Susanna Kaysen is the author of Girl Interrupted, her memoirs that explore a two-year period that she spent as a patient in a mental institution for young women. Split into three sections, mind versus brain, the clinical definition of a borderline personality disorder, and her diagnosis, her memoirs serve as an argument against her clinical diagnosis. In “Mind vs. Brain” we are given a layman’s introduction to psychology. Kaysen, through the use of various writing techniques, explains to the average reader what psychology is. Then, as a preface to her main argument, we are shown the different aspects of a borderline personality disorder and how one is diagnosed. Along with this scientific methodology, Kaysen infuses her own thoughts and opinions. And finally, she presents us with her argument where she explores her life as a young woman; how conformity and period sex roles landed her in a mental institution.
She revisits her friends and the events that occurred over 20 years ago while she was a member of the institution. Through her exploration, we the reader get to know her better by understanding the views and beliefs of the times and her personal struggle against conformity. Battling the role of women in society, Kaysen exemplifies the classic protagonist. She tells her story to revisit a past that she has locked away, and to educate using her life and experiences as a novel example. By applying the literary techniques of definition, narrative, and figurative language, Kaysen employs a unique writing style, the fusion of these persuasive techniques, to lure the reader in and keep them wanting more.
There is a wide variety of figurative language employed throughout this piece that is essential to the effectiveness of Kaysen’s writing. The most notable application of figurative language employed by Kaysen is seen in her introduction, the exploration of the mind and brain. “I’m you’re mind, you can’t parse me into dendrites and synapses” (269). And with this statement, Kaysen personifies the human mind. Having a living breathing personality, the reader is able to draw a picture of it and see in a brighter light what she is explaining. She expands on this, explaining the interaction in the brain being that of two interpreters, one reporter and one news analyst. She turns the mind into a collection of conversations instead of a ball of gray matter. While this concept of gray matter is tangible, our minds can grasp the idea of constantly battling interpreters. She continues by providing the reader with a model of the conversation that occurs in the human mind.
Interpreter One: There’s a tiger in the corner.
Interpreter Two: No, that’s not a tiger – that’s a bureau.
Interpreter One: It’s a tiger, it’s a tiger!
Interpreter Two: Don’t be ridiculous. Let’s go look at it.
The dialogue acts as a short play that the reader can act out in his/her mind. By creating this metaphor, Kaysen is able to portray to the reader what many psychology textbooks often fail at doing; She explains how the mind works on a simple level. She then juxtaposes this healthy model with one that is afflicted by mental illness. Simply, the reader learns what separates a healthy mind from an ill one. This approach to modeling the brain is effective because she stretches out her initial thesis on the mind to span her discussion of the mind and brain. It is effective because she doesn’t begin her exploration by scaling the peaks of Everest. She traverses the foothills first, proceeds to hiking, and then begins her ascent of the mountain itself. Many scientific approaches to modeling the human mind begin at the top and evaluate its structure through soil composition, climate, biodiversity, and more. But, Kaysen starts at the roots and crawls slowly up through the branches, making sure not to jump or skip over any necessary parts.
Next, she deals with the role of psychoanalysts in the field. She compares their work to reporting on a country they have never visited. This conclusion to her initial thesis is quite effective in summing up the information she presented on the mind and brain. Basically, she explains that you can never really understand what is going on in the mind of a mental patient without being in their shoes and experiencing it for yourself. “Psychoanalysts have been writing op-ed pieces about the workings of a country they’ve never traveled to,” (272) is how Kaysen puts it. One could interpret her metaphor as pointing out that they are hypocrites, but it is more accurately a suggestion she puts forth; you can’t understand mental illness fully without actually having been a member in its society. This is perhaps why Kaysen is able to describe the mind with such ease. The language and style employed by Susanna Kaysen in this literary work plays a profound role in convincing the reader of her beliefs.
Kaysen’s use of definition in this piece gives the reader insight to her life and has a profound impact on her argument. Perhaps the most important definition Kaysen applies throughout this paper is that of a borderline personality disorder. The purpose of this whole argument is to deconstruct the clinical definition by picking away at the invalid claims it cites, and proving her point; she was incorrectly diagnosed. Her whole argument teeters on the failure of the clinical definition to accurately classify a mental illness. Clinically, a borderline personality is classified by “a pervasive pattern of instability of self-image, interpersonal relationships, and mood” (272). She later argues against this claim of instability explaining that this is what defines teenagers. Teenagers, according to Kaysen, are uncertain of who they are and what their futures hold.
She also explores the concept of an unhealthy self-image further, which is central to the clinical diagnosis. “I saw myself, quite correctly, as unfit for the educational and social system. But, [others] … image of me was unstable, since it was out of kilter with reality.” (277) Reality, as Kaysen implies it, is adherence to the role of a young woman. She was different, plain and simple. Nowadays we classify different as good. We equate difference with individuality and everyone strives to be unique these days; we are all searching for that one thing that separates us from the rest of the crowd.
