Summary: Freedom

Lisa has run away. Despite frequent escapes, Lisa is always caught and returned to the hospital, disheveled and cursing at the nurses and orderlies. When the girls ask Lisa what life is like on the outside, she tells them that it’s scary without caretakers. Lisa sleeps and eats very little, giving her a wild look that intrigues the other girls. The nurses are resigned to Lisa’s insomnia, and they allow her to sit in the hallway at night. Although she usually returns from the outside world to resume her role as mischief-maker, Lisa is oddly subdued this time. The nurses have put her in solitary confinement, cutting off her fingernails and removing her belt to ensure that Lisa cannot hurt herself. Kaysen thinks that the nurses misunderstand the nature of Lisa’s illness: she is a sociopath who would never hurt herself. Lisa sits silently in front of the television with the catatonics and depressives whom she used to ridicule for inactivity. The girls wonder whether the nurses are drugging Lisa with sedatives. Eventually, Lisa begins to spend time away from the television and only in the bathrooms instead. One day, Lisa greets the girls as her smiling, familiar self. When the girls hear the nurses rushing around in alarm, they investigate. Lisa has wrapped the entire television lounge in toilet paper, stolen over time from the bathrooms. Kaysen realizes that Lisa has been planning the prank for months, disguising her scheme with odd behavior.

Summary: The Secret of Life

Kaysen has a visitor. She wonders whether it is her ex-boyfriend or her high school English teacher, with whom she had an affair. The visitor turns out to be James Watson, an old family friend and one of the Nobel Prize-winning discoverers of DNA. She hopes that Watson will share with her the secret of life. Kaysen is fond of Watson because of his quirky personality and unconventional behavior. Watson thinks that McLean is an unhealthy place for Kaysen, and he offers to help her escape. Kaysen considers the offer but declines. She tells him that she thinks she should stay.

Summary: Politics

Georgina, Kaysen’s roommate, has a boyfriend named Wade, who lives on another ward. Wade is angry and often violent, requiring two orderlies to pin him down during his outbursts. Wade tells the girls that his father is an agent for the CIA, knows who killed JFK, and is a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Wade also tells stories about his father’s friends E. Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, whom he describes as dangerous men likely to “do anything.” Neither Kaysen nor the nurses believe Wade’s stories, but Kaysen finds them entertaining. One day when Wade is locked on his ward due to a violent outburst, Kaysen and Georgina decide to make caramels by heating sugar on the stove. Kaysen’s grip on the pan slips, and she pours searing hot caramel on Georgina’s hand. Although Kaysen is frantic, Georgina hardly reacts. Looking back on the incident, Kaysen notes that either Liddy or Hunt claimed in the Watergate hearings to have run his hand nightly over a candle flame in order to prepare himself for torture. The goal was not to react at all, much as Georgina responded when burned.

Summary: If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now

Daisy checks into McLean each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Few of the girls want to share a room with her, but some are looking to change their living situations. A genitally deformed girl who believes that her boyfriend is from Mars offers to share, as does Cynthia, a quiet girl undergoing months of electroshock therapy. Polly is looking to change rooms to get away from Janet, an anorexic who is due to begin force-feedings soon. The nurses give Daisy a single room from which she rarely emerges. Each morning, Daisy demands laxatives from the nurses, attacking anyone who dares to approach her. The girls find it peculiar that Daisy’s father appears on the ward twice each week with an entire roasted chicken for his daughter. Lisa is determined to find out what Daisy is concealing in her room and bribes Daisy with extra laxatives she cons from the nurses. Later, Lisa tells the other girls that Daisy’s room is filled with old chicken carcasses from which she has stripped all the meat. One day, Daisy proudly reveals that her father has purchased an apartment for her. Daisy’s favorite feature of the apartment is a sign on the building that reads: “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now.” Several months later, the nurses reveal that Daisy committed suicide on her birthday.


Lisa is the most fully drawn character in Kaysen’s memoir, other than herself. In studying Lisa’s behavior, Kaysen learns much about the contradictions inherent in the human personality, and the ways some people react to repressive authority. Lisa is unpredictable and confident, attracting the other girls with her defiance of hospital rules. She is clever and sneaky. When Kaysen discovers that Lisa spent three months planning the toilet paper prank, she is awestruck by Lisa’s ability to lie in wait only to strike at the perfect moment. We, too, learn to be suspicious of Lisa’s motives. Kaysen touches here on the girls’ conflicting attitudes toward confinement. Lisa surprises her fellow patients and the reader when she says, upon returning from an escape, that she is glad to be back. “There’s nobody to take care of you out there,” she says. Each of the girls experiences this conflict: they simultaneously loathe captivity and yet are relieved to be in the hands of caretaking authority figures.

Kaysen’s interaction with Jim Watson speaks to the theme of the human impulse to reject, isolate, and punish unconventional behavior. Kaysen tells us that she likes Watson precisely because of his quirky behavior, the way he “fad[es] out” of conversations and appears quite unlike the traditional image of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Watson is credited with discovering the structure of DNA, the “secret of life” in Kaysen’s words. Her description of Watson’s personality, set against the backdrop of his massive achievements, echoes the premise that hangs over the entire text: in our insistence on classifying “odd” behavior as evidence of insanity, we may be ignoring the contributions of the human race’s most creative minds.

Wade, Georgina’s boyfriend, embodies the recurrent motif of people discounting the words of the “crazy.” Wade’s stories about his father’s shadowy friends appear to be the conspiracy ravings of a troubled and angry boy. The nurses note that Wade “continues [to maintain the] fantasy” that his father is a CIA operative whose friends are involved in elaborate plots. The benefit of hindsight allows us to draw some very different conclusions when we learn that two of Wade Sr.’s friends are named Hunt and Liddy. In 1972, only a few years after Kaysen’s time at the hospital, these two men were at the heart of the Watergate burglary, in which Nixon operatives broke into Democratic election headquarters and stole documents. Revelations about the burglary brought down the Nixon presidency and would seem to support Wade’s contention that “[Hunt and Liddy] will do anything.” Kaysen includes the story to point out the danger of hastily discounting what “insane” people say. The anecdote underscores Kaysen’s belief that to approach mental illness with cookie-cutter solutions is shortsighted.

Daisy’s story highlights the wide range of illness grouped together on Kaysen’s hospital ward. Daisy is among the most severely ill of Kaysen’s fellow patients. When Lisa discovers the full extent of Daisy’s sickness, it is clear that Daisy and Kaysen occupy very different places on the spectrum of psychiatric disorders. This stark contrast leads us to question the nature of the approach to treatment pursued by McLean. Daisy would appear an appropriate candidate for hospitalization, yet she arrives at Thanksgiving each year and stays only until Christmas; Kaysen is a resident on the ward for two full years. The disparity here in both illness and treatment among a number of different patients instills doubts about Kaysen’s treatment.