Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen Introduction Advanced English 12 Sir John A. Macdonald High Context: (Disclaimer: The following information is collected, not written by me , and is intended to simply give you a historical context for the book.) Susanna Kaysen’s account of her 2-year hospitalization at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, begins in the spring of 1967. The author witnessed firsthand the widening generation gap developing in North America in the late 1960s, when older generations viewed their children’s world with alarm and confusion and embraced few of the cultural changes occurring around the nation. Nearly 70 million children born to the World War II generation came of age as teenagers and young people during this period, becoming today’s “baby boomers.” The Vietnam War and the deep divide it created in American culture during the time of the novel. Gritty, uncensored battle footage, widely available for the first time, riveted the nation. Draft protests became common in cities across the country. Young people marched on Washington and burned their draft cards, taking part in protests that often ended in violent clashes with police. The emergent hippie movement preached a lifestyle of peace and love through the celebration of music, sex, and psychedelic drugs. In the summer of 1967, several months after Kaysen entered McLean, San Francisco hosted the Summer of Love, when thousands of young people and curious observers converged in the city in the largest counterculture celebration to date. While an angrier movement of antiwar protests replaced the “flower power” generation, efforts to achieve equality for women in American society were in full force. Prominent activists and writers like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Mary McCarthy worked to expand the opportunities available to women in a society that favored men. The introduction of the birth control pill, legal abortions, and a general loosening of social restrictions on women embodies a fundamental shift in North American attitudes. In the midst of this turmoil, hospitals like McLean were caught in an awkward transitional period. McLean Hospital, founded in the early 19th century, had long been a refuge for the troubled members of wealthy families. Through the 1950s, privileged patients lived in well-appointed residence halls with fireplaces, private bathrooms, and servants. In the late 1960s, McLean had fallen into a period of benign neglect, no longer a luxurious refuge for the wealthy, nor a cutting-edge mental health facility. This was due in large part to the changing face of the mental health care field. Medical notions of mental illness had undergone a series of radical changes. In the early 1900s, patients were treated like incurable prisoners. “Talking cures,” developed by psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, competed with physical therapies, such as electroshock therapy and surgical lobotomy, in which the frontal lobes of a patient’s brain are destroyed. Professionals became fierce advocates of preferred therapies and opponents of others. Controversy continued to roil the mental health field, as it does today. In the early 1950s, however, the synthesis and validation of the first clinically tested drugs to alter brain chemistry, such as Thorazine, introduced drastic changes in mental health practices. The widespread use of pharmaceutical treatments drastically reduced the demand for institutional commitment, a phenomenon that diminished the need for residential facilities like McLean. In the late 1960s, Susanne Kaysen resembled many other patients flooding mental health care facilities: young, relatively well-to-do, and very likely misunderstood by a mental health care establishment undergoing its own evolution. Kaysen is deliberately ambiguous in addressing the issue of whether her hospitalization was medically necessary. She describes with scorn a physician’s 20- minute diagnosis of her need for institutionalization but later recounts a number of frightening incidents that would seem to indicate that she genuinely needed help. Despite her difficulties as a teenager, Kaysen went on to a life as a successful writer. Themes, Motifs and Symbols: Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work. Some themes that are found in the book: Confusion of Social Nonconformity with Insanity Freedom vs. Captivity Limited Choices Available to Women Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes. Some that are in the in the book: Time Detachment Generation gap Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colours used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Some found in the book: Hospital records Tunnels Others? As you are reading: The following activities will be assigned at different times during our reading. Some days you will be asked to do #1 or #2 only, for example, based on the most recent reading. On other days, you may be asked to select one or two questions from #4 (or I may select them for you). These reading activities will form the basis of or class discussions for the book. 1. Identify interesting quotations that can be used for discussion. 2. Make notes on themes, motifs, and symbols as they appear in the book so far, and their significance. 3. Comment on each character/person as he/she is introduced and is developed. 