I haven’t read the book. Nor do I plan to, at least not anytime soon. For several reasons. Reason the first: my friend, Ms. Jilian Clearman, warned me that the movie was superior to the book. A rarity, we know, but I generally trust her judgment on most matters. Reason the second: I have my book list for the next several months: La Medusa by Vanessa Place, Erotism by Bataille, The Book of Promethea by Hélène Cixous, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Letters of Mina Harker by Dodie Bellamy. I’m also rereading Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse, which I think is great, despite her aggressively radical–*sullied*–reputation. Reason the third: the feat would be archaic, or rather, anachronistic to how I’m feeling now, or rather, to who I am now. Then, back when, about a decade ago, this movie really spoke to me, as it was supposed to. I was an outcasted, borderline, narcissistic, bipolar (in the colloquial sense), wannabe emo/goth/hippie chick that wrote obsessively in her diary about her promiscuous sexploitations. Girl, Interrupted was right up my alley. (Euphemism implied.)
Recently I rented the flick, and after not seeing it since my infatuation with it, I must say, aside from the overwhelming nostalgia for my reckless youth, cigarettes included, I was predominantly interested in Susanna Kaysen as outside of myself (as opposed to identifying with her/wanting to become her). I was intrigued by Susanna Kaysen the character, the writer, re-imagined, as unique, extraordinary, utterly complex and dark, gothic and interesting, then boiled down to simple and life-affirming insipidity. Her self-involved, self-projecting, self-personifying extended beyond herself and into the surrounding characters. Each girl, tucked away, locked inside a prism of category, a simple symptom filtered through then magnified to its ultimate fruition. Each girl represents one of her symptoms, making each girl merely a projection of Susanna herself. Kaysen divides herself, again and again, each copy, each personality trait less interesting than the previous, but all essential.
First, the most dominant and domineering, the trait knocking, banging, exploding behind the door is Lisa Rowe, the sociopath. There is a sociopath in each of us, strongest especially in children and teenagers, but through rigorous training, and the desire for social acceptance, for most of us, the sociopath is silenced, subdued, bargained into hibernation. Great stories are told when the beast is set loose again, when Jekyll becomes Hyde and does what we all deep down wish we had the guts to do. Lisa is Susanna’s guts, her id, her other, her mirror. When Susanna writes she writes what Lisa can just say.
“A man is a dad is a fuck is a chicken…Everyone knows he fucks you, what they don’t know is that you like it,” Lisa says to Daisy, another patient, ex inmate at this point, while Susanna covers her ears with a pillow in fear and disgust of Lisa, Daisy, herself, the situation, but mostly at her competing desires to out somebody’s secret, to expose their fear, their inner ids, the chaos, and yet maintain composure, propriety, and dignity, hers and Daisy’s. These are the glue that keeps society together, the grease that slicks the wheels of the turning cogs. Susanna knows the difference between kindness and truth, but she’s ambivalent where her alliance falls. Lisa has the ovarian fortitude to say what she wants, to call Daisy a fatherfucker, to crack the veneer of illusion, with Daisy’s permitted leave, her apartment, her whicker furniture. This statement of fact, Daisy the fatherfucker, helps Lisa sleep at night, it quells her jealousy and her anger that Daisy is considered sane while both she and Susanna are still prisoners. Of course Susanna thinks all this, but only writes it; she is a fence-sitter, powerless, stuck, impuissant, just as she is when confronted with Daisy’s swinging corpse. She can’t run from her death, but Lisa is already out the door.
The other inmates, the ones in the circle, the clique: the anorexic, the liar, the lesbian, and the ugly are not as crazy as the rest of the inmates in the background seem. They speak their minds, they hope, they feel sadness and anger. They’re real people, but only as real as symptoms personified can be. Symptoms, I’m arguing that Susanna is struggling with herself. Two of the symptoms, homosexuality and the Oedipal Complex, though in a woman’s case, the Electra Complex, are latent (or active!) in all of us.
