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  • Borderline Girlhoods:Mental Illness, Adolescence, and Femininity in Girl, Interrupted
  • Elizabeth Marshall (bio)

What about me was so deranged that in less than half an hour a doctor would pack me off to the nuthouse? He tricked me though: a couple of weeks. It was closer to two years. I was eighteen.

(Kaysen 39)

After a twenty-minute interview with a psychiatrist, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was compelled to sign herself into McLean Hospital, a psychiatric institute, where she would spend nearly two years. Kaysen's memoir of the experience, Girl, Interrupted (1994) remained on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for at least seven years after its initial publication. According to Publisher's Weekly, customer demand for Kaysen's memoir quickly surpassed the original printing of 13,500, which resulted in Girl, Interrupted being "temporarily out of stock" (Maryles 18). As recently as 2000, a reporter for the Boston Globe suggested that Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted threatened to replace Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar as the "Must-read for young women in high school and college" (Bass 7). Like The Bell Jar (1963), Girl, Interrupted exists as a cross-written text that straddles the arbitrary border between young adult and adult literature. "Many teenagers read the book long before they encounter it in class, just as a previous generation of young women were drawn to The Bell Jar" (Bass 7). The popularity of Girl, Interrupted and the association of the text with U.S. adolescent girls warrants further consideration of the memoir as a text read by young adults and as a representation of adolescent girlhood that offers a complex commentary on feminine coming-of-age.

In this essay, I analyze Kaysen's memoir as a unique narrative mode through which she intervenes in knowledge about feminine adolescence. Specifically, I trace how Kaysen relies on the figure of the wounded girl [End Page 117] to make visible and counter gendered pedagogies that seek to define feminine adolescence, especially white middle- and upper-middle class adolescent girlhood, as a period of traumatic passage. Kaysen's retrospective account of her confinement at McLean Hospital makes a cultural intervention that challenges the notion that mental illness is rooted solely in the individual. Like other cross-written texts, then, Kaysen's memoir "has not only aesthetic but also practical value" (Flynn 181). Kaysen returns to, and reorganizes, her girlhood in a way that disrupts the objectivity of psychiatric discourses that seek to press her particular experiences into a generalized trajectory of feminine development.

Girls, Theorized

Catherine Driscoll argues that adolescent girlhood arises as "An idea that depends on and contributes to a range of particular but not inevitable knowledges" (4). Contemporary understandings about feminine adolescence develop from historically and culturally bound gendered pedagogies and practices that seek to classify subjects into particular modes of adolescent girlhood. Since "the invention in late nineteenth-century America of the concept of adolescence" (White 9), adolescent girlhoods have often been associated with white, middle-class norms of femininity and linked to psychological risk (e.g., Nathanson; Smith-Rosenberg). This representation of adolescent girlhood as a period of crisis surfaces in different time periods in distinct ways in a variety of cultural texts written for or about young women. Materials for children and adolescents feature different manifestations of this character, including Disney's filmic representations of fairy tale princesses, such as Sleeping Beauty (1959), or heroines in recent young adult novels, such as Patricia McCormick's Cut (2001). These representations make visible larger competing cultural lessons about the perceived educational and/or psychological needs of adolescent girls.

Kaysen's representation of her adolescence in Girl, Interrupted engages with this broader cultural curriculum that links adolescent girlhood to vulnerability. Diane Middlebrook wrote in her 1993 review, "Preoccupation with confinement in a pink-and-white body is one of the themes that makes this a girl's story" (9). Published in the 1990s about her institutionalization in the 1960s, Kaysen's memoir provides a perspective on the ways in which certain truths about adolescent girlhood are produced at the expense of others. The memoir explores how theorizations of adolescent girlhood often depend on larger meaning making...