Girl, Interrupted | Study Guide

Susanna Kaysen

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Girl, Interrupted | Symbols



Hospital records and other documents from Susanna's case file symbolize facts and tangible reality, as if to prove that Susanna's personal story is firmly based in truth. These documents give Susanna's account of her experience in McLean credibility when it might be dismissed as the fabrications of a "madwoman." However, the contradictory accounts of some of these documents cast doubt on the nature of truth and reality, as if to say that different versions of reality might be able to coexist. Susanna's personal version of events is doubly validated. On one hand, her memoir is based on facts; on the other, her personal narrative provides additional insights into the nature of her experiences.

Windows and Doors

Windows and doors are, by definition, passageways between two realms. However, in the memoir, they symbolize detachment and separation. At McLean, visitors must pass through a series of doors when entering the mental ward. The doors lock behind them, so the thresholds can only be crossed in one direction: you can walk from the world of sanity outside into the world of insanity inside, but you cannot go back. The windows at McLean are barred by security screens, further illustrating the theme of separation and detachment. The two realms are clearly separated, like the parallel universes existing side by side that Kaysen often discusses.


Humans exist in the dimension of time. Life experiences are measured in time, and these experiences make up one's sense of self. Thus, time symbolizes the process of defining the self.

However, time—a measurable quantity—becomes the sticky cause of disagreement between Susanna's and the psychiatrist's version of the fateful interview that sent her to McLean. Susanna maintains that not enough time was spent to determine whether her life's experiences are a sign of madness, while the psychiatrist claims his examination was thorough enough to make a judgment about her sanity. The lack of clarity surrounding the interview supports Kaysen's idea that the experience of time is relative.

The passage of time on the ward symbolizes the loss of time in the real world. The girls have ample time on the ward, yet none of it is at their disposal. Their time is structured by regular inspections in ridiculously short intervals that leave no time to finish any meaningful task, let alone have any meaningful experiences. Time spent at McLean does not contribute to a meaningful life; instead, it is idled away. Asking where the time went after her dental procedure, Susanna is metaphorically asking for the two years of life she's lost at McLean.


Fashion is an expression and symbol of the self; one's clothing represents a value system. Susanna's miniskirt is an expression of her youth culture, meant to shed traditional female roles and ring in sexual liberation. However, the establishment—her parents and various psychiatrists and therapists—consider her choice of clothing a sign of sexual provocation and promiscuity.

Clothing illustrates the different value systems of the girls' wardens. Valerie wears loose street clothing, supporting her ability to crouch into small places to be near and help troubled girls. Although she is part of the establishment, she is young, shares the girls' fashion sense, and speaks their language, symbolizing her ability to bridge the gap between the staff and the girls. Mrs. McWeeney, on the other hand, wears a starched nurse's uniform, representing her stiff demeanor and iron-fisted rule.

Questions for Symbols

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