Winona Ryder’s anxiety attacks were getting worse. She couldn’t sleep at night. She struggled to describe the anxiety attacks, even to the people closest to her, she told The New York Times. “My breathing would get labored, everything would start speeding up, and I’d get very scared,” she said. It was like the prickling shock of swerving out of the way of an oncoming car, a near miss that felt like it would never stop.
Then in the summer of 1993, soon after she’d broken up with Johnny Depp, Ryder said she “hit bottom,” falling into a deep depression that seemed without end. Desperate for relief, she checked herself into in-patient psychiatric care. While she was inside, all she wanted to do was sleep. She wanted help. She wanted answers. She wanted to stop feeling like she was selling her soul. But all she received was structure, four walls filled with the same unknowns.
“No matter how rich you are and how much you pay some hospital or doctor,” she said, “they can’t fix you. They can’t give you a pill or a secret answer to anything that’s going to make you all better.” Still without relief, Ryder left the hospital. Her stay had only lasted a few days, but in that time, she’d come to a familiar realization: she didn’t need to have all the answers. Learning to bend with life’s chaos was better than trying to understand it all.
“Life is just weird, and messy,” Ryder said. “And I just have to get through it, and do my best. Either choose to move on, or stay miserable. And I chose to move on.”
Soon afterward, her father, a rare-book dealer, gave her a galley of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir, Girl, Interrupted. Just like her father expected, Ryder saw herself in the story, especially in how Kaysen often found her own mental illness too amorphous to name. Ryder had never read a book like Girl, Interrupted before. It was funny, honest, sensitive. More importantly, it centered the experience of a teenage girl in a dark and insightful story.
The real lives of teenage girls, complete with all the ugly, brutal parts, have rarely found their way onto the shelves, least of all in the bubble-gummy 90s. (Solve mysteries and ride horses, sure. But have a nervous breakdown? Forget about it.) Ryder called the book timeless, lamenting that it hadn’t existed when she was a teenager. She couldn’t go back in time and make that happen. But she could help the book leap onto the silver screen.
Even though the book was popular before the movie arrived, Ryder’s performance, as well as performances by the thoroughly star-studded cast, helped make the book a household name. It showed the broken humanity of girlhood. But did it change the way we think about young women? Its legacy lives on, but so does the warped, picture-perfect archetype of girlhood we’re trying to break.
Girl, Interrupted itself isn’t the book we think it is. At the very least, it isn’t the book it was supposed to be.
Kaysen began writing Girl, Interrupted in the 1980s, more than 20 years after her two-year stay at McLean Psychiatric Hospital near Cambridge Massachusetts, the same institution where Sylvia Plath once received treatment.
While Kaysen was writing her second book, Far Afield, memories of her time at McLean came bubbling back to the surface. Unable to stop them, Kaysen started distilling them into vignettes instead. But this wasn’t supposed to be some diaristic tell-all. Kaysen wanted these images, which were quickly becoming a book themselves, to function more like an anthropological study. Rather than seeking to write a timeless story about girlhood, as Ryder saw it, Kaysen had instead drawn her inspiration from her husband, an anthropologist, and his recent field study of the Faroe Islands. His trip had changed the way she thought about the psychiatric hospital. “McLean was sort of like a village but somewhat larger,” Kaysen told Tara Wanda Merrigan for The Paris Review. “Our ward was a tiny little village with our doctors and nurses and aides.”
Writing Girl, Interrupted became less a cathartic exercise and more of a research expedition into the past and Kaysen’s own mind. She hired a lawyer and obtained copies of her medical records. The practice of narrative diagnosis, which was more common during the 1960s and 70s, especially in the field of psychiatry, meant that Kaysen’s medical records were rich with details and many snippets were plumb for inserting into her book. Add to that Kaysen’s dark but undeniable wit, and you get a memoir full of acerbically humorous turns of phrase like, “We ate with plastic. It was a perpetual picnic, our hospital.”
Nonetheless, the memoir carries a sense of loss. On the final page, Kaysen includes the detail from her records that she was discharged in January 1969 after living at McLean for 496 days. Before she was admitted, her doctor in Boston believed she was desperately suicidal and living an “increasingly patternless life.” But absconsion to McLean removed the previous patterns from her life completely. She believed her life was interrupted, a portion of it taken away, never to be given back. So, she named her memoir after the Vermeer painting, “Girl Interrupted at Her Music.”
