by: Susanna Kaysen
I saw the movie first and it compelled me to read the book. I liked the movie, it was entertaining. The acting was delicious. Winona Ryder played the intrepid heroine Susanna; Angelina Jolie gave a brilliant performance as Lisa, sociopathic and proud of it, at least most of the time. Though she was a secondary character there were times when Jolie stole the show. To round out the cast there was a pre anorexic looking Brittany Murphy as Daisy, a girl with an obsession for chicken and Whoopie Goldberg as one of the nurses, sort of a version of the character she played on Star Trek, always knowing just what to say and when to say it, knowing when to NOT say anything at all. The most notable difference being that the odd hats she wore for Star Trek were replaced with a tasteful afro and a sporty headband. As usual, the book was better though it didn’t diminish the movie in any way, I recommend both.
The book begins immediately with Susanna going to the institution, there is no pre-story about how it all came to be, that isn’t what the story is about. The story is about first, Susanna’s disorder, next the disorders of others, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, the times. The time frame is almost like a mute character in the book. This was when Viet Nam was going on, kids were taking over college campuses or being drafted, folks were being assassinated and the world was changing too fast for anyone to keep up with it. The author never describes any specific character in any great detail. Instead, the characters remain a mystery and it gives the sense that though Susanna was in that institution with them for almost two years, she never really knew any of them. We come to know the characters better through their disorders than their back stories. The author gives us just enough to keep us interested in them and still offers insight about the process as well, the way the nurses and therapists interact with the patients, the rules and consequences of breaking them, the simple day to day operations of the institution.
“Insanity comes in two basic varieties: slow and fast. I’m not talking about onset or duration. I mean the quality of the insanity, the day to day business of being nuts.” As the book goes on it describes more about what living with a borderline personality was like for Susanna. She talks about a job she held for a while where the treatment of the employees was sexist and to put it mildly, ridiculous on abundant levels. She recognized the unfair treatment of the employees and couldn’t relate to how no one seemed bothered by it but her. What soul-less schmucks would allow themselves to be treated this way on a day to day basis? Having trouble with ridiculous rules, rules that seem contrived and in place mostly to effectively perpetuate a schoolyard mentality was a symptom. Taking issue with the whole 'check your personality at the door or go home' nature of the workplace, the entire soul-sucking reality of a job that might be slowly killing you and being powerless to change it. In the simplest manifestation simply not wanting to blindly fall in line like a good little lemming, is that a mark of madness?
The book is well written, the author knows just what to do to keep you turning the pages, who knew insanity could be so interesting. A main point in the book is the fear that other people have regarding insanity and in this case having been locked up for it. “There’s always a touch of fascination and revulsion: Could that happen to me? The less likely the terrible thing is to happen, the less frightening it is to look at or imagine. A person who doesn’t talk to herself or stare off onto nothingness is therefore more alarming than a person who does. Someone who acts ‘normal’ raises the uncomfortable question, what’s the difference between that person and me? Which leads to the question, what’s keeping me out of the loony bin? Some people are more frightened than others.”
This fright, I think, specifically with regard to the disorder Susanna is diagnosed with, is largely due to the fact that borderline personality disorder isn’t “blameless.” It’s mentioned that had she been diagnosed bi-polar, which is said to be a chemical imbalance, it would be no one’s fault. Schizophrenia is more “real” somehow, people don’t “recover” from schizophrenia after all. Then here she was, “diagnosed and recovered” from a disorder that has mostly to do with not quite being able to function “normally” in the real world. “A fractured but not disassembled psyche” and all I can think is that a fractured but not disassembled psyche is sort of the human condition. Human condition, and that is what’s nice about the characters in the hospital, they are just people and are portrayed as intelligent, real people, a sister, a mother, a brother. And that opens the door for that fear again, could this happen to me? “Some people say that having any conscious opinion on the matter is a mark of sanity.”
Overall I really enjoyed this book. I found it well written and thought provoking. As mentioned, part of my fascination with this book is just how much I could relate to it. Even those readers out there who haven’t experienced that feeling of being on the edge, one step away from insanity, can enjoy a book that raises these questions. After all the book is about a disorder that is called borderline which suggests that there is a border, perhaps an invisible line between this world and other worlds. “And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe. There are so many of them: worlds of the insane, the criminal, the crippled the dying, perhaps of the dead as well. These worlds exist alongside this world and resemble it, but are not in it.” This book does a fine job exploring these other worlds through the eyes of engaging characters in a time of turmoil and revolution that keeps the reader turning the pages.