I wanted an insider's perspective on insanity. This was not the insanity I was looking for, but there were useful insights.
Susanna is eighteen, and her life is not coming together. There are so many things she does not want to do, like go to college or keep a job or follow the rules. She changed her mind part-way through a suicide attempt, but a doctor conveniently provides a different sort of "ultimate no," sending her to McLean Hospital. Away from the world, unfree but protected, Susanna can think about how it is to think like she does. Surrounded by broken psyches, she prods the edges of her own fracture, sometimes jagged, sometimes unsatisfyingly blunt.
In the film version, Susanna reads aloud the description of "borderline personality disorder." Reaction:
Susanna: Well that's me.And that is what a lot of it comes to. Susanna Kaysen did not see tigers or think the president is plotting to kill her. She was a somewhat exaggerated teenager: angst, directionlessness, identity issues, acting out. Most of my peers went to college for that. She went to an asylum.
Lisa: That's everybody.
Ms. Kaysen keeps commenting on the nebulous border of sanity. She says people that worry they are next, that there is so little distance between normal behavior and the kind that gets you locked up. Families pay for a daughter to be institutionalized to prove that they are not insane. She is the crazy one. Or they stop paying to prove that they are not insane. She is not crazy, so we must not be. People need to prove to themselves that insanity is the other, someone else's problem.
And then she drifts back into some real insanity. One girl collects chicken carcasses as a measuring stick towards the time she leaves the asylum. One girl doused herself with gasoline and burned away all her problems. Ms. Kaysen describes the thinking process that gets fixated on a thought and must keep exploring it, and the time Susanna bites open her hand in an attempt to prove to herself that she has bones under the skin.
I pause to note that I am trying to refer to the author as "Ms. Kaysen" and the character as "Susanna." It is a memoir, so they are the same person, but the author has several decades of distance from the institutionalized girl. Besides, in terms of unreliable narrators, how much better can you do than someone in an asylum? How about trying to reconstruct that perspective twenty-plus years later, writing about herself for others to read?
You may have seen the film. I am impressed that they pulled a linear narrative from this book, granted with rather significant changes. Compress the story here, add a character there, rearrange some events, mix in some drama...
The book is not linear. It is a series of vignettes, of episodes in the life or of ruminations that extend over months. This is the story of Daisy, and what her problem was, and how she died. Daisy is still with us next chapter, when we talk about what the nurses were like.
Some of this is memory. Think back twenty years and the story is not linear. There was this one time... and then this other time... and this is where Bill ended up... and throughout my childhood I always thought...
Some of this is insanity. It is institutional life. Why would her perception of events flow in a straight line? And when the setting is the same, day in and day out, does it really matter whether Daisy had left yet, or whether it was the third of fourth time that Lisa ran away? It may as well be a show in the TV room, where life resets every week for another story, and you only see changes when you can see the entire season.
Some of this is just good storytelling. It works.
So we have our little stories. The rating could rise to a 3.5 upon further reflection, since parts may be worth coming back to. Or maybe you walk away, with some of the value coming from the cascade of sensations that only resolve into a linear tale with reflection and work. Do you want a moment in the stream or the feeling of having swum through it?
PS -- I was disappointed to learn that the bit about the Oz books was invented for the film version. One of the characters is to have been devoted to L. Frank Baum and the books (not the movie). It is such a perfect image to have the girl in the asylum, escaping to a world where little girls are all princesses who are loved and who overcome tyrants through innocence and friendship.
Then again, quite a few things changed. Lisa gets a happier ending, but Polly gets stuck with her ending in the first chapter inside McLean. Didn't the climax seem forced in the movie? The tunnels appear in the book, but nothing like that scene.