(I’m not at all comparing fucking one’s father to coming out of the closet, I am, however, stating that sexuality works on a sliding scale. Everyone is bisexual, some more than others, just as some are more gay than straight and visa versa. Not everyone is willing to admit this, therefore the homosexual desires become buried, deep within the subconscious, where Freud places all our desires to fuck our gender-respective parents. This is all pop psychology, and each character in Girl, Interrupted fits neatly into a little mentally interrupted box.)
Also, Cynthia, in the book is not a lesbian, but a severely depressive patient who undergoes weekly electroshock therapy, and while we don’t actually see anyone receiving shocks, especially not Cynthia, who appears slow but normal, we get a brief mention of them, and it’s from Lisa, who was taken away because of an episode her and Susanna created. When she returns she grabs Susanna and tells her they must run away, Susanna, afraid and skeptical balks, to which Lisa persuades, “They gave me shocks again.” In other words, help me, save me, get me out of here before they fry my brain, my personality for good. Here, one recalls Drop Dead Fred and the erasing pills.
The anorexic desires to disappear. Susan Bordo writes on the subject of anorexia in her book Unbearable Weight. An anorexic strives to diminish her mass, the space she takes up, as much as possible. It is a disease that extends beyond thinness, beyond presupposed beauty. It is a disease fraught with death drives and invisibility. To not exist, to function as an object does, without machinations is a denial of the body as a living breathing organism. The anorexic considers herself deadweight. A dish of mold. Existing as pure existence, without the need for fuel, the denial of needing fuel. Cognitive dissonance that the body requires to eat, and so, without food, will eat itself. Complete corrosion, auto-erasure. Or, in the film’s case, maybe Janet simply functions as commentary on contemporary society’s love of thinness, our pro-ana gimmicks, and how every girl, whether she claims to be above it or not, is subject to the pressures placed on her weight via the media to be skinny. According to Bordo, anorexia nervosa is a disease that cannot simply be defined medically or psychologically, but must also be looked at from a cultural perspective. It is interesting that she was not at all in the book.
Both Janet and Cynthia are both examples of the film’s attempt to criticize Western culture in the 60’s as viewed from the mouth of the 90’s.
The ugly girl has a similar complex. Sometime during childhood Polly suffered severe burns all over her face and body. As a result, she acts like a perpetual child. She wears footie pajamas and can be seen carrying teddy bears and cuddling cats. When Susanna’s boyfriend pays her a visit, and the two sneak off into her room for a quick ride on the vertigo stick, Polly, or as Lisa calls her, Torch, is kneeling, peering into the crack under the door. Lisa asks her what she’s doing, which, out of embarrassment she says “Nothing,” Lisa tells her to go to her room and do nothing, which she does, in a sprint of tears and anguish. Later that night, she’s taken to the padded room at the end of the hall for combative or disruptive patients. She freaks because she’s ugly and she wants so desperately to have a sexual relationship but because she cannot bear her own image she guards herself with the guise of a child, something Susanna remarks on writing that Polly takes on the role of the child so that people can stand to look at her. After all, a scarred child is sad, causes sympathy, while a scarred adult dredges up feelings of disgust, repulsion, and pity.
Like the anorexic, the liar desires to conceal herself. Georgina is the sanest of the group, though an argument can be made for Cynthia, if she had more than six lines, none of which venture outside her “illness.” This personality trait, lying, faking, falsifying, this symptom is closest to Susanna’s borderline diagnosis. She is Susanna’s roommate both literally and figuratively. Georgina lies to the people that will keep her locked away because she’s clinging to a life made easier, a life where decisions are made for her, a life where she can dream and escape any and all responsibility. Georgina has found a way out of the existential dilemma of choice. A fairy-tale, in a way. She is the flip side to Susanna. While sanity for her is a choice, she chooses the comforts of hotel crazy.
