Much of Girl, Interrupted is concerned with contrasting the way things appear and how they actually are. As Susanna Kaysen reckons with her own memories of her troubled past—in which she suffered from suicidal thoughts, repetitious thoughts, and changes in her perception that bordered on hallucination—this thematic arc takes on two layers. The first investigates the sometimes-conflicting perceptions and realities of Susanna and her fellow McLean patients, while the second investigates the older Kaysen’s ability to recognize things about her experience that did not occur to her at the time. Kaysen argues that it is not only in stories about the intricacies, wonders, and pitfalls of the human mind that perception can be different from reality. Rather, Kaysen suggests that reality and perception are always at odds with one another, no matter the story, and finding the “truth” in a story simply involves attuning oneself to the harmonies that can arise when perception and reality inevitably fall out of phase with one another.
In an early section of the book titled “Etiology”—a word for the cause of a disease or condition—Susanna considers, in list format, who she is as she enters McLean and what the possible causes, treatments, and outcomes for herself might be. She wonders if she is possessed, bewitched, or on a perilous journey from which she might not return. In this section, Kaysen merges her recollections of the fear and uncertainty she felt at the beginning of her hospitalization with her present-day point of view. As the older Kaysen composes this list, it seems to apply as much to her past as it does to her present-day situation, in which she is possibly “possessed” or “bewitched” by her past self as she embarks on the “perilous journey” of confronting her misbegotten youth in an attempt to reconcile her perceptions of her past with the realities of it.
When Susanna was just shy of eighteen she began seeing patterns in things and realized that “something was happening to [her] perceptions of people.” She writes: “When I looked at someone’s face, I often did not maintain an unbroken connection to the concept of a face. Instead of seeing too much meaning, I didn’t see any meaning.” She was at all times “perfectly conscious of [her] misperceptions of reality” and “never ‘believed’ anything [she] saw or thought [she] saw.” Susanna had the self-awareness to realize that she was feeling alienated from others and projecting her discomfort onto them. Because she had a hard time understanding why she was seeing things that weren’t necessarily unreal but certainly weren’t normal, she wondered if maybe the things she was seeing were things that everyone else saw and just didn’t want to talk about. In this way, she cleverly raises the question of whether objective reality can ever truly be known, considering everyone experiences reality through their own subjective lens.
In a section titled “Do You Believe Him Or Me?”, Kaysen reconstructs the conflicting accounts of her pivotal meeting with the therapist on the day of Susanna’s hospitalization. She goes back and forth between her own perception and her doctor’s recollection of the meeting—which she says took a total of twenty minutes, and which her doctor claimed in his official records took three hours. Susanna questions her own perceptions of that fateful day, attempting to use her doctor’s notes, the Admission Note she has obtained from McLean, and her recollections from various taxi rides in order to create a workable timeline. She asks herself, “does it matter which of us is right?” but continues to present the reader with evidence to support her own timeline, ultimately concluding that she is the one who should be believed. By presenting two varying accounts of a pivotal moment in her life just a few chapters after having admitted to her own issues at that time distinguishing fantasy from reality, Kaysen almost challenges the reader to believe her as much as she implores her to, highlighting the importance of the marriage of the perception of an event and its objective reality.
Susanna Kaysen’s journey to reconcile her perceptions with her reality has been the journey of her life. Even as an adult, writing about the events of her youth from a standpoint of twenty-five years in the future, Kaysen struggles to see her perception of reality as reality itself, and vice versa: she has a hard time aligning the reality of her situation with her remembered perceptions of it. The magnitude of what Kaysen endured in her youth as a patient at McLean is only apparent to her years later, when she gazes upon the Vermeer painting, Girl Interrupted At Her Music, and sees in it all the splits and dichotomies which have come to define her life: before and after; healthy and ill; on-course and interrupted; real and imagined.
Perception vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Perception vs. Reality Quotes in Girl, Interrupted
People ask, How did you get in there? What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well. I can’t answer the real question. All I can tell them is, it’s easy. And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe. Most people pass over incrementally, making a series of perforations in the membrane between here and there until an opening exists. And who can resist an opening?
An odd feature of the parallel universe is that although it is invisible from this side, once you are in it you can easily see the world you came from. Sometimes the world you came from looks huge and menacing, quivering like a vast pile of jelly; at other times it is miniaturized and alluring, a-spin and shining in its orbit. Either way, it can’t be discounted. Every window on Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco.
Take it from his point of view. It was 1967. Even in lives like his, professional lives lived out in the suburbs behind shrubbery, there was a strange undertow, a tug from the other world--the drifting, drugged-out, no-last-name youth universe--that knocked people off balance. One could call it "threatening," to use his language. What are these kids doing? And then one of them walks into his office wearing a skirt the size of a napkin, with a mottled chin and speaking in monosyllables. Doped up, he figures. He looks again at the name jotted on the notepad in front of him. Didn't he meet her parents at a party two years ago? Harvard faculty--or was it MIT? Her boots are worn down but her coat's a good one. It's a mean world out there, as Lisa would say. He can't in good conscience send her back into it, to become flotsam on the subsocietal tide that washes up now and then in his office, depositing others like her. A form of preventive medicine.
