Girl, Interrupted | Study Guide

Susanna Kaysen

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Girl, Interrupted | Quotes


Every window on Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco.

Susanna, Toward A Topography of the Parallel Universe

Susanna compares the mental ward for girls at McLean to Alcatraz, a prison in San Francisco surrounded by water with views of the city. Like prison inmates, the girls are physically locked away from the sane outside world and also mentally and emotionally separated from it; they live in the parallel universe of madness. However, while the prison inmate may lose touch with reality, entering a parallel universe where the laws of nature may not apply, some awareness of reality remains intact because the cells at Alcatraz have views of the outside world. The invisible world outside the mental ward is still significant to the mental patient, although the mental patient is no longer significant in the world. The themes of detachment and isolation permeate the memoir.


My face! My face! My face!

Polly, Fire

Polly, a friendly and gentle girl who tried to commit suicide by setting herself on fire, suffers a mental breakdown, lamenting the scarred skin on her face. Her horror drives home the fact that no matter how long she stays at McLean and tries to recover from her mental illness, her body is forever scarred and her face disfigured. Susanna realizes that while all the girls on the ward have a chance to recover and move on with their lives, Polly will forever be trapped in her damaged body. The moment of desperation that drove her to set herself on fire will forever be a part of her.


It's a mean world ... there's nobody to take care of you out there.

Lisa Rowe, Freedom

Although Lisa Rowe runs away frequently and her pranks show her contempt for the rules of McLean, she appreciates the care she receives. This idea illustrates the girls' ambiguous relationship to their life at McLean. The hospital is their home, providing them with the necessities they need to survive, while taking away their freedom, dignity, and purpose. The hospital shelters them from a life they could not negotiate, but it also imprisons them, keeping them from participating in a life they long for.


Suicide is a form of murder—premeditated murder.

Susanna, My Suicide

Susanna explains that successful suicide requires the same level of organization and preparation as any complex endeavor. Means and opportunity as well as motive and objective are necessary to succeed. The analytical and detached frame of mind necessary to succeed seems inconsistent with a suicidal frame of mind. Susanna dissects the desperation that precedes the decision to commit suicide and the horror of the act itself, isolating the individual steps as if they are a to-do list and contradicting the notion that suicide may be an irrational or spur-of-the-moment decision.


Was insanity just a matter of dropping the act?

Susanna, Elementary Topography

Susanna admits that her perception of reality is different from that of other people. She sees objects within patterns in things such as rugs, curtains, or tiles. However, she distinguishes these sightings from hallucinations because she always recognizes the real object in addition to the pattern she sees in it. This awareness enables her to function without calling attention to herself. Susanna wonders if perhaps everybody sees things that aren't there, and if people who are deemed insane are simply those who admit to this.


What is it about cadence and meter and rhythm that makes their makers mad?

Susanna, The Prelude to Ice Cream

Susanna mentions the many poets and songwriters who used to be incarcerated at McLean, wondering if there is a connection between the poetry and a mad mind. She contemplates that a tortured soul might be drawn to the careful structure of poetry or music to ease the chaos of an unstructured mind. At the same time, she wonders whether the lack of structure in a morally ambiguous world drives artists mad, precisely because they are drawn to structure.


The floor meant ... all the indecisions and opposites that were bad enough in life.

Susanna, Ice Cream

Susanna describes the effect the black and white tile floor at the ice cream parlor has on her: the pattern makes her unable to make a decision as easy as which ice cream to choose. The tiles are a symbol for her of the polar opposites that structure people's lives: black and white, true and false, right and wrong. However, she believes life is full of gray zones, moral ambiguities that blur the line between the two extremes. What is right for one person may be wrong for another. What is true today may be false tomorrow. Being reminded of these ambiguities renders her immobile.


Click, swish, 'Checks,' swish, click.

Susanna, Checks

On the ward, the girls' rooms are inspected every 5, 10, or 15 minutes, too often to complete tasks as mundane and basic as taking a shower in privacy. The girls are under constant scrutiny. The announcements of the checks and the sound of opening and closing doors provide the metronome that dictates the rhythm of their lives.


We had a lot of hairy legs in our ward. Early feminists.

Susanna, Sharps

Susanna describes how the girls are not allowed to keep anything that could cause bodily harm to anyone, including hairpins, belts, utensils, and razors. While some of the restrictions make sense, such as not allowing knives, the girls feel humiliated at having to shave their legs under supervision. The girls are treated like children, denied power over their own bodies. Many of the girls choose not to shave their legs rather than perform such a private ritual under the supervision of a nurse. As Susanna somewhat humorously points out, this choice aligns them with the women's liberation movement, which rejected traditional beauty standards. The girls' desire for basic rights coincides with the fight for equal rights for women.


'She's a real junkie now,' said Lisa, smiling.

Lisa Rowe, Another Lisa

Referring to Lisa Cody, the girl with whom Lisa Rowe competes for status on the ward, Lisa happily reports that the other girl is lost to the streets as a drug addict. Lisa Cody runs away, devastated by Lisa's mean pranks against her. Lisa seems proud of driving Lisa Cody away and thus being responsible for her descent into addiction. Her pride reveals the depth of Lisa's sociopathy; she doesn't care about the consequences of her actions. Susanna's mental issues seem mild by comparison.


'Hey man,' said Lisa, 'it passes the time.'

Lisa Rowe, Security Screen

After throwing a tantrum to manipulate the head nurse into opening the security screen of her window so she could get fresh air, Lisa Rowe admits that she never wanted a breath of fresh air but simply wished to break the dull routine on the ward. Lisa's comment makes palpable the boredom and monotony of life on the mental ward.


We looked at him, a tiny dark man in chains ... with the one thing we would always lack: credibility.

Susanna, Nineteen Sixty-Eight

Watching the political turmoil of the anti–Vietnam War and civil rights movement on TV, the girls feel kinship with the rioters. The agitators' anger and frustration at the political establishment reflects the girls' feelings about the medical establishment that incarcerates them. Their hope and excitement fades when civil rights activist Bobby Seale is arrested and tried in court. Seeing him shackled during his trial, they realize a fundamental difference. The civil rights supporters have a voice that will be taken seriously and will eventually create change. The girls, on the other hand, do not have a voice and will never be taken seriously. Their diagnoses relegate them to the margins of society and effectively silence them.


Now I was safe, now I was really crazy, and nobody could take me out of there.

Susanna, Bare Bones

Susanna suffers a mental breakdown. She finally accepts that she is at McLean for good reason, and that her time there, while robbing her of her personal freedom, protects her from difficult experiences and from herself. Her acceptance of her situation is a first step toward her recovery.


Luckily, I got a marriage proposal and they let me out.

Susanna, New Frontiers in Dental Health

Susanna relates a discussion with her social worker, who belittles Susanna's desire to become a writer once she is released. Instead, the social worker suggests that Susanna become a dental hygienist. Susanna is released from McLean after she accepts a marriage proposal, as if to equate accepting a traditional female role with sanity. Susanna Kaysen uses the experience to suggest that social norms, rather than medical scrutiny, could decide whether a young woman was mad.


In the world's terms, though, all of us were tainted.

Susanna, Stigmatography

Referring to former mental patients, Susanna says they will always be marked by their illness. Their stay at a mental hospital creates a suspicious gap in their résumés, and seemingly simple acts such as applying for a driver's license will require a doctor's note. Despite her recovery, Susanna must be prepared either to answer intrusive questions and deal with prejudices against mental illness, or to deny a part of herself.

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