1. The voice that narrates Girl, Interrupted
may at first strike readers as cool, intellectual, rational, and
controlled, qualities normally associated with sanity. It is a
voice full of humor, characterized by an understatement that leaves
much to the imagination. How, as we go deeper into the book, does
the voice play against what it is describing--or heighten it? What
is the overall effect of this voice?
2. At what point, if any, does your perception of the narrator
(whom for convenience we call "Susanna") change? Does Susanna''s
"unreliability" as the narrator suggest something about the nature
of madness itself?
3. What does the author accomplish by juxtaposing her actual
medical records and case notes with the narrative? How do these
documents contribute to your impression of Susanna''s psychic
state? How would this book be different without them?
4. The narrator reveals little about her life before entering
McLean Hospital, and the only biographical information we receive
appears rather late in the book. Why do you think Kaysen has chosen
to do this?
5. The narrator describes her sojourn in McLean as a journey
into a "parallel universe," one of many that "exist alongside this
world and resemble it, but are not in it." What resemblances or
analogies does Kaysen find between madness and everyday reality?
How are the laws of these two universes different? How does one
pass from one universe into another?
6. Kaysen gives us two ways of experiencing her parallel
universe. One way is to make us understand how madness feels;
another is to show how madness is treated (or, more accurately,
controlled). What effect does she create by giving us two opposing
ways of understanding insanity?
7. Most of the early sections of Girl,
Interrupted are devoted to the narrator''s observations of
her fellow patients. To what extent, if any, do these women seem
"crazy" to you? What difference do you see in the book''s treatment
of "Susanna," the character, and its treatment of the other
8. How does Kaysen describe McLean''s "keepers"--its nurses,
doctors, and therapists? How do you account for the difference
between the hard-bitten full-time staff and the wide-eyed student
9. In many ways McLean seems like an orderly place whose
patients might easily be bored, slightly neurotic college students
killing time in the dorm. Madness, real madness, creeps in
insidiously, taking both reader and patients by surprise. At what
points do we see madness intruding into McLean?
10. At certain points the author suggests that there is
something comforting, and even seductive, about insanity. What
might make madness comforting to a young girl in the late
1960s--or, for that matter, to anyone at any time?
11. A girl named Daisy kills herself in between hospital stays.
Is this foreshadowed by what we already know about her? Why this
patient, rather than another? To what extent is the behavior of any
of these characters foreseeable?
12. Susanna has no apparent reaction to Daisy''s death, but
after Torrey, another patient, is released into the custody of her
neglectful parents, she has an episode of what her case report
calls "depersonalization" [p.105] and mutilates her hands to see if
"there are any bones in there" [p.103]. Why? What is she looking
for underneath her skin? What is the effect of the graphic
physicality of this chapter?
13. The narrator sums up her release from McLean in the
following way: "Luckily, I got a marriage proposal and they let me
out. In 1968, everybody could understand a marriage proposal." What
does this passage say about the choices available to female
psychiatric patients--and, by extension, to any woman--at the time
this book takes place?
14. The narrator describes 1968 as a time when "people [outside
the hospital] were doing the kinds of things we [the patients] had
fantasies of doing" [p.92]; a patient''s paranoid "delusions" might
turn out to be accurate descriptions of the U.S. government''s
clandestine activities. What other connections does Kaysen draw
between her characters'' disturbance and the social paroxysms of
their time? In what way is this book a document of the 1960s?
15. How does the narrator feel when she meets Georgina and Lisa
in the outside world, years after her release? What comparison can
we make between the way Susanna sees their lives and the way she
sees her own?
16. How does the madness of the 1960s compare to the private and
collective neuroses of Freud''s Vienna--or to the spectacular
symptoms (Multiple Personality Disorder, False Memory Syndrome) of
the 1980s and ''90s?
17. One reviewer has noted that someone with Susanna''s symptoms
would today be given "60 days in-patient [treatment] and a
psychotropic magic bullet. In 25 years, the cultural metaphor...has
changed from incarceration to neglect." Is "neglect" preferable to
"incarceration"? How do you think Kaysen might answer such a
18. Another critic begins her review of Girl,
Interrupted with the observation: "When women are angry at
men, they call them heartless. When men are angry at women, they
call them crazy" (Susan Cheever, "A Designated Crazy," The New
York Times Book Review, June 20, 1993). In what ways is
Girl, Interrupted a book about the sexual
constructs of madness? What role does the narrator''s gender appear
to have played in her diagnosis and treatment? How do gender
relations inside McLean mirror those in the outside world?
19. What is the significance of the Vermeer painting "Girl
Interrupted at Her Music" that appears in the last chapter? How did
Susanna feel about the painting the first time she saw it? And how
did she feel about it later, after her hospitalization? Why does
the gaze of the music student in the painting so haunt her?