Published December 1, 1999
Everything that is important in Girl, Interrupted, directed by James Mangold and based on the memoir by Suzanna Kaysen, can be condensed into one comment by the mental institution attendant, Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg) as she attempts to give the reluctant Suzanna (Winona Ryder) a bath. “This place is a f****** fascist torture chamber,” says the winsome Winona, adding a racial epithet for good measure. Although Susanna has been diagnosed with what the doctors call “borderline personality disorder,” she is like most of the middle-class girls who have come to this private asylum in 1968, more bored and neurotic than crazy. She has adopted her highly interesting mental state as her only hobby. It also allows her the freedom to misbehave and then to rail against her “fascist” keepers for punishing her—even to engage in some deliberately shocking racial innuendo.
This it is which finally goads Valerie into replying: “You are a lazy, self-indulgent little girl who is driving herself crazy,” she says. Unlike those who must now put up with her, she has been showered with all the good things life has to offer, “and you’re just throwing it away.”
What else is there to say? At some level Susanna Kaysen, thirty years on, must see the truth of this admittedly amateur diagnosis. But though she is older and wiser and presumably no longer confined to an institution, she obviously has not abandoned her youthful hobby completely. That is one of the characteristics of her generation, as is her dislike of the idea of growing up. “I don’t want to end up like my mother,” she tells her high school guidance counselor, as if she had any choice in the matter. Her continued fascination with the mental ups and downs of her youthful self would be unbearably tedious were it not for the performance of the remarkable Angelina Jolie as the free spirited Lisa, who really is crazy. If Miss Jolie does not win best actress in a supporting role for this performance, the Academy will have done her a serious injustice.
Lisa may have started out as sane as Susanna. She appears to hold one of the most appallingly stupid of the many stupid opinions which were rife in the 1960s, namely that insanity is “a gift; it helps you see the truth.” But as it so often does, the pretense has become the reality. Now she is clearly a dangerous lunatic. This does not prevent her, however, from being as clear-sighted about most of her fellow inmates as Valerie is, and considerably less tactful. “You people are all weak f****** people,” she says. “You’re victims!” She’s also very shrewd in her understanding of the therapeutic system. “The more you confess, the more they think about setting you free,” she tells Susanna.
“What if you don’t have a secret?”
“Then you’re a lifer like me.”
It is Lisa’s casual destruction of one of the other girls, the fragile Daisy (Brittany Murphy in another terrific performance) who is the victim of her father’s sexual abuse, which finally jolts Susanna back into something like normality. “I couldn’t stand up to her,” she says after having watched Lisa goad Daisy to suicide. “A decent person would have done something.” Finally, she does stand up to Lisa, telling her that “Maybe the whole world is stupid and ignorant, but I’d rather be in it. I’d rather be in it than down here with you.” This is a powerful statement, the moment at which Susanna sees both the game she has been playing and the terrible cost it can exact. But she hasn’t got that aperçu clearly enough in focus and keeps wandering off to gaze at the ideological and therapeutic clouds which have hitherto kept it hidden.