This June, Susanna Kaysen’s acclaimed memoir Girl, Interrupted—which was later adapted into a film adaptation starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, winning the latter an Academy Award—turns 30 years old. The novel was a New York Times bestseller in both its hardcover and paperback editions, 11 weeks in the former and 23 weeks in the latter.
It continues to remain popular today; at the time of its 25th anniversary in 2018, there were 1.5 million copies still in print in the United States. Its legacy has also made its way to BookTok, where it frequently gets featured in videos displaying “Sad Girl” reads, which has generated some controversy.
According to The Paris Review, Girl, Interrupted was an “early entry in the publishing gold rush that would be termed the memoir boom.” Autobiographies had long existed, but it was typically a genre that was reserved for the rich, powerful, and famous. But the onset of the 20th century was offering real-life people with accessible narratives about living through the counterculture of the 1960s, second-wave feminism in the 1970s, and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
As a result, Girl, Interrupted was published at a time that readers were becoming increasingly interested in the experiences of people who weren’t already famous, having lived through something they could relate to.
Julie Grau, who acquired Girl, Interrupted as a young editor in the early 1990s and who now runs her own Penguin Random House imprint focused on memoirs, believes that the novel was “right at the forefront of the memoir wave” that spawned numerous “nieces and nephews,” notably Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation.
Laura Zigman, a former publishing publicity executive who worked on Girl, Interrupted, believes it helped introduce a larger debate on mental health in North America that continues today. “Susanna’s book opened up a conversation on mental health. It was so visceral and poetic,” she said in 2018. “Darkness Visible was published before, but I think Susanna’s book was such a success because it had a female voice and a younger voice, and it was a lyrical book about that experience.”
Five years ago, Kaysen was wary of the book’s legacy and her place in it after a quarter-century had passed, believing that it no longer belonged to her. “It has become something else, and it doesn’t belong to me. I shouldn’t have any commentary on it anymore,” she stated. She thought it continues to resonate because it’s not a book about her.
In fact, her inspiration to write about her time at McLean psychiatric hospital in 1967 came from an anthropological perspective rather than a personal one: her husband was an anthropologist, and she had watched him conduct a study of a village in the Faroe Islands. It got her thinking that McLean was something like a village, but larger.
As a result, she hired a lawyer, obtained her medical records from the hospital, and got to work. She believed it still resonates today because she used “no complicated words, no complicated sentences.” It’s not completely straightforward but it reads like it is. She omitted a lot; she didn’t write about her family or what exactly she was feeling at the time. Thus, it’s easy for readers to project their own stories onto hers, which was overwhelming at first when young women would approach her at book signings and appearances to show her their self-harm scars.
Now, as Girl, Interrupted turns 30, Kaysen is less disillusioned and dismissive of her work’s legacy. In 2018, she thought it was a mystery as to why people still love the book so much because “as an author, there’s nothing you can do but watch.” Speaking to The Cut for the publication of a 30th anniversary edition of the book with a new preface by the author, Kaysen spoke frankly about the realities of mental health and illness in an age of social media and digital therapy-speak.
While she’s pleased that there’s less stigma around mental health than when she was at McLean as well as when Girl, Interrupted was first published in 1993, she thinks that lessening said stigma comes with its own new kind of stigma, if you will. “It’s better that people are more able to express themselves, but it quickly can lead to a pathology, rather than an acceptance of the variety of human emotions,” she said.
“There’s an American can-do attitude that can be bad for people, and I’m not sure it’s lessening.” Can confirm: it’s not, it’s getting worse. Kaysen currently has a cancer diagnosis and is constantly told to keep a positive attitude. “To hell with it. How are you supposed to have a good attitude? It would be cuckoo to have a good attitude. There’s something about that general tenor of American emotional life. I consider it a very American problem: the inability to tolerate unpleasant human emotions. Some emotions are unpleasant, some experiences are unpleasant, some things are very sad, some things are very frustrating. And that’s okay. You can’t fix it. That’s the way life is.”
Her commentary is reminiscent of the final monologue of the character based off her in the Girl, Interrupted film adaptation, portrayed by Winona Ryder. “Was I ever really ‘crazy’? Maybe. Or maybe life is.” As such, Kaysen came of age during a different era of treatment for mental health, one where medications like Prozac didn’t yet exist. “It was just a dream somebody had dreamed.” As a result, she’s critical of “overreliance” on prescription medication for mental illness, remarking, “They help some people and they don’t help others.” She’s also critical of the overall diminished access towards mental health care in the 21st century but acknowledged that it’s easy to criticize as someone who isn’t a policy maker. “It’s a big thorny mess.”
Girl, Interrupted has meant a lot to me throughout my own experiences with mental illness. Kaysen also referenced the perils of self-diagnosing oneself with mental health concerns, especially for teenagers, calling it label soup. “Retreating to a diagnosis can be a way of not engaging with it.”
As someone who didn’t receive a diagnosis for years after I probably should have sought one, who regularly watches the Girl, Interrupted film from time to time and recites the dialogue like talking with an old friend, I recognize that mental health and illness are a very personal and individual journey. What happened to me will likely not be exactly what happened to you.
But I can’t help but wonder about the moments in years past where I might’ve been in just a bit less pain from getting a diagnosis and medication earlier. I can’t help but think of all the times I watched Girl, Interrupted late at night in college because I was in pain, and it was the only thing that made it lessen. There’s a concept coined by a podcaster known as “Girl, Interrupted syndrome,” defined by Urban Dictionary as, “When a person believes that they’re extremely different and special, and just simply so misunderstood.”
This couldn’t have been further from the truth for me as well as Susanna Kaysen. This toxic, misogynistic term suggests that a person, usually a young girl, is acting sad, depressed, and moody as a personality trait rather than because they are genuinely struggling beneath the surface, whether the person realizes it or not. It’s easy to adopt such a digital lifestyle in an age of Tumblr and Pinterest aesthetic mood boards and is indeed wrong if a person is performing it just for clout. But something tells me no one would embrace a “Sad Girl” online persona unless something about that resonated with their real-life experiences. “Girl, Interrupted syndrome has little to do with the actual memoir. It’s about what the book represents, what it says about the person reading it,” wrote BuzzFeed News.
Life is crazy, but mental illness is just as real as physical illness. So part of me will always be grateful that Kaysen and I came of age in different eras. “There was enough blank space in it for people to insert themselves,” writes the author in the introduction to the new edition. And that’s precisely why it’s still selling.