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Girl, Interrupted | Study Guide

Susanna Kaysen

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Girl, Interrupted | Elementary Topography | Summary



Susanna feels betrayed by the doctor who has sent her to the psychiatric hospital after having talked to her for no more than 20 minutes. She feels tricked because he suggested she sign herself in for a few weeks of rest, yet she ended up staying for two years. In retrospect, she realizes she could have refused, because he didn't have enough reason to commit her by force. She assumes that the doctor believed he was doing the right thing, trying to keep her from a downward spiral of drug abuse and self-destructive behavior. However, looking back, she realizes that the growing generational divide of the 1960s may have led the doctor to misinterpret her behavior.

Susanna, legally an adult at 18, admits that she willingly went through several steps to sign herself in. She understands that she did not quite see the world the way others did. Patterns, such as black and white tiles or faces, seemed to hide things that were not real, causing deep-seated confusion and uncertainty. Always aware that she was looking at patterns, she wonders whether seeing things that are not there meant she was truly mad, or whether everyone else was just pretending, and her madness was nothing more than "dropping the act." In the end, she believes that admitting herself to McLean was an expression of her contrarian spirit. After all, living in an insane asylum is a negation, a refusal of the world.


Sexual promiscuity, an interest in recreational drugs, and a nonconformist attitude were characteristics of the youth culture in the 1960s. The older establishment, personified by the psychiatrist who diagnosed her, felt threatened, misinterpreting the desire to change restrictive rules and old-fashioned value systems as the descent of a culture into utter mayhem. The psychiatrist may have simply tried to help the daughter of a peer to return to mainstream culture in order to preserve the social order.

At the same time, Susanna admits that her perception of reality may not be that of others. She accepts that reality is not necessarily what her perceptions tell her it is, that a curtain could very well be a mountain range, yet the mountain range she sees could very well just be a curtain. She accepts that reality and truth are not absolute but depend very much on one's perspective. This awareness that the things she sees might not be real is both Susanna's predicament and her salvation. Knowing she sees things differently from others places her at the margins of a society she understands but cannot (or does not) want to live in.

As she defines herself as a contrarian (someone in opposition to the norm), the behaviors that led to Susanna's stay at McLean take on another meaning. She notes that when she was "supposed to speak, [she] was silent." The greatest opposition to the world is to step out of it. Suicide is not an option for Susanna; submitting herself to McLean, however, is. By signing herself in, she rejects the conformity expected of her.

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