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Stigmatization of mentally ill people is still a common challenge. Also, having mental illness or caring for a patient with personality disorder is an unfathomable experience for most of us. Most people who have, at one time, been diagnosed with mental disorders are less likely to document their predicament. Some, however, would only do that under a concealed identity as away of avoiding social stigma.
This move characterizes a blame game between the author and society, and the author’s need to visualize him/herself as a new individual detached from the mental illness. This paper does not, however, seek to critique Susanna Kaysen’s book, Girl, Interrupted on that account.
However, besides providing a summary of the book, it focuses on the author’s conceptualization of mental illness; the treatment she received; its efficacy; and whether the four D’s of abnormality (deviance, dysfunction, distress, and danger) were present in the symptom description.
Finally, it will also highlight the negative impact of stigma and misjudgment towards the mentally ill as an important lesson that can be gleaned from the book.
Set in the 1960s, in Mclean Hospital in Massachusetts, Girl, Interrupted, is Kaysen’s chronicle of her struggle with mental illness, or as she argues, the way she was misdiagnosed with mental illness. This was during an era marked by a wider generation rift in the US.
There was a conflict between the older generation’s insistence on traditions and baby boomer’s preference for pop culture, its music, antiviolence demonstrations, and fascination with drug and substance abuse. For instance, Kaysen’s refusal to work hard to pay for her studies was seen as an indication of psychological instability by her parents and counselor.
Additionally, Kaysen was further considered mentally ill when she became promiscuous and engaged in unruly behavior such as shoplifting. Retrospectively, the leading figures in the author’s life could have only considered Kaysen as a confused adolescent in an era of societal insecurity and upheaval.
Due to stressful social demands, especially from her seniors, which contributed to her suicide attempt, Kaysen ends up in a mental facility. For Kaysen, suicidal thought could have been her way out of the social madness, and not a symptom of personality disorder as believed by her therapist.
She recounts her perspective on suicide, remarking, “Suicide is a form of murder- premeditated murder. It isn’t something you do the first time you think of doing it. It takes getting used to. And you need the means, the opportunity, and the motive.
A successful suicide demands good organization and a cool head, both of which are incompatible with the suicidal state of mind” (Kaysen 36). Diagnosed with mental illness known as borderline disorder, throughout the novel, Kaysen embarks on a rigorous questioning of her state of mind.
This leaves her depressed, angry and sad hence only confiding in friends like Lisa. Later, Kaysen’s struggle to explain her situation gives her ticket to the real world.
Kaysen’s Conceptualization of Her Illness
From her account, it appears that Kaysen is not aware of what she is going through. She does not know the meaning of borderline personality. In her view due to harsh conditions in the sixties, many teenagers would behave the same.
As such, she argues that her behavior mirrors that of an average teenager. She states that “Instability of self-image, interpersonal relationships, and mood… uncertainty about… long-term goals or career choice…” Isn’t this a good description of adolescence?” (152).
The doctor tries to convince her that her behaviors are antisocial but she responds that “They don’t define ‘social contrariness,’ and I can’t define it, so I think it ought to be excluded from the list. I’ll admit to the generally pessimistic outlook,” (154). She recounts that even “Freud had one too” (154). Soon after, Kaysen concludes that her diagnosis is based on sexism.
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For her, this is a clear misdiagnosis. Despite the techniques used by Kaysen, defense mechanism is common among many authors who seek to recount their unbearable past. For instance, in Truddi Chase’s memoir of her childhood abuse, she tells her story in the third person to subtly conceal her identity. She describes her self as “the woman” also refrains from referring to other characters by their real names (Chase 3).
Treatment of Susanna Kaysen
The therapy that Kaysen receives focuses mainly on her psychological wellbeing. This sends her rebelling that her mind should not be treated differently from her body. It is evident that treatment mainly centered on a patient’s mental state is not as effective as one which integrates the biological and social components of an illness.
Treatment should take into consideration a patient’s deeds, feelings, and experience. Hence, any form of treatment should not treat the mind and the body differently. For this reason, the proposed treatment for Kaysen was inefficacious.
Four D’s of Abnormality in Kaysen’s Story
Even though Kaysen seems to deny her diagnosis, the four D’s of abnormality are largely evident in her case. First, she is defiant of the therapist’s diagnosis of borderline personality disorder terming it as misdiagnosis based on sexism and lack of understanding of youthful nature in a stressful society. Her dysfunctional behavior is evinced in her suicide attempt (17).
This follows her distress and anger resulting from her interaction with the authorities who claim that her behaviors are antisocial. However, she presents an interesting question on what may account for depression as one therapist may say that “you’re a little depressed because of all the stress at work”, instead of “you’re a little depressed because your serotonin level has dropped” (38).
Lesson Learned From the Book
Girl, interrupted is in actuality a good read. In her account of her predicaments and those of her friends in the hospital, Kaysen makes her audience to make more inquiry on mental illness and its associated stigma.
Perhaps the question that many readers should contemplate is whether from her eloquent and succinct narration of mental illness is compatible with her diagnosis with borderline personality disorder.
Nevertheless, Kaysen’s book is an eye-opener to the effects of social stigma towards individuals with mental disorders. Many readers will, especially those who at one had been diagnosed with mental illness, relate with her account and help stop discrimination against the mentally ill.
Chase, Truddi. When Rabbit Howls. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1990.
Kaysen, Susanna. Girl Interrupted. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.