Discourses of Adolescent Girl and Normality in Girl, Interrupted

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Discourses of Adolescent Girl and Normality

  • in Girl, Interrupted


  • Introduction

  • Film:

    • Madness and Causes
    • Treatments
    • Back to Normality
    • Solution and Compromise
  • The Film and the Novel

  • The Novel’s Critique of Discourses on “Girlhood”

  • References

  • Next Time

Introduction (1): Intertexts

  • Novel: Girl, Interrupted (1993)written by Susanna Kaysen (1967 McLean, 2 yrs) – a best-seller on New York Times chart for many years

  • Film: Girl, Interrupted, directed by James Mangold (1999), Winona Ryder as executive producer

  • Title: from the painting Girl, Interrupted at her music by Johannes Vemeer

  • Novel: McLean as a “parallel universe”; another Ivy League school

  • The film: TV & The Wizard of Oz – Dorothea finding her way “home”

Introduction (2): Background and Theme

  • Background: 60’s –

    • an age of revolution and political upheavals—Vietnam War, assassination of Martin Luther King
    • Girls go to girls’ college
  • Plot: a girl (would-be writer) finds her way back to society after staying in Claymoore/McLean for two years.

  • Questions: Interrupted by what? At what place? Return (向前走) to what?

Madness vs. Normality

  • Are they sane? Or Mad?

  • The characters:

  • Susanna Kaysen–borderline personality

  • Lisa--sociopath

  • Georgina—pathological liar

  • Daisy --anorexia

  • Polly Clark –burns victim

  • ? A dyke

Sane or Insane? (Susanna Kaysen)

  • (monologue)

  • “Have you ever confused a dream with life? Or stolen something when you have the cash? Have you ever been blue? Or thought your train moving while sitting still? Maybe I was just crazy. Maybe it was the 60's. Or maybe I was just a girl... interrupted.”

Sane or Insane? (Susanna)

Sane or Insane? (Daisy)

Sane or Insane? (Lisa Rowe)

Sane or Insane? (Georgina Tuskin)

Sane or Insane? (Polly Clark)

  • Diagnosis: Unspecified

  • Symptom: Refuse to grow up

  • Possible Cause: Childhood trauma (burn victim)

  • Innocent?

  • Curious about sex trigger her memory

  • Susanna: “sweetness and purity aren’t genuine at all, but a desperately attempt to make it easier for us to look at her”

Dependence & Escape

  • Dependence

  • Lisa: rebellion against the institution; others’ dependence.

  • Daisy: Colace (a stool softener); chicken; her father.

  • Polly: doll; Ruby

  • Georgina and many others: Lisa

  • Escape, Regression and Mutual Support

  • They smoke constantly, swear, bully and console each other.

  • Susanna: finds no comfort from her family  finds Lisa a pal.

  • Play child games.

  • Rebellion: reading the diagnoses.

Causes? Constructions of “Girlhood”

  • 50s -- relatively conservative

  •  “viewed their children's world with alarm and confusion and embraced few of the cultural changes.”

  • 60s – Peace, love and sex.

  • -- drafting, death and Anti-war  hippy

  • -- Rise of feminism

  • 70s  Conservative

Women’s Choices

  • More opportunities?

    • 1) Education -- Going to college (RadcIiffe. WeIIesIey)  Pro.’s wife: “Women should make up their mind.”
    • Teacher: “Women nowadays have more choices.”, S: “No they don’t.”
    • Between being like her mother and burning bras and going for demonstration, Susanna is forced to make a choice. Bias on females:
    • 2) Definition of “promiscuity”

Suzanne’s Diagnosis

  • Diagnosis: “Increasing patternlessness of life, promiscuous might kill self or get pregnant” (11).

  • (film: chap 18) “How many girls do you think a seventeen-year-old boy would have to screw to earn the label “compulsively promiscuous”? Three? No, not enough. Six? Doubtful. Ten? That sounds more likely. Probably in the fifteen-to-twenty range, would be my guess—if they ever put that label on boys, which I don’t recall their doing.

  • And for seventeen-year-old-girls, how many boys?” (158)

Treatments --

  • Hospitalization: Necessity?  Susanna

  • Admission  Voluntary? She signs herself in has no right to leave.

  • Discharge qualification  Daisy?

  • Standardized management:

  • (medicine administration, name calling, room checks, indifferent attitude and no privacy. “fascist torture chamber”)



  • Counseling:

  • (“Ther-rapist,” “their-rape-me,”

  • “diag-non-sense,”

  • criticizing Freudian therapy: confessing one’s secrets. clip 40:00))

  • Dr. Melvin: unsuccessful, without understanding patients.

  • Dr. Wick: understanding, insightful?

“Alternative” Treatment

  • Interpersonal bonds like being in a girls’ school (chap 15) -socializing

    • Nurses & orderlies: Valerie (talks about her family), the other one, about her boyfriend;
    • Sisterhood (Tunnel Adventure, Ice Cream Shop, Playing Guitar)
  • Others

  • pet -- Ruby

  • TV

Turning Points for Susanna

  • Toby’s visit: Susanna decides to stay because “[she has] friends in here.”

