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Girl, Interrupted | Study Guide

Susanna Kaysen

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Susanna Kaysen | Biography


Susanna Kaysen is an American writer of memoirs and novels. Her memoir, Girl, Interrupted, published in 1993 and made into a movie of the same name in 1999, established Kaysen as a voice for troubled teenage girls.

Early Years

Susanna Kaysen was born on November 11, 1948, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her father, Carl Kaysen, was a professor of economics at Princeton, Harvard, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and a national security adviser to President John F. Kennedy. Her mother, Annette Neutra Kaysen, was a homemaker and gifted amateur piano player. Kaysen grew up in privileged surroundings among intellectuals and artists, which she later conveys in her autobiographical novel, Cambridge (2014).

Life at McLean Psychiatric Hospital and Beyond

Kaysen graduated from the Cambridge School in Weston, Massachusetts, in 1967. Diagnosed with depression and borderline personality disorder after a suicide attempt, Kaysen admitted herself to the McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Cambridge in April 1967 at age 18. Her memoir, Girl, Interrupted, is based on her experiences in the hospital's ward for teenage girls. Released two years later, Kaysen married an anthropologist, with whom she lived in her twenties on the remote Faroe Islands, an archipelago between Norway and Scotland. This experience informed her novel Far Afield (1990). The marriage ended in divorce.

Professional Life

Kaysen never went to college, a decision her family did not approve of, given her father's academic achievements. Instead, she worked as a proofreader and copyeditor and started writing. Her first novel, Asa, as I Knew Him, was published in 1987. The novel focuses on the notion that different people form different views of the same person, a theme revisited in Girl, Interrupted. Far Afield followed three years later, and Girl, Interrupted another three years later.

Kaysen was surprised by the critical and commercial success of Girl, Interrupted. Although it is a literary memoir, readers focused primarily on the subject matter of mental illness and Susanna Kaysen as a person rather than on the book itself. Her honest look at life in a mental institution, her candid questioning of a gender-biased medical establishment (locking the girls in traditional female roles), and her truthful rendering of the experience of madness turned the book into a must-read among adolescent girls. It joined the ranks of other famous works about youth and madness, such as J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963). In 1999, the memoir was made into a movie of the same name, starring Winona Ryder as Susanna Kaysen, and Angelina Jolie, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Lisa Rowe.

Girl, Interrupted's success enabled Kaysen to settle down as an independent writer. She has since published The Camera My Mother Gave Me (2001), a narrative about a woman who suffers from intense genital pain, and the autobiographical novel Cambridge.

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