already been in the hospital for a long time, so she is surprised to learn of the tunnels’ existence. She knows the tunnels “weren’t news to anybody else,” though “they made such an impression on [her] that [she] felt [she’d] conjured them into being.” She marvels at the length and complexity of the passageways, and the nurse accompanying her warns her that it’s “easy to get lost” due to the consuming signage throughout. To properly navigate the tunnels, the nurse says, one has to internally and intrinsically “know the way.” From that point on Susanna becomes obsessed with travelling through the tunnels, asking a nurse about once a week to bring her down there to explore them. When Susanna tries to explain her fascination with the tunnels to her analyst, Melvin, he assumes Susanna sees the tunnels as a womb-like place. Susanna argues, however, that despite being warm and cozy and quiet, the tunnels are the “opposite of a womb,” as a womb does not lead anywhere. The tunnels, to Susanna, represent the goal of her treatment: the ability to feel safe, ensconced, and contained within oneself without being stuck. Susanna wants badly to get better and leave the ward, but as her stay there has progressed she has become concerned that she is actually insane. She fears leaving the relative safety of the “loony bin,” where nothing is expected of her and where nothing ever changes. When Susanna encounters the tunnels toward the end of her stay at the hospital, she finds in them a symbol for how she must make her way forward in the world. That is, she must intuit her path naturally, be careful not to get tripped up and become lost, and remain attached to the feeling of security and self-assuredness that her stay at McLean has given her, rather than returning to the unstable behavior she exhibited in the years and months before her hospitalization.
The Tunnels Quotes in Girl, Interrupted
In February I asked Melvin, "You know those tunnels?"
"Could you tell me more about the tunnels?" He didn't know about them. If he'd known about them, he would have said, "Yes?"
"There are tunnels under this entire hospital. Everything is connected by tunnels. You could get in them and go anywhere. It's warm and cozy and quiet."
"A womb," said Melvin.
"It's not a womb," I said.
"Yes." When Melvin said Yes without a questioning intonation, he meant No.
"It's the opposite of a womb," I said. "A womb doesn't go anywhere.”