‘(Wo)man Up: Fresh Look At ‘Girl, Interrupted’ And The Subject of Mental Health

I know what it’s like to want to die. How it hurts to smile. How you try to fit in but you can’t. How you hurt yourself on the outside, to try to kill the thing on the inside.

That was one of the first lines uttered by Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder), the main character of Girl, Interrupted. The film from 1999, directed by James Mangold and based on the book by Susanna Kaysen, tells the story of her stay in a mental institution called Claymoore, in the 60s, at the age of eighteen. Her state is influenced by many conditions: graduating high school, lack of ideas for the future, an apathetic attitude to the world, etc. 

As Susanna attends therapy and stays in the hospital, she befriends a group of young women who also have a variety of problems. Georgina (Clea DuVall) is a pathological liar, Lisa (Angelina Jolie) a sociopath. Daisy is a victim of sexual abuse, although she tries to hide it. And Polly burned herself because she thought she could cure her pet allergies that way. The women create a special bond, and they all have one thing in common: delicate mental health. As patients, they begin to spend more time with each other. Susanna is most intrigued by Lisa, who is known for her cruel manipulation and psychological abuse. Time proves that it’s better to stay away from a diagnosed sociopath. 

3 Art Entertainment – © 1999

The film made only 48,350,205 dollars worldwide in the box office, which was roughly over 8,000,000 dollars more than the actual budget. Those numbers don’t really reflect the importance of Girl, Interrupted. The film is based on the real story of Susanna Kaysen who, after graduating high school, experienced an 18-month stay at McLean Hospital in the late 60s. Later, in 1993, Kaysen wrote a memoir, in which she describes her time in the hospital. 

The book, adapted into a film with the same title focuses on mental health as the primary goal. It depicts that young people are more likely to have depression due to a lack of a set future and goals in life. Although the book came out in the 90s, and the film in 1999, the same problem seems to exist to this day. It may even be bigger. Young women, especially, experience a massive amount of stress in their lives. The job market creates impossible expectations that don’t allow a young person to start the job they want, because they need more experience. 

Moreover, women, still to this day, encounter discrimination due to their gender. Although the media tries to shine a light on the problem, it seems that it won’t be solved any time soon. It’s just one of the factors that translate into mental health issues. For the main character, the lack of an idea for the future was the main factor in her issues. We later find out that Susanna, too, experienced sexual relations with a man much older than her. All the elements described above brought her to the path of destruction. Susanna had a headache, which she tried to cure with a whole bottle of aspirin and vodka. When staying in the institution, she tries to understand her disease – Borderline Personality Disorder. Although the movie was rated R (trigger warnings: suicide, self-harm, drugs), it may be worth it for young women to watch. Susanna’s character is very relatable for someone who struggles with depression. She also proves that it’s possible to fight it, with meds and therapy. 

Photo by 3 Art Entertainment – © 1999

That said, Girl, Interrupted further suggests that while Susanna tries to get better, she actually doesn’t have it that bad. Nurse Valerie, portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg, even implies that the main character isn’t sick – she’s simply a lazy, self-indulgent little girl who is driving herself crazy. The statement is arguable and depends on how one perceives the film and its main character. The plot, however, represents the story of Susanna as far as Valerie can see it. The girl comes to capture the fact that she doesn’t, truth be told, have it that bad, in comparison. Her condition, nevertheless, shouldn’t be overlooked. Each person is an individual and carries events in their life uniquely. 

The film further depicts the fact that Susanna accepts who she is, and her issues. Lisa, not so much. She keeps escaping and manipulating patients, as well as staff. As the next escape opportunity occurs, Susanna caves, and goes with Lisa. She then finds out how genuinely manipulative and toxic the other woman is. Toxic friendship or relationships, in general, are another crucial subject of Girl, Interrupted. The bond between Lisa and Susanna is strong, but extremely dangerous. Kaysen’s other friends seem to be trying to heal. Lisa isn’t progressing, even in the slightest. Susanna only notices it when Lisa manipulates someone into killing themselves. The young woman realizes the truth in the hardest way possible: by losing someone. Although horrid and sad, the experience helps Susanna advance faster. She knows she’s not able, or responsible for Lisa, and when one woman leaves the hospital for good, the other one stays behind – probably forever. 

In today’s society, the topic of female friendship is rather complicated, and often viewed through negative lenses. Viewers can recognize this reality, especially in films and television series. Although it’s now improving and changing for the better, it wasn’t always like that. Even back in the 2000s, women were portrayed as back-stabbing and fake towards each other. However, the toxic relations between people based on the characters in Girl, Interrupted (especially Lisa and Susanna) still need to be depicted, to prepare the younger audience. 

The creators did an excellent job choosing the main cast. According to IMDB, Angelina Jolie avoided Winona Ryder while shooting the film. She stated that she would grow warm feelings towards the actress, and it would make her character less believable as a sociopath. Her performance of Lisa Rowe received critical acclaim and won her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture. Her duo with Winona Ryder’s character remains one of the most significant portrayals of a toxic female bond.

Although Girl, Interrupted premiered 19 years ago, it’s still very relevant to contemporary society. It’s one of those films that will remain a universal production. It depicts the matter of mental health, and its different aspects, among women, among young people in general, who are just stepping into adult life and struggle with reality. As mentioned above, it seems as if young people’s mental health is even more fragile in today’s society, due to a variety of factors: advanced technology, parents’ pressure to be successful and the general opinion about Millennials and Generation Z (born mid-1990s to the early 2000s) are all components that add to the struggle. Additionally, women still have to face discrimination and the gender gap. That’s why Girl, Interrupted is still so needed. It shows depression, yes, but also the bright light at the end of the tunnel.

As September 10th just passed – World Suicide Prevention Day, it’s worth to take the time to remind everyone – be vigilant. Look around and pay attention, because maybe one of your loved ones is struggling and silently begging for help. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

Girl, Interrupted is streaming on Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube.

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