Wednesday, October 04, 2006

email, interrupted

I recently noted on a friend's blog that I have a tendancy to write about nothing much. So today I'll focus mostly on a book I read recently, with an intro consisting of something funny in my bulk mail folder.
I have to say that I love looking at my spam, because it's so funny and obvious. You know, mostly I go like this: "Hmmm, I have an email from Rebecca Turgid titled "You want to please your woman all night long", I think I should open that one!" But lately mine have been coming with really weird titles. Here's a compendium of titles from my bulk mail folder today:
"disfavor shrapnel"
"arsonist"
"castration"
"mother collie"
and my favorite, "backwoods clergywoman"
Anyway...
I recently read the memoir "Girl, Interrupted" by Susanna Kaysen. I'm assuming most of you remember the movie with Winona Ryder, and maybe even that it was based on the true story of Kaysen's almost two years in a mental hospital during the 60's, but I saw this in the library and decided to pick it up on a whim. Wow. Kaysen not only chronicals her life inside the asylum (which from what I remember of the movie basically functioned as the plot) but gets to work analyzing our medical and cultural definitions of mental health (and lack thereof), our ways of dealing with deviance, and what it is like for her even now to question what happened to her and what it means. For all that her stories of life inside are frequently funny, entrancing, and fascinating, I feel like the true strength of the book lies in this analysis. Kaysen scrutinizes her medical records, places the definition of her "problem" (borderline personality) within the context of her life and finds it lacking as a critical look at herself.
"My chronic feelings of emphasis and boredom came from the fact that I was living a life based on my incapacities, which were numerous...
"My self-image was not unstable. I saw myself, quite correctly, as unfit for the educational and social systems.
"But my parents and teachers did not share my self-image. Their image of me was unstable, since it was out of kilter with reality and based on their needs and wishes. They did not put much value on my capacities, which were admittedly few, but genuine."
I got the distinct feeling that Kaysen still ponders this diagnosis and its truths and lies on a regular basis.
The book also contains some very interesting meditations on mind vs. brain in the control of behavior and the ways in which illness is consequently treated (think psychoanalysis vs. hormone therapy), and her personal observations of how she and those around her functioned in contrast to what they "should" act like. Mostly, I took away that craziness is a relative state. Maybe sometimes it's only in the eye of the beholder, a side effect of the lack of tolerance for deviant behavior or even just a desire to protect people from the pull of things outside the norm. (At one point Kaysen speculates that the doctor who sent her to the asylum--after seeing her for twenty minutes--justified his action as saving a young girl from the countercultural influences of the late 60's.)
I'll leave you with Kaysen's summation of her inital statement about mental illness as an alternate world, a place enough outside that you can look in and be frightened or fascinated by the contrast between where you are and where you were.
"Every window on Alcatraz has a view of San Francisco."

5 comments:

erica said...

i get those weird emails too!
and yeah, i read that book in jr. high...i don't remember much, i should read it again...

PocaCosa said...

interesting post, thanks! especially since i'm having my first consultant with a psychiatrist this friday. hmm. ;-)

anna pulley said...

excellent analysis, butter buns! I'm craaaazy about it.

Maya said...

i too read that book when i was probably too young to truly appreciate what she was saying, but i remember finding it very difficult to believe that anyone thought she was insane--she just seemed like someone who didn't put up with society's bullshit!
makes me want to go back and read it again...
props to you, ammie--you've inspired me to pull 3 books of the shelf in under 5 minutes!

ammie said...

Awww, thanks! I want to not write about just random funny street signs and the like as often, but nothing much is going on here so all I'm writing about is the books I've been reading.