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Girl Interrupted, the Susanna Kaysen memoir turned feature film, has had a strange impact on the work that I do. I am a Clinical Social Worker. I’ve worked in the mental health field for years in a variety of settings with a particular focus on working with youth and families. Girl Interrupted, though one of the more well known books or movies about mental illness, is certainly not the only popular representation of mental illness out there but it has, maybe more so than others, resonated deeply with young women. There are, of course, benefits to that, but if you zoom out and look at the bigger picture of the way that mental illness is represented through books and movies, there is a problem. The problem is in the way that it is being romanticized. Through the romanticization of it, mental illness is minimized and beautified and almost turned into something that is cool and desirable as opposed to a painful struggle. I’m all for the stigma of mental illness becoming a thing of the past. I’m all for people with mental illness being able to express themselves, tell their stories, and connect with others with similar life experiences. What I’m not in support of is inaccurate portrayals of mental illness coloring the collective unconscious. When you think about the way that mental illness is portrayed in popular movies and books, it’s easy to understand why young people, particularly children and adolescent girls are confused about what having a mental illness is all about. These portrayals of mental illness tend to affect girls most at a time when they’re searching for something. They’re figuring out who they are and forming their identity. How do these portrayals of mental illness impact identity development?
I first started to question the Girl Interrupted effect when I began counting the number of dog-eared, tear-stained copies on the bed stands of young female patients at the psychiatric hospital I was working at back in 2008 or so. I noticed a number of adolescent girls carrying around copies of the book and talking with other patients about it. I had not found and still haven’t found another book or movie to be so commonly beloved by young women and girls in mental health treatment. There is clearly something about the story that resonates. Girl Interrupted, even now, many years after the film release, is so widely loved by teenagers that it remains a darling of Tumblr. If you ever want to see mental illness be glamorized and romanticized, check out Tumblr for images and gifs of women cutting themselves complete with hearts and glitter and overly dramatic emo-like sayings.
The movie version of Girl Interrupted came out in 1999, some years prior to my work at the hospital, and I watched it. While I enjoy the movie from the standpoint that it is well acted and a compelling story, it is far and away different than the book. Susanna Kaysen doesn’t make any claims that the movie is an accurate representation of her time at McLean Hospital (Claymoore Hospital in the film). She famously said that the director of the film added much “melodramatic drivel“. If you’ve read the book, you know that it doesn’t read in a very linear way and that it would be difficult to fashion a film storyline out of it but the director did so by fleshing out the central relationship and adding many events that never occurred. The movie also cashes in on tired tropes about the beautiful but sad or tortured woman. Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie are conventionally attractive and their tragic hero story lines are relatable and fascinating. Winona, as Kaysen, is the super intelligent, sexy, but tragically fucked up young woman who just needs to see her way out of this mess. Jolie as Lisa is the anti-hero we love: Captivating to watch, bold, honest to a fault, dangerous, and terribly hot. Of course, they have their moment of queer baiting when you think for just a second that they’re going to hook up but no. Not going to happen.
Meanwhile, McLean, is still one of the best known and most highly regarded psychiatric hospitals in New England. For all their supposed amazingness, I highly doubt that 1960s McLean was quite the fun time that this movie made it out to be. Ice cream field trips. Guitar strumming sing-a-longs. Midnight bowling. Friends you make for life. Even a really cool, sassy stereotyped black nurse to watch you shave your legs! What’s not to love? Now I know some of those elements were in the book as well but I take far greater issue with the sense of fun and excitement that the movie generates.
But moving on from Girl Interrupted, there are other beautiful-but-tortured characters in film. Take Britney Murphy in Don’t Say a Word where she famously said in her sing-songy voice “I’ll never tell” in the trailer. Halle Berry in Gothika and in that movie, it turned out to be revenge seeking ghosts that were the problem. Mental illness wasn’t even the culprit. Women are always locked up in psychiatric hospitals that are never, ever portrayed in any way similar to what it’s really like in such a facility.
The common theme with all of these portrayals of women with mental illness is the quiet suffering but inner strength. I believe that people with mental illness are incredibly strong. Some of the people I’ve worked with who have mental illness are the strongest and best people I’ve ever met. But when you always portray women with mental illness as these quietly suffering heroes, exceptionally good looking and sexy women, who spend time in psychiatric units where midnight bowling is an option, you don’t get an accurate picture of what it’s like for real life folks who struggle with mental illness. It’s not perfect hair and makeup. It’s not about finding your friends for life on a psychiatric unit. It’s much harder than that. If you’ve ever thought that prison cannot possibly be as fun as it seems on Orange is the New Black, then you get the idea.
I’ve worked with adolescents who have fought tooth and nail to go into hospitals without any knowledge of what it’s really like. They are literally going by what they’ve seen in movies and read in fictional books while their parents sit there wondering why the hell their child is suddenly so fixated on an inpatient admission.
Being an adolescent, particularly an adolescent female, is hard. It’s really difficult for young women who are not struggling with mental health issues. Dealing with the high school bullshit and learning to navigate complicated relationships is rough. Trying to figure out who you are and how you’re going to get through this time in your life is a challenge. It’s easy to see why some young women may relate to the media pre-packaged version of mental illness. It provides a possibility of escape, for camaraderie with peers who may understand how you feel, and it provides an answer. Identifying with movies like Girl Interrupted can make you feel like you’ve just figured out why life is so hard. Many of the young people I’ve worked with are not mentally ill but simply struggling with the challenges of adolescence in a world where those challenges get harder and harder for each generation.
It may seem as though I’m trying to minimize how helpful it can be for folks to connect with books or movies that seem to represent their struggles. I assure that I am not. I think it’s really important for people who struggle with their mental health to connect with other people’s stories. I worry that by portraying mental health in the romanticized way that it has been portrayed in books and movies, we’re confusing young women for one thing but we’re also neglecting to fully appreciate how difficult it is to live with mental illness. I am also not saying that children and adolescent females are drama queens who fake their mental illnesses. I don’t believe that’s the case but I do think that young people gravitate towards media that they can relate to and if the messages being sent about mental illness are unrealistic, it can distort their expectations of what mental illness is really about.