Essay on Susanna Kaysen's Character from the Novel Girl, Interrupted

Essay on Susanna Kaysen's Character from the Novel Girl, Interrupted

The novel Girl, Interrupted is a memoir about Susanna Kaysen’s, the author, individual battle with mental illness. Her story is set within the sixties and late the seventies and takes place within the four walls of Boston, Massachusetts’ Mclean Hospital. During this time period, a large generation gap had begun to form in the United States. The baby boomers were becoming teenagers and young adults, along with Susanna Kaysen, and all of them developing unconventional tastes in appearance, music, antiwar protests, and psychedelic drug culture. The elder generations were distressed by the baby boomer’s abandonment of traditional culture and values and their replacement of such with nontraditional culture and values that were seemingly foreign to them. To Susanna Kaysen’s parents and therapist, Susanna’s rejections of working to further her educations as well as her professional career were signs of mental instability. In addition, her promiscuity and shoplifting acted as warning signs indicating to the authority figures in Susanna Kaysen’s life and leading to their assumption that she suffered from a mental illness; Although, in retrospect they could have also just mirrored a confused teenager during a time period of social uncertainty and revolution. The consequences to Susanna Kaysen’s life that resulted because the authorities figures lacked the ability to understand her world were devastating to her and their fear drove her to become a girl with a life that was interrupted at the tender age of seventeen.

Susanna Kaysen, as she reflects back on her treatment at the Mclean Hospital, recognizes that there is a point where people do require appropriate treatment for their mental illness such as hospitalization and isolation. Although, she argues that we, as a whole society, are too quick to pass judgment and define people within terms of the conventional social norms. Through out the entire story she ponders, whether mental illness is an actual disease or just a label society put on social non-conformity to help distinguish normal from abnormal. Susanna quotes, “Don't separate the mind from the body. Don't separate even character - you can't. Our unit of existence is a body, a physical, tangible, sensate entity with perceptions and reactions that express it and form it simultaneously” this quote displays her belief that her mind was a part of her personality and being as a whole. Therefore, Susanna’s proposed illness was no more an illness of the mind then an illness of also her body, actions, and being entirely. Susanna is revealing that her illness is as much, if not more, a part of who she is as her hair color, education, and upbringing are. This means that the authority figures in her life cannot distinguish between what is the mental illness and what is Susanna Kaysen, therefore they cannot label her correctly with a mental illness. Although, twenty-five years later, when Susanna Kaysen confronts her diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, she can understand how her adolescent behavior fit her diagnosis. As she further researched her diagnosis, each element of Borderline Personality Disorder forced Susanna to acknowledge her behavior as it had fit the disorders’ definition. Although, she believes that the blame for her behavior or diagnosis is accurate but simply not reflective of who she is. Susanna defines “Disease [is] as one of our languages. Doctors understand what disease has to say about itself. It's up to the person with the disease to understand what the disease has to say to her.” Here, she does not deny herself as having an illness; but rather, displays that her illness is not the sum of who she is. Through this quotes, we can see that Susanna Kaysen defines who she is as a sum of all her experiences, feelings, and actions.

Similar to Susanna Kaysen, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) at the tender age of fourteen. At first, I was appalled and refused to believe it could be true. I thought to myself, “There is nothing wrong with me, they are wrong.” I was blinded by the stigma surrounding mental illness. I believed that all people with mental illnesses were abnormal and weird, but I just couldn’t be. I appeared to be a normal teenager; I was self-centered, always right, and trying to be just like everybody else. I did the things all other teenagers were doing such as going to the movies, hanging out with my friends, and shopping. I thought to myself “I am normal,” but at the same time I knew that I wasn’t. Deep down, I knew that I didn’t enjoy the things the other kids did and that I didn’t want to be like them, but I couldn’t let them know that. Did this mean “I’m not normal? I’m crazy?” No, it can’t and I wouldn’t let it. I was so afraid of a label, how my family and friends would think of me, that I didn’t even care to understand what was wrong in the first place. I fought my parents against going to therapy and receiving treatment, but eventually I gave in. At this moment I find meaning in Susanna Kaysen’s quote, “Don't separate the mind from the body. Don't separate even character - you can't. Our unit of existence is a body, a physical, tangible, sensate entity with perceptions and reactions that express it and form it simultaneously” I feel as though I couldn’t face my diagnosis or so called “label” since I felt society had pushed me to separate my mind from who I was as a person, when I knew all along it’s who I was that revealed my illness. It’s all my actions, experiences, and physical features that contributed to my low-self esteem, inability to concentrate, and inattention to anything that actually mattered. I was obsessed with being “normal” and like my friends, but with this diagnosis I could no longer pretend to tell myself that I was “normal” because the truth is I was different. In no way did that mean that I was bad, instead I was curious, brave, and courageous. I didn’t care all that much for boys, I cared more about my cheerleading and my schoolwork. I didn’t care about the clothes I wore as much as I cared about whom my friends were. I didn’t want to have friends who were popular but I wanted to have friends who were real. Thus, all this did not constitute a normal teenager. So as Susanna Kaysen’s found that, “Disease is one of our languages. Doctors understand what disease has to say about itself. It's up to the person with the disease to understand what the disease has to say to her”. I found that my disease was a form of communication that allowed me to see I wasn’t just a normal teenager destined to be cool, but rather I was a teenager with the ability to be extraordinary. I have a disorder that defines me as inattentive and unable to focus, but I have refused to let it determine what I will do or who I am. I have found strength within my ADD, which most would consider a weakness, and I am grateful for it everyday.

So as Susanna Kaysen was clouded by societies perceptions about her actions, I was clouded by societies perception about my illness. It is clear that as the quotes states “Don't separate the mind from the body. Don't separate even character - you can't. Our unit of existence is a body, a physical, tangible, sensate entity with perceptions and reactions that express it and form it simultaneously”, both Susanna and I feel as though our mental illness makes up large chunks of who we are. Our diseases have helped us to see that, our minds are no different then our body’s and ““Disease is one of our languages. Doctors understand what disease has to say about itself. It's up to the person with the disease to understand what the disease has to say to her” Therefore, we both could agree that the disease is only a part of who we are, it does not define who we are or constrain who we can be.