  • (Sisterhood / Toby is not the one)

  • Runaway with Lisa borderlines – drug, homosexuality / Returning: start to realize the deadly consequences  seeing “death”

  • (“Jamie” / Daisy’s death / Lisa’s cruelty)

  • Valerie: narrative therapy; Susanna learns to “get it out and put it away” –”talk cure”

  • 2nd Tunnel: “Press others’ buttons”

The Film’s Conclusion—Finding her Way Back (1)

  • Self-Correction:

  • Dr. Wick and Valerie – S as a "lazy, self-indulgent little girl driving herself crazy"

  • The girls have to find their ways home (Wizard of Oz)

  • Sympathy for Daisy: (how it hurts to smile); knows the seriousness of death

  • Avoid Self-Distortion:

    • Lisa"So many buttons to press …so why is nobody pressing mine?"
    • To Lisa: “You’re dead already.”

The Film’s Conclusion—Finding her Way Back (2)

  • 2. Self limitation (“The point is control”) in order to “fit in the fucked-up world”

    • Others: pretends to not see “purple people” anymore;
    • Lisa: “Florida—Cinderella and Snow White”.
    • Suzanne: works at a bookstore, stays in touch, sees Dr. Wick twice a week, and plans to write.

The Film’s Conclusion—Finding her Way Back (3)

  • Definition of madness: Matter of degree. Social standard: majority = norm.

  • “Crazy isn't being broken...... or swallowing a dark secret. lt's you or me......amplified. lf you ever told a lie......and enjoyed it. If you ever wished you could be a child forever. They were not perfect...but they were my friends.”

Deleted Scenes in Film

  • Susanna’s hallucination

  • (blood flood in supermarket, boneless hands)  She looks more normal in the film’s final version

  • Fewer coincidences  Film is more realistic

  • No museum scene  no explanation to the topic

From the Memoir to the Film

  • Dramatization and Addition:

  • Going to Daisy’s house and Lisa’s final threat to Suzanne

  • The memoir – juxtaposition of the hospital diagnosis

  • Introduction Lines:

    • Fiction  self in “parallel universe”  more social critique
    • Film  “unclear boundaries”  self-development
  • Endings:

    • The film: Lisa -- "I'm playing the villain," "They were not perfect but they were my friends."
    • The memoir's endings:
      • Suzanne: out of the hospital because of her engagement
      • seeing Lisa with her baby on the street

“Parallel Universe”

  • “There are so many of them: worlds of the insane, the criminal, the crippled, the dying, perhaps of the dead as well. These worlds exist alongside this world and resemble it, but are not in it” (Kaysen 5).  those excluded by “normality” in social discourses.

Kaysen’s disa Kaysen’s Resistance: the social views

  • My self-image was not unstable. I saw myself, quite correctly, as unfit for the educational and social systems. But my parents and teachers did not share my self-image. Their image of me was unstable, since it was out of kilter with reality and based on their needs and wishes. They did not put much value on my capacities, which were admittedly few, but genuine. I read everything, I wrote constantly, and I had boyfriends by the barrelful. (155)

Kaysen’s Resistance: Borderline Personality & Gender

  • Re. the doctors’ views:

  • Many disorders, judging by the hospital population, were more commonly diagnosed in women. (157)

  • In the list of six “potentially self-damaging” activities favored by the borderline personality, three are commonly associated with women (shopping sprees, shoplifting, and eating binges) and one with men (reckless driving). One is not “gender-specific,” as they say these days (psychoactive substance abuse). And the definition of the other (casual sex) is in the eye of the beholder. (158)

  • A chapter on “”

Borderline Personality

  • “something of a catchall, describing people with intense narcissism, unstable personal relationships, self-damaging behaviors, and a need to create conflict among those around them. People receive the diagnosis because they manage to succeed at basic life tasks even though they often appear to be crazy.

  • Some psychotherapists will say, however, that the term borderline personality disorder is just another way of expressing that they hate the patient. Unfortunately, borderlines do not respond well to pharmacotherapy, unlike people suffering from more common diagnoses such as depression, now treated almost exclusively with medication. (Krin Gabbard)

Interrupted by Whom? The Teacher

Interrupted by Whom? Painting as a Social Discourse


  • Marshall, Elizabeth. “Borderline Girlhoods: Mental Illness, Adolescence, and Femininity in Girl, Interrupted.” Lion & the Unicorn 30. 1(2006 Jan): 117-133.

  • Gabbard, Krin. "Therapy's 'Talking Cure' Still Works—in Hollywood." Chronicle of Higher Education (11 Feb. 2000): B9+.

Next Time

  • Two Chapters by 林芳玫;

  • “Faces of Madness”

  • Quiz – due in two weeks (very likely at EngSite).

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