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Whatever Happened to Susanna Kaysen? (The Subject and Author of "Girl, Interrupted")

Rachelle Williams is a member of Generation X, who mainly focuses on creating articles of relevance to her generational cohort.

"Girl, Interrupted" was a huge success when it was published in 1993.

"Girl, Interrupted" was a huge success when it was published in 1993.

Girl, Interrupted is a memoir written by Susanna Kaysen. It was published in 1993. In her best-selling book, Kaysen chronicles her disturbing experiences as a patient in a psychiatric facility in the 1960s. The title of the book is taken from the Johannes Vermeer painting, Girl Interrupted at her Music.

Kaysen's book became so popular that it was made into a major motion picture. Girl, Interrupted (1999) starred Winona Ryder as Kaysen and Angelina Jolie as her ride-or-die, Lisa Rowe.

The film had a fair critical reception, with decent performances from Ryder and Brittany Murphy. However, it was Angelina Jolie who critics and fans praised most. Her powerful performance garnered her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

The story in the film is highly enjoyable, but just as most would suspect, the narrative in the book is far superior. It offers a deeper dive into the intricacies of Kaysen's mental health crisis. If you can get your hands on Kaysen's novel, I heartily recommend you do so.

Because Kaysen's overall story is so engrossing and it involves the lives of real people, many viewers/readers were left with a feeling of concern and wondered about the welfare of all the characters she wrote about. Due to privacy and other issues, we will likely never know their outcomes.

I'm also certain many folks have wondered whatever happened to Susanna Kaysen. Well, because of the popularity of her book, she has led somewhat of a semi-public existence, and her outcome is documented by a few resources.

The Events of Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Before we get into Kaysen's whereabouts today, I'll provide a brief overview of some of the highlights from the story as it is told in the film. I suspect more people are familiar with the movie, and more people will be willing to watch the film as opposed to reading the book.

Kaysen's story begins in the form of flashbacks. We are first given a glimpse into her life as an 18-year-old girl raised in an upper middle class home. Her father is a successful academic and her mother (Joanna Kerns) is a housewife.

The year is 1967, and the audience is shown how Kaysen is highly self-destructive, rebellious, and promiscuous. As with many girls, much of Kaysen's negative attitude stems from a deep resentment towards her mother.

In Kaysen's eyes, her mother is her biggest foe. To the viewer, the girl's mother hasn't done anything intentionally or directly damaging to her daughter. Her daughter's view of her mother appears to be skewed. This is the first indication that there are underlying issues for why Kaysen behaves in the manner in which she does.

As the story progresses, Kaysen has issues with her mother, an intense relationship with a boyfriend (Jared Leto) that may be coming to an end (because he has recently been drafted), and an impulsive affair with her high school English teacher (who also just happens to be her best friend's father. All of this combined with her lack of direction and detached attitude toward life causes her to chase "a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka."

After failing to convince her private psychiatrist (Kurtwood Smith—how brutal would it be to have Red Forman as your therapist?) that she took the pills and booze because "she had a headache," he talks her into signing herself into a mental health institution, Claymoore Hospital. Kaysen agrees because she believes a break would be nice and because she doesn't think there is anything particularly wrong with her.

Unbeknownst to Kaysen, anyone can voluntarily sign themselves into a mental health institution for evaluation, but checking out is entirely up to the doctors.

Through her visits with the psychiatrist Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave), Kaysen is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Because of the seriousness of her diagnosis, what Kaysen thought would be a couple of weeks turns into an 18-month stint in a place that, while much nicer than a state institution, is still a snake pit unto itself.

Kaysen is thrown in with a mix of other colorful female patients...and the craziness (no harm intended) begins to unfold rapidly. Along the way, she gains intimate knowledge into each girl's mental status, and we are introduced to an interesting cast of characters.

