For some reason when I saw the movie back in high school I assumed the book was a fictionalized account and I would never have discovered this if it weren’t for my books into movies book group. I will say that the movie stayed pretty close to the book until the last 30 minutes or so when the director changed things to make Kaysen a first hand witness to a few things, ultimately increasing the dramatic tension, but other than that the novel and movie were great.
As part of Kaysen’s story she shares many of her own medical records (with redactions of course) that explain why and her admissions as well as updates on her progress while institutionalized. But what I found most interesting were here insights into the families of people who institutionalize they’re loved ones, such as this line:
“Lunatics are similar to designated hitters. Often an entire family is crazy, but since an entire family can’t go into the hospital, one person is designated as crazy and goes inside. Then, depending on how the rest of the family is feeling, that person is kept inside or snatched out, to prove something about the family’s mental health.” (95)
And the reason this struck me is because Kaysen’s tells the memoir solely from her point of view. There are multiple vignettes about her interactions with her parents, but it is the almost complete and total absence of any ‘normal’ parents when it comes to any of her fellow patients. (There is one super creepy dad, which the director played up a bit more in the movie.)
In contrast to this and the descriptions of the myriad mental states of characters, you have Kaysen’s youth and vivaciousness coming through in lines such as
“Boyfriends and literature: How can you make a life out of those two things? As it turns out, I did; more literature than boyfriends lately, but I guess you can’t have everything (‘a generally pessimistic outlook [is] observed’). Back then I didn’t know that I—or anyone—could make a life out of boyfriends and literature.” (155)
And although Kaysen wrote the book almost 25 years after her experience she writes it with such a childish/teenage innocence which make the horrors of the hospital bearable to the reader especially in contrast to her descriptions of what was going through her mind at the time. Her descriptions of depression and why she injured herself were harrowing and yet some of the most truthful (it seems to me) and accurate descriptions I’ve ever read. In addition, as mentioned above, she offered her own medical records to show the doctors’ thoughts compared to her own and even went so far as to include a direct quote from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) about Border Line Personality Disorder.
Recommendation: Definitely a must read. I’m not sure if it is a must read because it is the only modern version of a descent into madness (and recovery) I’ve read or if it’s because of Kaysen’s writing. Her descriptors are vivid and her writing comes across effortless and makes it a great read.
Opening Line: “People ask, How did you get in there?”
Closing Line: “The girl at her music sits in another sort of light, the fitful overcast light of life, by which we see ourselves and others only imperfectly, and seldom.” ( Not whited out, as this is a work of nonfiction.)