4. Comment on the following questions as they arise: i. Who “owns” a published memoir- the writer or the reader, who brings his or her own life experiences into their interaction with the memoir? Who “owns” this memoir? ii. What are your “trigger” reactions to parts of the novel- strong reactions (attraction or revulsion, for example)? What are the reasons for your response? iii. Was Susanna Kaysen sane (all or part of the time covered by the memoir)? Does her sanity make a difference to you, the reader, or to the integrity of the book in general? iv. Does the inclusion of Kaysen’s medical records make any difference in terms of the impact of her story on you? v. Kaysen’s writing style could be characterized alternatively as blunt, crude, antagonistic, perceptive, sympathetic, detached, intensely intimate, objective, or speculative…and probably in more ways than this. Does her style contribute to or detract from your ability to relate to her memoir? vi. The voice that narrates the novel may at first strike you as cool, intellectual, rational, and controlled- qualities associated with sanity. It is a voice full of humor, characterized by an understatement that leaves much to the imagination. How, as we go deeper into the book, does the voice play against what it is describing- or heighten it? What is the overall effect of this voice? vii. At what point, if any, does your perception of the narrator change? Does Susanna’s “unreliability” as the narrator suggest something about the nature of mental illness itself? viii. The narrator describes her time at McLean as a journey into a “parallel universe,” one of many that “exist alongside this world and resemble it, but are not in it.” What resemblances or analogies does Kaysen find between mental illness and everyday reality? How are the laws of these 2 universes different? How does one pass from one universe into another? ix. Kaysen gives 2 ways of experiencing her parallel universe. One way is to make us understand how mental illness feels; another is to show how mental illness is treated (or, more accurately, controlled). What effect does she create by giving us 2 opposing ways of understanding insanity? x. Most of the early sections of the novel are devoted to the narrator’s observations of her fellow patents. To what extent, if any, do these women seem “crazy” to you? What difference do you see in the book’s treatment of Susanna, the character, and its treatment of other patients? xi. How does Kaysen describe McLean’s “keepers”- its nurses, doctors, and therapists? How do you account for the difference between the hard-bitten full-time staff and the wide-eyed student nurses? xii. In many ways McLean seems like an orderly place whose patients might easily be bored, slightly neurotic college students killing time in the dorm. Mental illness, real mental illness, creeps in insidiously, taking both the reader and patients by surprise. At what points do we see mental illness intruding into McLean? xiii. At certain points the author suggests that there is something comforting, and even seductive, about insanity. What might make mental illness comforting to a young girl in the 1960s- or, for that matter, to anyone at any time? xiv. A girl named Daisy kills herself in between hospital stays. Is this foreshadowed by what we already know about her? Why this patient, rather than another?” To what extent is the behavior of any of these characters foreseeable? xv. The narrator sums up her release from McLean in the following way: "Luckily, I got a marriage proposal and they let me out. In 1968, everybody could understand a marriage proposal." What does this passage say about the choices available to female psychiatric patients--and, by extension, to any woman--at the time this book takes place? xvi. The narrator describes 1968 as a time when "people [outside the hospital] were doing the kinds of things we [the patients] had fantasies of doing" [p.92]; a patient's paranoid "delusions" might turn out to be accurate descriptions of the U.S. government's clandestine activities. What other connections does Kaysen draw between her characters' disturbance and the social paroxysms of their time? In what way is this book a document of the 1960s? xvii. How does the narrator feel when she meets Georgina and Lisa in the outside world, years after her release? What comparison can we make between the way Susanna sees their lives and the way she sees her own? xviii. One reviewer has noted that someone with Susanna's symptoms would today be given "60 days in-patient [treatment] and a psychotropic magic bullet. In 25 years, the cultural metaphor...has changed from incarceration to neglect." Is "neglect" preferable to "incarceration"? How do you think Kaysen might answer such a question? xix. Another critic begins her review of Girl, Interrupted with the observation: "When women are angry at men, they call them heartless. When men are angry at women, they call them crazy" (Susan Cheever, "A Designated Crazy," The New York Times Book Review, June 20, 1993). In what ways is Girl, Interrupted a book about the sexual constructs of madness? What role does the narrator's gender appear to have played in her diagnosis and treatment? How do gender relations inside McLean mirror those in the outside world? xx. What is the significance of the Vermeer painting Girl Interrupted at Her Music that appears in the last chapter? How did Susanna feel about the painting the first time she saw it? And how did she feel about it later, after her hospitalization? Why does the gaze of the music student in the painting so haunt her?
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