Something also was happening to my perceptions of people. When I looked at someone's face, I often did not maintain an unbroken connection to the concept of a face. Once you start parsing a face, it's a peculiar item: squishy, pointy, with lots of air vents and wet spots. This was the reverse of my problem with patterns. Instead of seeing too much meaning, I didn't see any meaning. But I wasn't simply going nuts, tumbling down a shaft into Wonderland. It was my misfortune—or salvation—to be at all times perfectly conscious of my misperceptions of reality. I never "believed" anything I saw or thought I saw. Not only that, I correctly understood each new weird activity. Now, I would say to myself, you are feeling alienated from people and unlike other people, therefore you are projecting your discomfort onto them. When you look at a face, you see a blob of rubber because you are worried that your face is a blob of rubber. This clarity made me able to behave normally, which posed some interesting questions. Was everybody seeing this stuff and acting as though they weren't? Was insanity just a matter of dropping the act?
Valerie and Georgina picked me up under the arms and steered me down the hall to our room. My legs and feet felt like mattresses, they were so huge and dense. Valerie and Georgina felt like mattresses too, big soft mattresses pressing on either side of me. It was comforting.
"It'll be okay, won't it?" I asked. My voice was far away from me and I hadn't said what I meant. What I meant was that now I was safe, now I was really crazy, and nobody could take me out of there.
In the cab Valerie said, "I've got something for you." It was my tooth, cleaned up a bit but huge and foreign. "l snitched it for you," she said.
'Thanks, Valerie, that was nice of you." But the tooth wasn't what I really wanted. "l want to know how much time that was," I said. "See, Valerie, I've lost some time, and I need to know how much. I need to know."
Then I started crying. I didn't want to, but I couldn't help it.
He started asking me, "What are you thinking?" I never knew what to say. My head was empty and I liked it that way. Then he began to tell me what I might be thinking. "You seem sad today," he'd say, or “Today, you seem puzzled about something." Of course I was sad and puzzled. I was eighteen, it was spring, and I was behind bars.
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.”
[The mind is] full of claims and reasons. "You're a little depressed because of all the stress at work," it says. (It never says, "You're a little depressed because your serotonin level has dropped.")
Sometimes its interpretations are not credible, as when you cut your finger and it starts yelling, "You're gonna die!" Sometimes its claims are unlikely, as when it says, "Twenty-five chocolate chip cookies would be the perfect dinner."
Often, then, it doesn't know what it's talking about. And when you decide it's wrong, who or what is making that decision? A second, superior interpreter?
Why stop at two? That's the problem with this model. It's endless. Each interpreter needs a boss to report to.
The point is, the brain talks to itself, and by talking to itself changes its perceptions. To make a new version of the not-entirely-false model, imagine the first interpreter as a foreign correspondent, reporting from the world. The world in this case means everything out or inside our bodies, including serotonin levels in the brain. The second interpreter is a news analyst, who writes op-ed pieces. They read each other's work. One needs data, the other needs an overview, they influence each other. They get dialogues going.
If my diagnosis had been bipolar illness, for instance, the reaction to me and to this story would be slightly different. That's a chemical problem, you'd say to yourself, manic-depression, Lithium, all that. I would be blameless, somehow. And what about schizophrenia—that would send a chill up your spine. After all, that's real insanity. People don't "recover" from schizophrenia. You'd have to wonder how much of what I'm telling you is true and how much imagined.
I have a few more annotations to my diagnosis. 'The disorder is more commonly diagnosed in women." Note the construction of that sentence. They did not write, 'The disorder is more common in women." It would still be suspect, but they didn't even bother trying to cover their tracks.
Many disorders, judging by the hospital population, were more commonly diagnosed in women. Take, for example, "compulsive promiscuity." How many girls do you think a seventeen-year-old boy would have to screw to earn the label "compulsively promiscuous?” Three? No, not enough. Six? Doubtful. Ten? That sounds more likely. Probably in the fifteen-to-twenty range, would be my guess--if they ever put that label on boys, which I don't recall their doing.
And for seventeen-year-old girls, how many boys?
I often ask myself if I'm crazy. I ask other people too.
"ls this a crazy thing to say?" I'll ask before saying something that probably isn't crazy.
I start a lot of sentences with "Maybe I'm totally nuts," or "Maybe I've gone 'round the bend."
If I do something out of the ordinary--take two baths in one day, for example--I say to myself: Are you crazy?
It's a common phrase, I know. But it means something particular to me: the tunnels, the security screens, the plastic forks, the shimmering, ever-shifting borderline that like all boundaries beckons and asks to be crossed. I do not want to cross it again.
She had changed a lot in sixteen years. She was no longer urgent. In fact, she was sad. She was young and distracted, and her teacher was bearing down on her, trying to get her to pay attention. But she was looking out, looking for some- one who would see her. This time I read the title of the painting: Girl Interrupted at Her Music. Interrupted at her music, as my life had been, interrupted in the music of being seventeen, as her life had been, snatched and fixed on canvas: one moment made to stand still and to stand for all the other moments, whatever they would be or might have been. What life can recover from that?
I had something to tell her now. "l see you," I said.