“I wanted to join them,” I explained. “Sit in a room and let the weight of those unanswerable questions crush me till I couldn’t function like a normal person anymore.”
Mandy nodded with sympathy, and I wrung my hands. How many people find an insane asylum appealing? Am I already walking down that well trod path of female instability?
Girl, Interrupted and The Bell Jar invite the reader into the dizzying world of mental illness. Although written thirty years apart, the events in these two books are separated by only fifteen years. Both girls are institutionalized in McLean Hospital and treated by the same compassionate female therapist—reading them in succession allowed a deeper glimpse into the psychiatric world in the 20th century.
As a 16 year old girl, I first read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar with rapt attention. As I watched the vivacious and talented Esther sink into depression, I stood aghast. Could it really happen so quickly, so easily? I devoured the book on a cold Colorado afternoon, and ate dinner, thankful I still knew how to lift a spoon to my mouth.
The second time around, I was struck by Plath’s artfully playful prose. The normalcy of teenage life is wedded with insanity and deep depression, and Plath’s language mirrors the seemingly unlikely partnership. With descriptions like, “intestinal tunnels,” “barbed-wire letters,” and “gleaming tombstone teeth,” Plath draws the reader into a twisted yet brilliant world. The prose pops off the page, leaving young writers like me yearning for a bit more insanity if it produces a novel like this.
In contrast, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted is written as a memoir, and her painfully honest account of her almost two years at McLean reads more somber than Plath’s poetic and playful prose. Her memoir is broken into small vignettes of two to three pages that capture a moment or a thought related to her mental breakdown and recovery. Interspersed are actual copies of her medical records—evaluations, intake forms, medication charts—which give her words even more weight.
Unlike in The Bell Jar, where Esther fills and spills off the main stage, this memoir captures much more than Susanna Kaysen. The girls she meets and befriends at McLean become characters I appreciated in all their tics and compulsions. I left the book knowing Susanna Kaysen and shall I dare say it, her beautiful and broken friends. Kaysen’s ability to see outside of herself, to capture these women at the peak of their insanity, hints at her eventual recovery.
If you’re interested in mental health, or if you’ve ever been a teenage girl, these two books are worth reading for their insight into the fine line between insanity and normalcy. Artfully written, The Bell Jar captures the mind of a literary genius, a poet we lost too soon. And with great compassion, Girl, Interrupted offers a true tale of recovery and hope—it reminds me that many great people have walked in and out of those barred doors.