It wasn’t just Kaysen’s life that was interrupted, either. The lives of the other women on the unit—whose diagnoses ranged from depression and substance abuse to schizophrenia and self-immolation—had been reduced to therapy sessions, scheduled activities, and long periods of listless downtime. After leaving McLean, Kaysen took up her life again and was soon living alone in her own apartment. But we don’t know what happened to some of the other young women in her memoir. Their interruptions stretch on into obscurity.Girl, Interrupted became emblematic of society’s changing views toward mental illness. It shows how, when done right, with passion and an eye for truth, that the personal can be universal.
In that absence, we fill in the blanks. The women whose strife fades to black—they become all of us. It’s easy to forget that Kaysen intended to write her own, singular experience with an anthropological eye. She was trying to say This happened to me. This is how things were. She wasn’t trying to reach Winona Ryder, or any of us.
What Kaysen created instead was a book that resonated with many. On her book tour, fans told her Girl, Interrupted helped them feel less alone. They felt seen, even though the only person Kaysen intended to look at was herself.
“I wasn’t trying to reach you,” Kaysen said of these incidents, to The Paris Review. “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.”
Girl, Interrupted also arrived on the scene in a time when the reading public was ravenous for memoirs. William Styron’s Darkness Visible had come out in 1990, as did Kate Millett’s The Loony-Bin Trip. But Girl, Interrupted outdid the others, spending 11 weeks on The New York Times’s bestseller list. You’ve probably read at least one of the memoirs that followed in the craze during the 90s, like Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, and so many more. At the same time, open talk of mental health issues was becoming more palatable as dinner table talk as Clinton’s healthcare reform bill sought to improve mental health services. President Clinton even enacted antidiscrimination laws that protected people with mental illnesses.
Girl, Interrupted became emblematic of society’s changing views toward mental illness. Sure, it was in the right place at the right time. But it also shows how, when done right, with passion and an eye for truth, that the personal can be universal. We, as readers, want to see ourselves in books. We’re also desperate for other signs of life. We need to see inside those around us. We hope our fellow humans can become more than ships passing in the night.“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.”
It’s no surprise that Girl, Interrupted took on a life of its own, especially after Ryder starred in the screen adaptation.
Before Ryder was attached to the project, Douglas Wick, a producer for Columbia Pictures, became enamored with the book. Its utter humanity struck him. “Its characters were raw and struggling and set against a world that had lost its way,” said Wick. “It was immediately clear that these vivid and dimensional characters would attract a remarkable ensemble of young actresses.”
Wick drew on Columbia’s discretionary funds to option the book, but he couldn’t convince a studio to sign on. What he lacked in studio backing he soon made up for in talent. Hearing that Wick had bought the rights for Girl, Interrupted, Ryder quickly joined the project as a producer and star. Then they started running into trouble.
Studios still weren’t biting. Many saw Girl, Interrupted as excessively bleak.
The story was also hard to translate to film. Since Girl is made up of vignettes, many of its effects come from abstraction and are recreated in the reader’s mind. Several writers and directors took a swing at the script, and years went by as Girl drifted listlessly like many of its characters.
A new breath of life came with the addition of James Mangold, whom Ryder herself tapped to direct.
Even he was skeptical at first. “I was unsure about getting involved,” Mangold told Entertainment Weekly in 1998. “I thought everyone wanted a Lifetime movie—weepy girls in smocks, all retching and twitching.”
Instead of the recognizably vapid portrayal of women’s struggles he’d expected, Mangold took the film in the other direction. He said he added “grittiness,” but what he really did was take the book—and the women whose lives it represents—seriously.
That is what’s so visionary about the film and why we’re still struck by Ryder’s silent-movie-emotive performance today. We weren’t, and still aren’t, at a point where women speaking truth about girlhood in all its turmoil and rawness and hair and guts and dirt and anger and beauty—and being heard—is anything but revolutionary. To see ourselves, young and flawed as we are, is a grand coup.
Even so, it says something about society that this is the story we’ve chosen to share. As women, we’re allowed to be broken—but briefly, as long as we put ourselves back together in a way that is palatable and becoming.
Can we really tell stories that show the truth of girlhood if they have to be pretty? Real lives are messy. Part of adolescence, no matter your gender, is losing your mind a little bit. We need to give girls more license to put themselves back together in ways that don’t fit our society’s warped ideals of femininity.
Despite Girl, Interrupted’s flaws, I believe Ryder, who lived out her girlhood on screen, saw that potential in the film.
“I hope the teenagers who feel alone out there will see this movie and say, ‘Thank God,’” Ryder said to The New York Times in 1999, the year Girl, Interrupted finally arrived in theaters. “If I had seen this movie at 19,” Ryder went on, “I would have taken a lot of comfort in it… Life is just weird. Life is a mess. This world is a mess, and anyone who understands this world I would worry about… We’re normal to feel crazy, in a way.”