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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary
devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Confined to a hospital ward for the last two of her teenage
years, Kaysen learns to value her ability to track the passage of
time. She revisits several times her initial diagnosis by a doctor
with whom she had never before consulted. Kaysen’s memory of the
twenty-minute visit, surely not enough time to condemn a teenager
to years of hospitalization, haunts her through adulthood. As an
adult, she digs up hospital records to little avail: there are two
competing accounts of the consultation. The vast disproportion of
twenty minutes of discussion to two years of confinement still haunts
her. On the ward, time is marked by the incessant “checks” made
by nurses. Kaysen describes the five-minute, fifteen-minute, and
half-hour checks as “murder[ing] time,” “chopping off pieces of
it and lobbing them into the dustbin.” The pain of time lost in
captivity is magnified by its never-ending and maddeningly predictable
punctuation. Kaysen becomes obsessed with time, screaming at a dentist
who has brought her out of general anesthesia, “it’s my time and
I need to know how much it was! . . . I need to know.”
Kaysen argues that to commit suicide, one must practice
detachment as a means of tricking the mind into destroying itself.
Without the “proper distance,” she argues, the act is too heinous
to be undertaken. Detachment is a familiar device for Kaysen and
her fellow patients, a kind of armor they don to remove themselves
from the reality of their sad plights. Even the constant assault
of repetitive thought, a hallmark of mental illness in Kaysen’s
conception, becomes “background music, a Muzak medley of self-hatred themes.”
Detachment is most alarming when it reveals a person’s total inability
to feel pain or pleasure. When Kaysen accidentally pours molten
sugar on Georgina’s hand, Georgina has no reaction at all. Even
searing pain can’t penetrate the shell of detachment Georgina has
constructed to protect herself.
Kaysen’s adolescence coincides with the rise of late 1960s
youth culture. Millions of baby boomers (i.e., children born at
the end of the Second World War) came of age as teenagers and young
adults. Older generations were startled by the abandonment of traditional cultural
values by young people, whose unconventional appearance, music,
antiwar protests, and psychedelic drug culture were totally alien
to them. Kaysen believes that her doctor thought he was saving her
from the “drifting, drugged-out, no-last-name youth universe” by
placing her in a hospital. To her parents, Kaysen’s rejection of
school achievement and a professional career were signs of mental
disturbance, not the uncertainty of a teenager in confusing times.
Kaysen describes Dr. Wick, one of the physicians at McLean, as “utterly
innocent about American culture,” taken aback by frank discussion
of sex. To the authority figures in her life, Kaysen and other people
of her age were at great risk. The consequences of their confusion
and fear for Kaysen were regrettable.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Girl, Interrupted!