Susana Kaysen is eighteen years old at the beginning of her memoir. She is a bright but troubled teenager with a surprising breadth of life experience. At this age, Kaysen has already abandoned school, had an affair with her high school English teacher, and half-heartedly attempted suicide. During a fateful consultation with the doctor who will usher her into nearly two years of hospitalization, Kaysen’s overriding emotion is exhaustion. She signs herself into McLean Hospital with a sense, at least initially, of relief.
Kaysen narrates Girl, Interrupted in a cool, dispassionate voice, sketching the characters and scenes that illustrate life in a mental hospital for the affluent in the late 1960s. The nearly emotionless narration reflects both the detachment Kaysen feels from life as an adolescent, and a desire to leave certain conclusions to her readers. As she explores the nature of sanity and social conformity and the manner in which they interrelate, Kaysen avoids outright indictment of the system that confined her. The scenes she narrates are complicated and offer no easy lessons.
In the course of her time at McLean, Kaysen learns about the nature of mental illness, the cruelty and compassion of other people, and the obstacles that women face in society. She draws connections among the various stigmas she faces as a young woman. As an adolescent, petty rebellions and refusal to follow rules alarm her parents. Later, at a short-lived typing job, unconcealed sexism in the workplace shocks Kaysen. Once a patient at McLean, she feels the discomfort with which outsiders greet her and the other patients, an experience repeated when she tries to find employment outside the hospital.
The adult Kaysen confesses to fighting a mild revulsion toward the mentally ill, born of fear that she might backslide into that “parallel universe.” She hopes never to return to the sad place where mental instability collides with a society quick to isolate it.
Lisa is the most powerful personality on the ward. Her utter disregard for authority makes her a frustrating and entertaining figure in the eyes of the other girls. Whether engaging in complicated pranks or escaping from the hospital, Lisa ensures that the routine of the ward never goes uninterrupted for long. Lisa is proud of her diagnosis as a sociopath and revels in the attention her antics earn her. Lisa is a dangerously attractive figure for the other girls, and the dark side of her personality can appear without warning. Lisa veers from extravagantly kind to perversely cruel. Kaysen meets Lisa some years after their time at McLean and is shocked to see her old friend dressed as a suburban mother, child in tow. In the course of their conversation, however, it becomes clear that Lisa’s personality is as unpredictable as ever; her new life can’t conceal Lisa’s impulsiveness and volatility.
Georgina, Kaysen’s roommate, is a fragile depressive who serves as a constant companion to Kaysen. Georgina aspires to an almost domestic kind of normality at the hospital. She develops a serious relationship with Wade, an unstable and violent patient, and often serves as the voice of calm and reassurance. The depth of her unhappiness is revealed, however, when Kaysen pours scalding hot caramel on Georgina’s hand; she has no reaction at all. Georgina is similar to many of the other girls, who show no obvious signs of illness. The ward can seem deceptively calm at times, as though it were a dormitory instead of a psychiatric unit with barred windows and locked doors. When truly alarming mental illness appears, it comes as a shock to the girls. Georgina sums up their fears when, while visiting the wretched and shockingly changed Alice Calais, she urges her ward-mates never to forget what they have seen, and never to let it happen to them.