I’m pretty sure I’m one of the few people left in the Western world who hasn’t seen the movie adaptation of Kaysen’s memoir about her time in a mental institution, but at least now I’ve read the book. And it’s gah-reat. When she was eighteen, Susanna Kaysen was admitted to a mental institution. She stayed there for eighteen months. The rest in uncertain– had she attempted suicide before entering or not? Was this a voluntary stay or not? And how do you really know if someone is crazy, anyway? Kaysen addresses all these issues and more as she attempts to make sense out of this interlude in her life as she stood on the cusp of womanhood.
Since I haven’t seen the movie, I came to this book with very few expectations. I like how honest Kaysen tries to be about her experience. I admire how she uses her mental instability as a structuring motif. Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, she presents her memoir as a series of snapshots that might be more or less chronological (but not entirely). She doesn’t present the reader with a straightforward narrative, and there’s no over-arching message of the text, either, except maybe, “Am I crazy or not?” She plays with the idea of herself as an unreliable narrator– a risky and inventive thing to do in memoir– particularly in the flash chapter “Do You Believe Him or Me?” She does question the mental health system generally, and points out obliquely that much of the way we define insanity is based on perspective. Artistically, the book is brilliantly structred and her prose is clear and beautiful.
One review of this book calls it a “brave reconstruction,” and I suppose it is. I can see how it could be extremely painful to look back at that very vulnerable time, and how difficult it would be to then share it with others. The feeling I got from the book, though, wasn’t so much bravery as it was exploratory. It was as though Kaysen was trying to make sense of her experience, as though setting it all down would define once and for what really happened and why– even as she throws into question what happened and why and her own reliability. It’s as though your best friend came back from Vegas with only a handful of Polaroids and asked you to help her reconstruct her weekend. That might be a brave thing to do, but mostly it’s a matter of necessity. And Kaysen’s book certainly feels very necessary.
Having read this book, I can see how compelling it would be to try to make this into a movie, but I can’t imagine how that would work, exactly. I guess I’ll have to go see it now. And you should all read the book.