“Girl, Interrupted” is the 1993 memoir by American author Susanna Kaysen. The title comes from the 1658 painting created by Johannes Vermeer called Girl Interrupted at Her Music – the author visits the painting at the Frick Collection in New York several times in the book. The text was adapted into a psychological drama film in 1999 that was directed by James Mangold, and starred Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie and Clea DuVall.
The book is an account from Susanna Kaysen about her time spent in McLean Hospital after being diagnosed with depression and borderline personality disorder at the age of eighteen. The author is very aware of the stigma attached to mental hospitals, especially in a group of young women: “Though we were cut off from the world and all the trouble we enjoyed stirring up out there, we were also cut off fro the demands and expectations that had driven us crazy… In a strange way we were free.”
The book doesn’t have a chronological story, but follows different ideas and themes until Susanna’s time in the hospital ends: the other patients in the ward, their conditions and mannerisms, the author’s diagnosis and what it felt like to inhabit this new parallel universe. “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… 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?”
Kaysen doesn’t fully address the significance of the Vermeer painting until the very end when she discusses the series of events that lead to her being hospitalized. As a high school student, her initial interpretation of Girl Interrupted at Her Music is very different than when she returned, years later after she was released from McLean. “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.”
There was so much added to the movie adaptation that I don’t think it’s fair to compare the two at all: patients refusing to take medication, a confrontation with the wife of an affair partner, and breaking out of the hospital are several of the embellished pieces that change the tone entirely. Kaysen has publicly stated that the director added “melodramatic drivel” to the original story. The Vermeer painting, and its significance for the author and her personal growth, was never mentioned.
The beginning of the movie actually did a good job capturing the chaotic, nonlinear narrative structure of Kaysen’s memoir, but once her character had been admitted to the hospital, the screenwriters created an artificial story arc that leads viewers up to a climactic event that was actually only mentioned in passing. “I just feel like I didn’t even write this book,” Kaysen said in a 2018 interview about the 1999 movie, “It just has nothing to do with me anymore… It has become something else, and it doesn’t belong to me. I shouldn’t have any commentary on it anymore.”
Although Kaysen was just a young woman documenting her observations and experiences in a mental hospital, her candid memoir was one of the first that was really upfront and unapologetic about mental health, therapy and hospitalization. Julie Grau, who acquired Kaysen’s manuscript as a young editor at Turtle Bay Books, said, “Susanna’s memoir spawned many Girl, Interrupted–type memoirs of young women grappling with mental illness in various forms.”
The film has won the following awards:
- Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (2000)
- Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (2000)
- Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role from the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (2000)