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What does Kaysen’s
inquiry into the meeting with the psychiatrist who diagnosed her
tell us about her reliability as a narrator? What other conclusions
can we draw?
At the outset of her memoir, Susanna Kaysen
describes in great detail the consultation she had with the doctor
who sent her to McLean Hospital. Later, she recalls that he spent
only twenty minutes interviewing her before making a decision that
would dominate her life for the following two years. For many chapters,
we have no reason to distrust anything that Kaysen relays to us,
from events in her life to the behavior of the people around her.
In the middle of the book, however, Kaysen returns our attention
to that initial meeting. She admits that, though she clearly recalls
a twenty-minute conversation, hospital records indicate that the
conversation lasted three hours. She retraces her steps that morning,
questioning her memory, and concludes that the records may in fact
be accurate. She unearths a second document, however, that supports
her original point of view. “Do you believe him or me?” she asks
in the chapter title.Kaysen confesses that she can be an unreliable
narrator in order to illustrate the subjective nature of judgment.
If hospital records, ostensibly the official version of events,
can contradict each other, what else is called into question? Initial
impressions can deceive, and so can memory. Kaysen admits to uncertainty
about her meeting with the doctor in order to cause us to question
the judgment of the authority figures in her story and ours. We
should recognize that every story and conclusion is relayed through
a subjective source.
Kaysen confesses that she can be an unreliable narrator
in order to illustrate the subjective nature of judgment. If hospital
records, ostensibly the official version of events, can contradict
each other, what else is called into question? Initial impressions
can deceive, and so can memory. Kaysen admits to uncertainty about
her meeting with the doctor in order to cause us to question the
judgment of the authority figures in her story and ours. We should
recognize that every story and conclusion is relayed through a subjective
How do people
react when Kaysen tells them of her hospitalization? How does she
cope with their reactions?
Kaysen experiences considerable prejudice
when she attempts to find a job. Her mailing address reveals her
residence at McLean Hospital, and every potential employer seems
to know it. Worse, she tells us, people seem to believe that they
have some deep insight into her character simply by knowing that
she was hospitalized. This “terrible intimacy” is unwarranted, of
course, but Kaysen is acutely aware of other people’s judgment.
She describes the curiosity she faces as a reflection of insecurity
on the part of the questioner. Questions about her time at McLean
disguise others’ fear of following the same path. In Kaysen’s mind,
people fail to make a distinction between the person they see before
them and familiar images of life in the “loony bin.” As a result,
Kaysen begins to keep her experience at the hospital to herself.
As she says, “there is no advantage in telling people.”
As she ages, Kaysen begins to feel that her younger, hospitalized self
was an entirely different person. She internalizes the revulsion
of others until it appears in her own behavior. The former patient
now sees mental patients as others do.
What does the
Lisa Cody episode reveal about Lisa? Does Kaysen judge Lisa for
At the outset of the chapter “Another Lisa,”
Kaysen notes that the decision to call the new patient Lisa Cody
was an easy one; the original Lisa “remained simply Lisa, like a
queen.” Lisa enjoys a position of prominence on the ward—a role
she takes great pains to protect. No one is ever as loud, funny,
obnoxious, or daring as Lisa. She is particularly proud of her diagnosis
of sociopath. It is a rare diagnosis and sets her apart from the
mass of depressives, neurotics, and character disorders. At first,
we see the kind, fun side of Lisa, who immediately befriends Lisa
Cody, giving the new girl instant credibility on the ward. As soon
as Lisa Cody is diagnosed as a sociopath, however, Lisa feels threatened
and turns on her friend. A competition begins to determine the most
troubled among them, the most scarred, and the most willing to shock.
We understand at the outset that Lisa Cody’s prospects of winning
this contest are poor; we’ve seen the lengths to which Lisa will
go for attention. The rivalry turns dark when the two Lisas compare
needle scars, competing for the title of “worst junkie.” Lisa Cody
is embarrassed and soon leaves the ward. Later, Lisa returns from
an escape to Boston to reveal that her efforts were rewarded: Lisa
Cody is now a “real” junkie.
Kaysen’s narration is purposefully void of emotion or
judgment. We know that the scenes and dialogue she creates are fictionalized
to some extent. Kaysen allows her readers to draw their own conclusions.
Lisa’s behavior is presented almost dispassionately. Kaysen has
extensive experience with the consequences of pre-judgment, and
so trusts her readers to make their own decisions.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Girl, Interrupted!