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Girl, Interrupted | Study Guide

Susanna Kaysen

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Girl, Interrupted | Context


Johannes Vermeer's Girl Interrupted at Her Music

Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer's painting Girl Interrupted at Her Music is the inspiration for the title of Susanna Kaysen's memoir, Girl, Interrupted. Visiting the Frick Collection in New York City, which owns the painting, Kaysen felt especially drawn to this particular work by the artist. Vermeer was born in Delft, Netherlands, in 1632 and died there in 1675. He is considered one of the masters of the Dutch Golden Age, a period of relative prosperity in Holland, along with his contemporaries Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and Frans Hals the Elder. Vermeer specialized in domestic scenes of the upper middle class. Like the painting Kaysen admired, these works often featured people, most often women, painted in rooms filled with radiant light. Girl Interrupted at Her Music was likely painted in 1658–59 using oil on canvas.

The painting shows a young woman holding a sheet of music in her hands. A gentleman who appears older than her stands behind the young woman and leans over her, seemingly trying to draw her attention to the music sheet in her hands. The girl, however, looks away from him, her eyes directed toward the viewer. In Vermeer's work, music-making is a frequent theme. In the 17th century, music was a symbol for courtship. However, the age difference and the posture of the two characters in the painting could just as easily suggest a simple music lesson, leaving the interpretation to the viewer. The ambiguity of the scene captured Susanna Kaysen's imagination, as it allows for two different, almost opposing interpretations. This idea permeates the memoir in that social labels such as sane, insane, or normal are also open to interpretation.

Events of the 1960s

Girl, Interrupted takes place in the late 1960s, a period of generational unrest between the coming-of-age baby boomers (those born in the 1940s–60s) and their parents and grandparents that was characterized by political and social conflict. Such conflicts included the Vietnam War, student uprisings, the African American civil rights movement, and the women's liberation movement. The memoir of a young institutionalized psychiatric patient mirrors both physically and psychologically the exterior turmoil permeating the decade, and concludes that sanity or insanity, like all else, is characterized by historical and social context.

From the Cold War to the Vietnam War

John F. Kennedy took office as president in January 1961. After the oppressively conservative Eisenhower years, his election seemed to ring in a decade of hope, change, and progress. However, the 1960s began with political issues left over from World War II. In April 1961, the United States military tried and failed to overthrow Fidel Castro's communist regime in Cuba, an event called the Bay of Pigs after the beach where the invading troops landed. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was a narrowly avoided nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. Both events amply illustrated that the Cold War between the capitalist Western world, led by the United States, and the communist eastern bloc, led by the Soviet Union, could intensify at any moment. President Kennedy, the harbinger of hope, was assassinated in 1963 and succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson's leadership escalated the Vietnam War, often considered a proxy war between the East and the West. In the mid-1960s, antiwar demonstrations became a regular occurrence in large cities and university campuses. Students in particular took advantage of the notion of free speech and marched on the streets, openly opposing the Vietnam War and suggesting, instead, the approach "Make Love, not War."

Civil Rights

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared "I Have a Dream," imagining a world free of racial discrimination as he lent his stirring voice to the long struggle for African American civil rights. A year later in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or national origin. However, racism and other prejudices were deeply ingrained in parts of American culture, and discrimination, though outlawed, was slow to change. In February 1965, activist Malcolm X was assassinated. Less than a month later, Martin Luther King Jr. led a famous Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It took three separate tries to cover the distance because local law enforcement twice drove the marchers back to Selma with clubs and tear gas. Frustrated by these continuous setbacks, in 1966 activists Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton founded the Black Panthers, adopting Malcolm X's slogan, "Freedom by any means necessary." As racial tensions mounted, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968; riots erupted through the country after news of his death spread.

Violence also erupted in 1968 over antiwar sentiments: several campus sit-ins were forcefully dispersed by law enforcement, and an antiwar protest at the Democratic National Convention led to a violent altercation between picketers and police. Other movements for social change erupted. In June 1969, a police raid in a gay bar in New York City led to the Stonewall riots, igniting the gay and lesbian rights movement.


Woodstock, the legendary music festival in upstate New York, was held in August 1969. The festival was a uniting force in years of protest. Its antiwar and anti-establishment theme resonated with musicians and fans alike. Opposition to the Vietnam War, support for the civil rights movement, and demands for sexual liberation and women's rights—Woodstock tied it all together, embodying a hope for love, equality, and everlasting peace.

Women's Liberation Movement

The lack of social and economic equality for women also created a wave of feminism called the women's liberation movement, or "women's lib." In the 1960s, women's liberation was an emerging movement. At the time, women experienced openly different rights, standards, and expectations. Social definitions of female sexuality were also limiting and subject to a double standard. Betty Friedan's 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, chronicled the despair of women who were unhappy with their roles as housewives and promoted the need for women to have opportunities for meaningful work. The book is credited with sparking the feminist movement, with goals including workplace equality and women's reproductive rights. In McLean Hospital, the girls' desires for basic rights complement this fight for women's equality.

Mental Health

The setting of McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility, is also, like its patients and the world at large, caught in transition. Previously a facility for wealthy but troubled patients to recover in luxury in the 1950s, the hospital, by the late 1960s, had become the victim of neglect, losing both its privileged patients and its status as a desired treatment facility. By the mid-1950s the discovery of neurochemical processes in the brain and the resulting development of antipsychotic drugs made it possible to treat symptoms of mental disorders with medication, rendering lengthy institutionalization unnecessary.

Previously, some patients were viewed as lifelong incurables who needed to be institutionalized due, in part, to radical 20th-century physical therapies for psychiatric disorders, such as lobotomies (surgical severance of connections in the prefrontal lobe of the brain), and later, electroconvulsive therapy (electric currents passed through the brain to induce mini-seizures). Under the care of these new drugs and other therapies, patients became empowered to control and live with their diagnoses. As a result of these shifts in treatment, residence hospitals such as McLean began to shut down all over the country.

In Kaysen's memoir, Girl, Interrupted, opposing camps of psychoanalysis (dream analysis and "talking cures," first advocated by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud) and psychiatry (physical and drug therapy) both compete and cooperate in the care of mental disorders that plague the girls. Such disorders include depression (characterized by feelings of dejection and lack of interest in life), borderline personality disorder (characterized by instability in mood, behavior, and relationships), and schizophrenia (characterized by breakdown among thought, emotion, and behavior). Kaysen is purposefully ambiguous as to whether her stay at McLean is justified.

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