‘Movie Night’ is the theme for this month’s BookBum Club – read a book that was adapted into a movie. When I first watched Girl, Interrupted, I didn’t know it was based on a book, let alone a true account, so this is one of those rare instances where I saw the film before I read the book.
In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor and Ray Charles.
A clear-sighted, unflinching work that provokes questions about our definitions of sane and insane, Kaysen’s extraordinary memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers.
Having seen the film prior to reading the book, this review will read as somewhat of a comparison between the two. My first thought upon finishing this memoir was that I would have liked it better had I not seen the film, I think I was too influenced by the film. So my first recommendation would be if you haven’t seen the film yet, do read the book first.
One of the things I liked about this book is it’s Susanna Kaysen’s story; now that may seem an odd thing to say since it’s Kaysen’s memoir, but having watched the film, Susanna may have been the main character but it was Lisa, a fellow patient, who was the main attraction. Winona Ryder is an amazing actress but Angelina Jolie owned that film! So what this memoir does is, it strips away the entertainment factor, the brilliant portrayal of Jolie acting as Lisa, and allows us to focus solely on Kaysen. If you’ve seen the film already and choose to read this memoir, you won’t be able to help but compare the portrayal of the characters in the book to what you’ve seen on the screen, and you’ll find it much less entertaining. For some, the removal of this dramatisation will be majorly appealing as it may feel like a truer account of Kaysen’s experience, whereas others may miss the drama the film delivers.
For me personally, I preferred the film, I won’t deny I loved Jolie in the film; she was so worthy of that Best Supporting Actress Oscar! But the reason I preferred the film is because the memoir read a little haphazardly in places. I really liked the beginning, and found it interesting to read about Kaysen’s experience in the psychiatric institute. As a mental health nursing student, the running of the ward in particular was really interesting to me, to see how different healthcare delivery was then, compared to today.
This memoir gives glimpses into Kaysen’s experience, it’s not a full detailed account of her year and a half in hospital – I didn’t mind that at all, but towards the end of the memoir, I felt the style of the writing changed from an informative account to Kaysen’s musings, particularly the chapter titled Mind vs Brain, it just read a bit disjointed to me. And while someone should absolutely include their musings in their memoir, it’s theirs after all, it shouldn’t happen in a way that distances the reader. I’m someone who looks for the personal element in nonfiction, rather than a more scientific approach, but here I preferred the account of what happened (ward rules, schedules, reason for patient’s admission, etc) rather than her musings. Although, I must say I did really like how Kaysen explained her diagnosis, borderline personality disorder, and then looked for comparison between herself and the characteristics of the diagnosis.
Overall, I’m happy to have finally read this memoir, and as mentioned earlier, it’s a shame I didn’t read it prior to watching the film so I had no pre-emptive notions of anything. It was good to read Kaysen’s experience in her own words (and see how true to the book the film was). Also, I love the title of this memoir, so it was great to learn where it came from and why Kaysen chose it. If you’re looking for a quick read (170 pages, edition dependent) of a young girls account of her experience in a psychiatric institute and her life shortly after, I have no reservations recommending this book, but if it’s a choice between the book or the film – I’m going with the film.