Mad Girl’s Love Song: Nonconformity vs. Insanity In GIRL, INTERRUPTED

In 1967 Massachusetts, being a little different can look a lot like insanity. 

In the opening moments of James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted, from Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of the same name, Winona Ryder’s voiceover asks us, “Have you ever confused a dream with life? Or stolen something when you have the cash? Have you ever been blue? Or thought your train moving while sitting still?”

It’s a simplified but expedient take on Kaysen’s eloquent metaphor for mental illness in her memoir:

Think of being in a train, next to another train, in a station. When the other train starts moving, you are convinced that your train is moving. The rattle of the other train feels like the rattle of your train, and you see your train leaving that other train behind. It can take a while – maybe even half a minute – before the second interpreter [of your brain] sorts through the first interpreter’s claim of movement and corrects it. That’s because it’s hard to counteract the validity of sensory impressions. We are designed to believe in them. […]

Sometimes, when you’ve realized that your train is not really moving, you can spend another half a minute suspended between two realms of consciousness: the one that knows you aren’t moving and the one that feels you are. You can flit back and forth between these perceptions and experience a sort of mental vertigo. And if you do this, you are treading on the ground of craziness – a place where false impressions have all the hallmarks of reality.

The thing about both of these passages - the abridged metaphor of the film and the original version from Kaysen’s book – is that they each translate. The answer is, of course, we’ve all confused a dream with the events of waking life. Many of us have stolen something for no reason other than that of childhood curiosity or an impetuous sense of rebellion. We’ve all been blue. And we all know how it feels to be sitting on the still train while believing yours is the one that’s moving.

Kaysen’s memoir – much like Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar that precedes it by thirty years in publication but only four in chronology – follows a young woman in 1960s New England, a woman who is depressed, certainly, but more than that she is unusual. Unusually bright, unusually thoughtful, unusually intense and interesting and independent.

Knowing what we do now of Winona Ryder’s feelings of alienation in the spotlight, it’s no wonder that she adhered to the book with such emotion after reading it – working to acquire the rights immediately after finishing the memoir and trying to bring it to production for seven years before the film finally made it to theaters. Her portrayal of Kaysen, who, understandably, did not appreciate the Hollywoodification of her most trying years, is nevertheless sensitive and intelligent. Of course Angelina Jolie won the Oscar as the flighty, charismatic Lisa, and rightfully so, but most inner turmoil doesn’t manifest itself as flash and spark. Ryder as Susanna is wry and small and dreadfully, heartbreakingly distant. She’s something very quiet and unassuming, something real. She’s unhappy, and this is often what unhappiness looks like.

Girl, Interrupted is, by and large, a misunderstood film, a movie that many chalked up as a feminine – and therefore weaker – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Critics complained that Ryder’s voiceover felt like that of a teenager’s diary entries, that it’s a story of privileged, white, female instability.

And certainly the women of Claremont (McLean in the book) are mostly white and have lived privileged upbringings before chemical imbalance obstructed their paths to Wellesley or Sarah Lawrence. But we aren’t intended to sympathize with Susanna’s mental illness so much as condemn society’s utter misunderstanding of it. The very point of Girl, Interrupted is made explicit as Susanna is being admitted to Claremont:

“I'm not going to burn my bra, or drop acid, or go march on Washington. I just don't want to end up like my mother.” The therapist replies, “Women today have more choices than that,” and Susanna answers darkly, “No. They don’t.”

Susanna doesn’t fit into one of the two categories offered to her in 1967: that of a straitlaced, conservative housewife or a peace sign-throwing, free-loving hippie. She’s just a person, a smart, unhappy person who washed down a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka because she “had a headache.”

Kaysen, in her book, never claims that she didn’t suffer from emotional instability at that point in her life and many times since: she banged and scratched her wrists and face, feared that she’d lost all of the bones in her hand, suffered and isolated herself in each of her interpersonal relationships. But she was reduced to the Freudian definition of mental illness because she lived in a society that did not understand her and had no place for her.

As she reviews her diagnosis, she says:

‘The person often experiences this instability of self-image as chronic feelings of emptiness or boredom.’ My chronic feelings of emptiness and boredom came from the fact that I was living a life based on my incapacities, which were numerous. A partial list follows. I could not and did not want to: ski, play tennis, or go to gym class; attend to any subject in school other than English and biology; write papers on any assigned topics (I wrote poems instead of papers for English; I got F’s); plan to go or apply to college; give any reasonable explanations for these refusals.

My self-image was not unstable. I saw myself, quite correctly, as unfit for the educational and social systems.

But my parents and teachers did not share my self-image. Their image of me was unstable, since it was out of kilter with reality and based on their needs and wishes. They did not put much value on my capacities, which were admittedly few, but genuine. I read everything, I wrote constantly, and I had boyfriends by the barrelful.

There is privilege, of course, in being white and wealthy and looking like Winona Ryder at any point in history. But for women of so many generations, treasuring their own singular capacities over those that society insists they should entertain will only result in incomprehension and often estrangement from the norm.

The book and film are both named after Vemeer’s painting Girl Interrupted at her Music.

In the painting, a woman is practicing her music in the presence of an older, aristocratic man. He’s leaning over her seductively, he’s got a glass of wine at her side, he’s wealthy and appears devoted to her.

But this girl isn’t focusing on the scene of her advantageous courtship, or her musical duties as an upperclass young woman in the 17th century. No, something just over her shoulder has captured her attention – something unknowable, unseeable to all but the girl. We might not understand what it is that has so riveted her; it might mean nothing to us. But that doesn’t make it crazy.

The girl at her music sits in another sort of light, the fitful, overcast light of life, by which we see ourselves and others only imperfectly, and seldom.