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Kaysen considers the suicide attempt that contributed
to her stay at the hospital. She compares suicide to premeditated
murder, asserting that detachment, planning, and motive are necessary
to a successful outcome (in this case, death). The person must prepare
by imagining the means of death, be it jumping, slashing wrists,
or leaping in front of a train. Kaysen claims that her motives for
dying weren’t compelling enough to make her own attempt successful. Any
minor grievance would prompt an internal debate about whether to
live or die—even events as trivial as missing the bus or enjoying
a movie. When Kaysen eventually attempted suicide by taking fifty
aspirin, she warned her boyfriend in advance. As she waited for
the overdose to take effect, Kaysen regretted her decision and realized
that she didn’t want to die after all. She wanted to kill only the
part of her that urged her to suicide. Eventually, the police found
Kaysen and rushed to her to the hospital, where doctors pumped her
stomach. In the aftermath of the suicide attempt, Kaysen felt better,
as though she had successfully committed the “partial suicide” she
imagined would improve her life. Kaysen replaced her high school
boyfriend with her English teacher, who took her to museums and
impressed her with his intellect and wisdom. Looking back, however,
Kaysen realizes that she was only temporarily free of the problems
that had tormented her.
Kaysen wonders how a doctor with whom she had not previously consulted
could have diagnosed and committed her to a hospital in only twenty
minutes. The doctor told Kaysen that her stay at McLean would last
a few weeks, but she feels betrayed: she stayed for two years. Kaysen
imagines that the doctor’s decision was governed by the fear and
confusion adults of his age felt toward young people at the time.
She thinks that the doctor must have believed that he was saving
her from a downward spiral of drugs and self-damaging behavior.
Because she was eighteen, Kaysen had to sign herself into the hospital.
While waiting to be checked in, she noticed a recurrence of a problem
with patterns she had been having. Tile floors, intricately sewn
rugs, and even faces did not appear to her eye as they did to others’.
Despite the visual confusion, Kaysen was always fully conscious
of the disorientation and understood that she was not processing
patterns correctly. Most troubling to her was the question of whether
everyone else was simply pretending to be normal, as she was. “Was
insanity just a matter of dropping the act?” she asks. Kaysen felt
great satisfaction in denying herself pleasures. Checking herself
into a mental hospital was the greatest form of suffering she thought
she could undertake.
The entrance to the hospital ward could easily be found
in a prison. Patients walk through a locked door, wait until that
door is relocked, and then enter through another locked door. The
public rooms, a lounge and kitchen, are arranged near the entrance
doors in order to impress visitors. Just beyond the public rooms,
however, the ward begins to appear more like the place of incarceration
that it is. A very long hallway divides the patient quarters from
the staff sections. Kaysen notes that the bathrooms are on the staff
side of the hallway. Across from the nursing station, a blackboard
lists the names of all patients. When a patient leaves the hospital
or dies, her name remains on the board for some time. At the end
of the hall is the TV room, the girls’ favorite gathering space.
Here, the patients have the freedom to socialize, smoke, and operate
generally free from staff interference. The seclusion room sits
at the very end of the hallway. Patients who are too rowdy or noisy
are banished to the room to wear themselves out. Kaysen points out
that patients can request to be put in the seclusion room. This
is the only private place on the ward; patients are forced to exchange
their freedom for a chance to be alone.
In dissecting the memories of her suicide attempt, Kaysen
refers to the importance of detachment, a motif that appears throughout
the book. In order to commit suicide successfully, she says, a person must
create in her mind a “proper distance” from the act itself. This detachment
simultaneously plagues and benefits Kaysen during these difficult
years. A note regarding her diagnosis states that she feels disconnected
from life and relationships, a symptom of a number of mental illnesses.
Yet detachment also allows Kaysen and the other girls on the ward
to separate themselves from the endless tedium of life in confinement.
Detachment can be evidence of a psychic wound or a useful tool in
battling oppressive circumstances. Kaysen speaks of the “partial
suicide” she feels took place in the wake of her attempt to die.
In killing the “part of [her] that wanted to kill herself,” Kaysen
believes that she temporarily killed her most dangerous instincts.
But eventually, she learns that mental illness needs to be confronted
in its totality.
The greater theme of generational conflict, or the difficulty
older people have in understanding the changing culture of the young, also
appears in this scene. Kaysen believes that the doctor is simply a
product of his background; he is unfortunately unable to comprehend
his troubled young patients. The youth culture of 1967 was frightening
to many, especially suburban, white, middle-class professionals
like the doctor. Older people often confused drug use or typical
teenage behavior with mental illness, having lived through their
own adolescences in calmer times. Class distinctions were also heavily
policed; the doctor thought he was saving the child of a peer from
falling in with the dangerous elements of youth culture. Kaysen
is careful not to present these factors as evidence of a mistaken diagnosis.
Rather, she is establishing a context for her experiences. Kaysen
leaves the issue of her mental health vague, aware that her own
memories may be as imprecise as the doctor’s understanding of her
McLean Hospital is a cold place designed to reinforce
authority by dehumanizing its patients. Descriptions of the entrance
and cell-like rooms evoke images of prison, with nurse and patient
areas strictly separated. Kaysen tells us that the girls’ central
complaint is the lack of privacy the ward affords. Cruelly, the
only private space is a “seclusion” room that serves primarily as
a holding tank for wild patients. To be alone in the hospital is
to be even more harshly confined.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Girl, Interrupted!