  • Georgina Tuskin (Clea DuVall) – A young lady whose main issue is that she cannot stop herself from telling fantastically unbelievable lies. Her illness seems to be the mildest of the bunch, but we never genuinely delve deeply into her psyche, so we can't tell if her pathological lying is a standalone issue or a symptom of some other disorder. Georgina is Susanna's roommate and they become friends.
  • Janet Webber (Angela Bettis) - A young woman with a caustic personality and a prickly temperament. Janet has anorexia nervosa...which sheds light on her personality and temperament, she is easily annoyed, so the other patients give her a thoughtful berth. Unfortunately, Janet is the patient who leaves the lightest footprint on Kaysen's story.
  • Polly Clark (Elizabeth Moss) - A skittish young woman who suffers from schizophrenia. Polly asserts that she set herself on fire in an attempt to purge her body of allergies that prevented her from getting a puppy. She survived, but she is left with slightly disfiguring burns that stretch across much of her face and neck. Because of her burns, the girls refer to her as "Torch," to which Polly doesn't object. Polly is probably the most agreeable character out of the bunch.
  • Cynthia Crowley (Jillian Armenante) – An obsessively annoying young woman (constant efforts of trying to fit in) whose main issue is that she feels painfully "abnormal" from other girls; her perception is keen, because she is "abnormal," in a scientific sense, from approximately ten percent of the population... I would imagine Crowley is clinically depressed by her perceived abnormalities, but I'm unsure if she is ever issued a stated diagnosis - there is one memorable scene where she incorrectly self-diagnoses as a sociopath, to which the actual sociopath correctly assesses that Crowley is gay.
  • Lisa Rowe (Angelina Jolie) – A wickedly charming sociopath (ie: psychopath, anti-personality disorder), whose mystique and charisma draws in almost everyone in her midst, especially Susanna Kaysen, because unlike many of the girls, this is Kaysen's first time at the rodeo and she has never encountered such a force. Most of the girls react to Lisa the same way many people react to fire; they are enticed by the glow, but they have a healthy amount of fear of the burn. Lisa and Susanna form a nearly indestructible bond that leaves each of them heavily impressed upon by each other, both positively and negatively.
  • Daisy Randone (Brittany Murphy) – An anguished young lady who self-harms, and suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and bulimia. Daisy's set of illnesses present themselves in peculiar fashions (she consumes large amounts of chicken, collects their carcasses and stashes them under her bed, she habitually substitutes the word "chicken" for other random words, she likens eating in public to having bowel movements in public, etc.). Daisy attempts to conceal her illness behind an attitude of superiority. Her peculiar actions do not seem to make sense, because much like Susanna, Daisy is the proverbial "girl with everything." However, unlike Susanna, Daisy's internal issues stem from actual and direct external events. The vile root cause of Daisy's illness is eventually uncovered and her breaking point is a key event in the overall story. Of all the young women at Claymore, Daisy's story is perhaps the most heartbreaking.
  • Valerie Owens (Whoopi Goldberg) - A Registered Nurse (RN) who truly cares about the well-being of all the girls under her charge. Valerie takes on a resolute approach to each girl's wellness plan and recovery.
  • Nurse Valerie can see that Susanna is a rarity among the patients at Claymore, in that she has a much better than average shot at full recovery if she will take on the serious work it takes to do so. She puts a lot of energy into making certain Susanna understands her status.
  • Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave) - The chief psychiatrist for which Susanna is assigned regular visits. Like Nurse Valerie, Dr. Wick attempts to instill the notion that Susanna has a choice in whether she recovers fully or not.
Brittany Murphy in her role as Daisy Randone in Girl, Interrupted (1999).

Brittany Murphy in her role as Daisy Randone in Girl, Interrupted (1999).

Insight Into the Likely Sources of Susanna Kaysen's Illness

A part of the story I find important, but yet particularly humorous, is a scene where Kaysen is in a session with the admitting psychiatrist (Jeffrey Tambor) and her parents.

The doctor makes a statement that echoes something to the effect that borderline personality disorder is probably genetic. The indirect insinuation seems to fly right under the radar of Kaysen's mother (Joanna Kerns), but shortly afterwards, she checks out of the conversation, citing her inability to continue. Also noticeable is the highly dismissive and wholly uninterested approach taken by Kayson's father about a serious health concern his daughter may be facing.

At first, Kaysen doesn't view her past actions as dysfunctional. She believes sanity is a deception created by so-called "normal" people. However, she eventually begins to form a healthier mindset, partly due to genuine emotional growth.

The other part of the development of Kaysen's healthy mindset is due to the swift kick in the pants she gains from her raw, bitter, and harrowing experiences at Claymoore. Those experiences are better communicated in the film and best told in the book.

The real Susanna Kaysen.

The real Susanna Kaysen.

Susanna Kaysen has been quoted as saying the film version of Girl, Interrupted is far enough removed from the events of her real life that it doesn't bother her to watch it. However, certain scenes remind her of her life and of the time she spent writing her memoir.

As with film versions of most stories in print, portions of the narrative were re-tooled, cut, and/or added for dramatic effect. To that end, she has been quoted as stating she isn't sure if she actually enjoyed the film and that some scenes are confusing to her.

As I write this article, Susanna Kaysen is now 71 years old. She was born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the city that is home to Harvard University.

Kaysen's father, Dr. Carl Kaysen (March 5, 1920 – February 8, 2010), was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economist, academic policy adviser, and security specialist.

Dr. Kaysen graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and Columbia University. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard. Along with being a well-regarded scholar, he was also Deputy National Security Adviser to President John F. Kennedy.

At the beginning of the film, we learn that Susanna has the distinction of being the only student at the prestigious Cambridge School of Weston's graduating class of 1967 not to be going to college.

