Girl, Interrupted | Study Guide

Susanna Kaysen

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Girl, Interrupted | Keepers | Summary

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Summary

Susanna describes the staff on the girls' ward. Valerie is young, has beautiful hair, and is flexible and nimble enough to help a patient who might hide in a small space. She is tough and not intimidated by the girls or the doctors. The girls trust her because she speaks their language, unlike the doctors, who use psychiatric jargon: she "said what she meant, just like we did." The resident doctors are in charge of everyday issues such as dispensing painkillers. If a patient makes a simple request for a drug other than aspirin, the resident doctors interpret it as hypochondria, deciding the girl is fixated on an imaginary illness.

The nurses are all female, except one, and the doctors are all male, except one: Dr. Wick is from Rhodesia and unfamiliar with American culture. She is prudish and blushes at sexually explicit language.

Mrs. McWeeney, the night nurse, wears a traditional nurse's uniform and runs the floor like a prison warden. Susanna describes her as unpredictable: she is prone to sudden angry outbursts that keep her from dispensing medicine to her patients. The girls complain to Valerie about her but never mention her dereliction of duty because they recognize she "ha[s] to earn a living." Valerie and Mrs. McWeeney's clothes represent their different value systems: Valerie wears an "unbuttoned nurse coat over street clothes," while Mrs. McWeeney wears a more formal "creaky white uniform" and openly disapproves of Valerie's style of dress.

The student nurses, on the other hand, are like an alternative version of the girls. They are the same age and have the same interests, except they are not mentally ill. The girls are on their best behavior with the student nurses because they want to continue to live vicariously through them.

Analysis

Susanna stresses the kinship between the girls and some of their keepers. Valerie's physical flexibility, youth, and ability to speak like her patients shows her empathy for them. Stuck on the ward with them all day, Valerie shares the same routines and some of the restrictions. Unsurprisingly, a certain camaraderie and trust develops between Valerie and the girls, which allows Valerie to be most effective in crisis situations.

The doctors, on the other hand, are distant authority figures. Dr. Wick, a psychiatrist in control of their diagnoses, is culturally and generationally removed from the girls. In a session with Susanna, she misses the significance of the Vermeer painting Susanna wants to talk about. Instead, she prompts Susanna to talk about her sexual relations with her English teacher—a relationship that confirm the doctor's preconceived ideas about Susanna's promiscuity. Dr. Wick's lack of insight into the girls' culture renders her work with them useless.

Susanna's description of the girls' interactions with the residents and therapists illustrates the patients' lack of power. The residents never stay long enough to establish any rapport with the patients, yet they are in charge of their daily privileges. The therapists have control over heavy medications and can dispense them to make a patient more malleable. The patients, however, have no power at all; in fact, they are not taken seriously. Even a simple request for a different painkiller can be viewed as a symptom of a mental disorder. The girls are at the mercy of the doctors' absolute authority.

The student nurses are mirror images of the girls. Echoing the notion of a parallel universe developed from the first chapter of the memoir, the student nurses live the lives the girls imagine they'd be living had they not been diagnosed with their mental disorders. The girls keep their symptoms under control while the student nurses are on the ward, both to be more like them and to save face before young women whom they respect. The girls' awareness of and desire for a better life outside helps them exert control over their illnesses, at least for a little while. Their relationship with the student nurses is an instance of situational irony, in which a gap occurs between what should happen in a text and what actually does happen. The inexperienced, yet emotionally engaging staff has a better effect on the patients than does the medical professionals, with their split-second diagnoses and dubious therapies.

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