Girl, Interrupted’s true story — The film’s real-life inspiration

Girl, Interrupted

Girl, Interrupted, starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, was one of the films of 1999 – it won Jolie an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Winona played Susanna, a rebellious and promiscuous teenager who voluntarily checked herself into a mental health institution for what she thought was, at most, a couple of weeks. 

However, she’d overlooked one important rule about mental health institutions: it’s up to the doctors to determine when to discharge a patient. Susanna, who didn’t think she had an illness, was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

The film chronicles her stay at the institution and the people she met during her two-year stay. 

Girl, Interrupted is based on the true experiences of Susanna Kaysen at McLean Hospital

Novelist Susanna Kaysen | Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe

Girl, Interrupted is based on the true story of Susanna Kaysen at McLean Hospital, as chronicled in her memoir with the same name. Kaysen spent two years at the mental health institution in the late 1960s and memorialized her experiences in her 1993 book. 

In the film, Susanna volunteered herself into Claymoore Hospital; in real life, a psychiatrist recommended Mclean Hospital because Kaysen needed a ‘rest’ from her tumultuous life. 

Kaysen ended up at the institution following a suicide attempt with aspirin and vodka. Her parents also deemed her a failure. “Their image of me was unstable, since it was out of kilter with reality and based on their needs and wishes,” she wrote. Susanna continued:

“They did not put much value on my capacities, which were admittedly few, but genuine. I read everything, I wrote constantly, and I had boyfriends by the barrelful. . . . Back then I didn’t know that I — or anyone — could make a life out of boyfriends and literature.”

The book and film show that life in the mental institution had parallels to life in prison. Susanna and her fellow inmates were closely monitored, and the quality of life depended on one’s behavior. 

Good behavior resulted in hollow rewards such as walks around the hospital grounds, and rebellion led to incarceration in a seclusion room, an experience somewhat similar to solitary confinement in prison. Kaysen’s memoir has several other characters with wide-ranging conditions, behaviors, and treatments.  

The inspiration for the book’s title came from a Vermeer painting titled Girl Interrupted at Her Music. Kaysen saw the painting during a trip to the Frick Museum with her high school English teacher, who ended up kissing her during dinner. 

Susanna felt her two-year stint at McLean interrupted her life’s music. She got out after accepting a proposal from one of her boyfriends and 25 years later obtained her records from the institution, which she used to write her book. 

Kaysen writes that she never thought she was crazy: “I wasn’t convinced I was crazy, though I feared I was. I still think about it. I’ll always have to think about it.”

Susanna said she was surprised by the people’s reception of the book

Susanna wrote about her experiences at McLean from a satirical perspective, with sentences such as: “We ate with plastic. It was a perpetual picnic, our hospital.” Kaysen didn’t write Girl, Interrupted to inspire people, but that’s precisely what it did. 

The writer told The Paris Review that people contacted her telling her ‘how her book had spoken to them.’ Kaysen told the publication:

“I wasn’t trying to reach you. What had spurred me to write was rage and a desire to dissect this world. And that didn’t seem to register for a lot of these people.”

Though contrary to Susanna’s intentions, the book’s success was based on people’s connections to the author’s experiences. “There was a very little sense that this book was an artifact,” Kaysen added. “People thought it was a transcription of reality or my brain.”

Perhaps the message in Kaysen’s memoir resonated with many due to the increased attention on mental health in the United States. “Susanna’s book opened up a conversation on mental health,” Laura Zigman, a publishing executive who worked on the book, said. “It was so visceral and poetic.”

Kaysen told The Paris Review that it feels like she didn’t write the book. “I guess whatever the book is, it just has nothing to do with me anymore, if it ever did,” Kaysen said. However, she appreciates the positive effect it has on people. She continued:

“I feel lucky in a way. It doesn’t happen to that many people that you write something and lots and lots and lots of people find it extremely important and meaningful to them.”

“People were loving a book I didn’t write, but maybe that doesn’t matter because they were able to see it the way they needed to see it. That’s a good thing. It’s mysterious why anyone loves any book.”