Susanna is “normal,” but also a death-obsessed, lazy, self-indulgent, promiscuous, tragic, dramatic, histrionic little girl. She wants to be Ophelia, twirling in the tower of crazy, but not entirely ready, or able, to let her sanity go. Bottom line: Susanna is ambivalent. Unwilling to conform, and unwilling to let herself completely go mad. She tries, when Whoopi Goldberg throws her in the bathtub, but manages only to look ridiculous by forcing an act. The ham-fisted metaphor of the bathtub is to tell us that Susanna isn’t crazy at all, much as the title, suggests, she is just a girl, interrupted. If she wants out of the ward, or the bathtub, all she has to do is get herself out. All she has to do is confront her Lisa within.
So she sets her mind on doing just that. Lisa still hasn’t returned from their breakout, and while Susanna has the space to think, and write (because Lisa is gone), we’re given a montage of muted scenes showing Susanna talking, writing, and gesturing laid over with a series of life affirming axioms read by Winona as if we were catching glimpses into Susanna’s diary. These maxims and encouraging slogans seem to suggest she has crossed over, made the decision: she is back on the side of right, the side of mediocrity.
When you don’t want to feel, death can seem like a dream, but seeing death, really seeing it, makes dreaming about it fucking ridiculous.
And thus, Susanna is cured of her obsession with her own death. No more pouring and preening over how and when. Now, it’s about life, and love. But she isn’t cured cured, not yet. She has to confront Lisa.
Though I miss Lisa, life without her was easier.
And then magically, Lisa returns. She’s pissed at Susanna’s successes, pissed that Susanna now thinks she’s better than everyone else. In the middle of the night, on her last night in the ward, Susanna wakes to find Georgina missing, along with her diary. In a pant she runs through the labyrinth of the institution, reminding us exactly how scary institutionalization really is (earlier that night another patient, one harmless and sweet, who has had no trouble, is seen hauled away screaming in a straightjacket), all the while hearing, but not seeing, Lisa reading her journal, mocking her, telling everyone else, which now is only Polly and Georgina, what Susanna really thinks.
Lisa is playing the villain, exactly like Susanna wanted. She’s living for Susanna, and here is where they argue about freedom. Susanna is about to be set free. But Lisa screams “I’m free! You don’t know what freedom really is.”
Girl, Interrupted appeared on screen in 1999, and the 90’s were a hotbed for pop psychologists. Soprano’s began its smash success, talk shows were all the rage, and millions of neurological pills were emerging (along with the symptoms these said pills were supposed to abate). Mental disease was on the rise, to each her own flavor, and everyone was desperate to get diagnosed.
And while Girl, Interrupted is set in the 60’s, the film reflects more the spirit of the 90’s. (Whoever controls the present controls the past.) For instance, as mentioned earlier, there is no lesbian or anorexic in the book, schizophrenia factors more heavily, there are two sociopaths, and everyone gets out in the end, including Lisa, whereas in the film, when Susanna’s voice-over says that she saw some later in life outside of the ward, there were others, pan camera over Angelina Jolie, that she never saw again. Of course, leading the viewer to assume, that Lisa remained lobotomized much to the effect of Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was left with the impression that Lisa must be sacrificed in order for Susanna to feel better, to feel normal, to be sane.
But in the end of the film, the truth is, the only truth that we see, is that only Susanna escapes alive, and though we are alluded to some of the other girls’ freedom, we don’t know who, nor do we see it, we only see Susanna fleeing the cuckoo’s nest, finally deciding on sanity and to abandon all the others, the others embedded within her, to a life of captivity, or as Lisa puts it, freedom.
Also, as a side note, the title was taken from a Vermeer painting. Girl Interrupted at Her Music, which I think, if I were to venture a guess, is Kaysen’s way of saying that mental illnesses, particularly the way mentally ill women were treated, à la Yellow Wallpaper and wandering uteruses, is basically an interruption of their otherwise normal lives. To be labeled insane and then locked away, particularly when one is not crazy, places the patient’s life on hold. For some this was desired, for others, it was an intrusion, just as this Des Cartes-looking figure is interrupting this poor girl’s lesson.