Another aspect of the clinical definition is a chronic sense of emptiness and boredom. Kaysen comes clean and admits to this but not without providing a defense against it. She felt “desolation, despair, and depression,” (279) as a direct result of societal pressures, conformity, and being different. No one understood her and this only perpetuated more feelings of solitude and isolation. This method of deconstruction is effective because it structures her argument. Her purpose is to provide a defense against this clinical definition. The reader, presented with a comprehensive and in-depth definition of the disorder, is able to juxtapose clinical theory with personal reality and see more clearly Kaysen’s point. This method is very effective in persuading the reader and is often employed in arguments to disprove a belief or position. It allows her to flow easily from science to personal experience and acts as a bond between the two, thereby making her writing a singular entity.
Through the use of narratives, the reader comprehends Kaysen’s position and is able to explore her life in first person. In the third section, where Kaysen discusses her diagnosis and time at the hospital, we explore her life through a personal narrative. This section is quite important because it is where she begins to pull apart the clinical definition she cited in the previous section. We, the reader, get to see first hand what was going on in Kaysen’s mind as a teenager. She talks of her uncertainties, incapacities, wrist-banging, desolation and depression, self-image and much more. Her discussion of wrist-banging is one of the more memorable vignettes. She describes sitting on her butterfly chair in her room and participating in this extracurricular activity. We learn from her story that these activities were not a result of self-deprecation, but more a result of inner pain and isolation because she wasn’t like everyone else and people resented her for it.
Having no one to relate to, and no one to confide in, she was left by herself to constantly question who and what she was. Being a teenager and not having the answers to society’s questions, she could not help but be led to such activities. This particular story is compelling because it arouses emotion in the reader and creates a sense of feeling and understanding for her and the trouble she has been put through. Some cynics would simply chalk this up to a deliberate emotional appeal of the author, but Kaysen has established that “all [she] can do is give the particulars: an annotated diagnosis,” (275) and leave the rest up to our interpretation. We can be assured that Kaysen’s intent in revealing this activity serves no more purpose than telling her story.
She also explains her incapacities. She “was living a life based on [them],” (277) much like many other kids. We all are bogged down by what we can’t do. It depresses us and thwarts our progression. It wasn’t her incapacities that stopped her, it was those around her. She didn’t provide “any reasonable explanation for these refusals,” and perhaps that is why it drew so much attention. If she had told them why then maybe they could justify her feelings. But not doing so only perpetuated questions and suspicion. The reader can relate to this indecisiveness because we have all experienced a time in our lives when we just didn’t care about anything. The quintessential teenager is characterized by a chronic indecisiveness towards life. By exploring this aspect, Kaysen is able to draw the reader closer to her and makes this technique an effective strategy in her argument.
Finally, in her narrative, she explores what clinicians call premature death and her own experience with Daisy’s death. She admits that she had thought of death, but “the idea of [it] worked on [her] like a purgative,” (279) and she always came to the final conclusion that it would only make things worse. Her ability to reason gives the reader more insight towards her diagnosis. She could reason between the two interpreters in her mind. She could separate illusion from reality and these abilities strongly emphasized her argument. The use of Kaysen’s narrative in this piece plays an integral role in convincing the reader and is effective in its purpose. Without such a persuasive strategy, Kaysen’s case would be poorly constructed, and lacking in support.
While Kaysen’s unique writing format infuses new ideas into the reader’s mind, I do concede that there are several instances where these styles have limitations and even perpetuate a state of confusion in the reader. The main problem with Kaysen’s highly figurative language is that not everyone can follow or relate to it. This prevents those who cannot make a connection with her metaphors and analogies from understanding what she so eloquently writes about. This is a common barrier faced by writers: to simplify or elaborate. While simplifying opens your ideas to all readers, it stifles your exploration and sometimes prevents you from proving your point. Contrastingly, elaborating on your simple statements can lead to a jumble of disjointed thoughts with no apparent connection.
One must be wary. One must ride the thin border between the two and ultimately it is the decision of the writer which route is proper. While Kaysen teeters on the brink of both, in the end she comes through and accomplishes her purpose; to present a multitude of premises against her clinical diagnosis. Without elaborating in places, the reader would be left outside her mind unable to see her innermost thoughts and experiences. It is Susanna Kaysen’s ability to flirt along this border, above all others, that distinguishes her writing technique and makes it effective in supporting her argument.
In light of this support, Kaysen is able to gain recognition from the reader. Perhaps most profound is the emotion that her writing induces, leaving the reader in a state of reflection and questioning, and a state of compassion for her and her tribulations. The most effective tool a writer has is the ability to bring about emotion in the reader. This can be considered a basic requirement of all art forms; to promote an emotion that pushes the subject to reflect on the story laid before them and their lives. All good art accomplishes this on some level and Girl Interrupted is no exception.
Courtney from Study Moose
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