Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen by 8yyVE4


									                       Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen
                   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
        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
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
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
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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