Susanna Kaysen, without interruptions
Susanna Kaysen, author of the book 'Girl, Interrupted,' spoke last Tuesday at Brandeis about her mental illness.
Most people who gathered at the Carl J. Shapiro Theatre last Tuesday night were probably expecting Susanna Kaysen, the author of the best-selling book that inspired the blockbuster movie "Girl, Interrupted," to be an older, wiser version of the doe-eyed Winona Ryder. Kaysen contrasted so greatly from the movie character that bore her name, however, that it was quite striking. Never timid, quiet or withdrawn, Kaysen spoke in a frank manner that gave a much more positive portrayal of her strength of character than what we saw in the meek Kaysen portrayed on screen. Discussion that night focused mainly on the subject of her book -- her brush (if one could call it that) with insanity and her subsequent hospitalization in the '60s, but occasionally strayed to such subjects as love, life and neuroscience. The event included both a showing of the film and an author-led discussion. It was sponsored by the Brandeis Organization for Mental Health Awareness (BOMHA) and was part of the ongoing mental health awareness week.
Lifting her small figure onto the stage to better peer into the darkly lit auditorium, the middle-aged Kaysen opened the discussion with a blunt but sincere answer to the question that was on everyone's minds. "I really hate that movie ("Girl, Interrupted")," she said, describing it as "melodramatic drivel." This description, of course, is not untrue. The entertaining movie turned a plotless book marked by fascinating insights and humorous anecdotes into a dramatic narrative about life, love and death. Through the entertainment value of such Hollywood magic, something unique was unquestionably lost from "Girl, Interrupted" when it was adapted to the big screen.
The film distorted many of the characters brought to life in Kaysen's book. When asked which character was most accurately portrayed in the movie, Kaysen cited Angelina Jolie's Oscar-winning performance of the sociopath Lisa as the most true to life. Kaysen acknowledged that the change of her story was necessary for the change in medium; however, she proudly insisted that the film's producers should have used her writing more often in the film.
Kaysen herself was an enigmatic character. Although her writing is marked by wisdom and character, she is much less engaging as a public speaker. However, none of the sincerity and frankness that is her forte as an author was lost in conversation. When asked the clichd question as to whether or not she used writing as a form of therapy or catharsis, Kaysen gave a blunt, "no." She continued to say that art and therapy are distinct. Coming from a "recovered borderline personality," this comment really silenced the listeners. For the everyday person, art could be seen as an escape or distraction, but what about someone who cannot be distracted from his discontent? Kaysen's statement, while grating against contemporary ideals, seemed to make a lot of sense.
Another surprise came when Kaysen was asked whether she had really recovered from her "mental illness." She acknowledged that despite being older and less wise, she was really no different than she had been when she spent a year of her life in McLean Hospital. She had just learned to live with herself. "You can always kill yourself tommorow," she said in a strangely optimistic tone. Kaysen also disagreed with her original diagnosis of borderline personality and vaguely implied that mild bipolar disorder was a more viable diagnosis. Interestingly, she hypothesized that too much leisure time was one of the leading causes of mental illness.
The night was not without its awkward moments. On multiple occasions, Kaysen had to dodge questions concerning the life of Susanna Kaysen as played by Winona Ryder that had no semblance to her real life. This brought to question the appropriateness of playing the elaborative and essentially inaccurate movie before the discussion.
Despite all the subjects that were brought up during the discussion, Kaysen mentioned the night's most important lesson at the dialogue's beginning. According to Kaysen, upon her release from McLean, she felt as thought she had to keep her condition a secret. It is true that people treat mentally ill patients like they are contagious. Patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, depressed individuals and all other mentally ill people are treated like problems that either need to be ignored or isolated. How many people will avoid seeking necessary treatment out of fear of being labeled "mentally ill?"
If BOMHA could achieve just one great goal in its hopefully long life, it would be to remove the fear and resentment associated with this stigma of having a mental illness -- at least here at Brandeis. It's a start.