I lingered on Dr. Carl Kaysen's success so that one could imagine what it must have been like for the daughter of such an accomplished scholar to feel like a directionless academic failure.

Whether or not the graduation story actually happened, it is common knowledge that children and siblings struggle to find their worth in the shadow of close relatives who possess such high-level accomplishments.

McLean Hospital (Harvard University) is the real-life "Claymore Institution" from the film. This is where Susanna Kaysen spent the 18 months she writes about in Girl, Interrupted.

McLean Hospital (Harvard University) is the real-life "Claymore Institution" from the film. This is where Susanna Kaysen spent the 18 months she writes about in Girl, Interrupted.

McLean Hospital - The Real Claymoore Hospital

In reality, Claymoore Hospital does not exist, at least not as it pertains to this story. Susanna Kaysen spent nearly two years at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. McLean is the largest psychiatric unit of Harvard Medical School, and it is an affiliate of Massachusetts General Hospital (Mass General).

McLean is world-renowned for the expertise of its clinical staff, and the hospital has a reputation for high success in the treatment of borderline personality disorder in teenagers.

Many notable people have been treated at McLean, including Ray Charles, Sylvia Plath, James Taylor, and mathematician John Nash, the subject of the film, A Beautiful Mind (2001).

In addition to Kaysen's account of her time at McLean, author Sylvia Plath included excerpts of her stay at the institution in her celebrated novel The Bell Jar, and musician James Taylor sang about his teenage stay at McLean in his song "Knockin' 'Round the Zoo."

Kaysen wrote much of Girl, Interrupted while on retreat at Yaddo writer's colony in upstate New York. Yadoo is an esteemed artists' community whose walls have helped to foster the creative process for the likes of James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, Sylvia Plath, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Langston Hughes, and Leonard Bernstein, among many others.

As for her stay at Yaddo, Kaysen states she was sometimes impacted by the similarity of some of the meticulously cared for and classically-styled facilities to the facilities at McLean, but she powered through her feelings to get the job done.

Kaysen published Girl, Interrupted in June of 1993, more than 25 years after the events in her story. Upon the release of her memoir, she was approached by waves of young women who felt as though they connected with her because of their own experiences with mental health issues.

Insight from Susanna Kaysen.

Insight from Susanna Kaysen.

A Glimpse at Susanna Kaysen's Other Published Works

Girl, Interrupted is credited with helping to foster a safe space for an open dialog about mental health issues. The book's release came around the same time the Clinton administration enacted anti-discrimination laws for people suffering mental illness, and a presidential reform bill for public mental health services was recently introduced.

The overwhelming success of the book came as a surprise to Kaysen, who previously released two books to mild success beforehand. Asa, As I Knew Him is a fictional account of romantic obsession. Far Afield is a semi-autobiographical account of the time Kaysen spent on the Faroe Islands, with her husband, who was a Harvard-educated anthropologist completing a field study.

Kaysen and her husband eventually divorced, but there was a time when she regarded Far Afield as her favorite book, even though her memories of the Faroe Islands are of unpleasant terrain.

In 2002, Kaysen released yet another memoir titled The Camera My Mother Gave Me. The author tells the story of her painful bout with vulvodynia, which causes chronic vaginal pain. The condition has no identifiable cause and no permanent cure.

The Camera My Mother Gave Me is another instance where women from around the world felt as though Kaysen spoke to and for them, although on a much smaller scale. This is probably because vulvodynia is a rare, female condition, whereas mental illness is common.

Kaysen's latest novel to date is Cambridge, which she released in 2015. In this novel, Kaysen takes us back to her childhood, but this time, we go back long before the events of Girl, Interrupted.

In this account, she is an anxious seven-year-old who loves the safety and security of her neighborhood. However, her father uproots her and her family for the other Cambridge, the one across the pond (England).

The rest of the story focuses on her unhappy childhood, the beginnings of her issues with her mother, unwanted exotic travels, and her everyday attempts to cope with the world. Cambridge won rave reviews from The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, Slate, and Publisher's Weekly.

Susanna Kaysen today.

Susanna Kaysen today.

What Is Susanna Kaysen Doing Today?

Susanna Kaysen chooses to live her life well outside of the limelight, even though she still receives tons of fan mail from the public. She has an adoring set of faithful followers of her work.

In a phone interview in 2018 for an article published in the Paris Review, Girl Interrupted, Twenty-Five Years Later, Kaysen states how she feels disconnected from her work in her memoir, enough to where she doesn't feel qualified to offer any further insight into the book.

In the interview, Kaysen reflected on a childhood filled with loneliness and her process of filling the void with her love for the written word. It was further revealed that she believes audiences praise her for a book that was received differently than she intended and a film she feels little connection with.

However, Susanna Kaysen appears to be content in the knowledge that many readers received exactly what they needed from the story she penned in Girl, Interrupted.

© 2020 Rachelle Williams