Girl, Interrupted — Reality, Insanity, and The Prison of Self


Girl, Interrupted 1999

Starring Winona Rider, Angelina Jolie, Clea DuVall, Brittany Murphy, Jared Leto, Vanessa Redgrave, and Whoopi Goldberg.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

Susanna is rushed to the hospital. Afterwards she discusses this with a psychiatrist. She had been having some delusions. She had also been having an affair with the husband of her parents’ friend. The doctor suggests that combining a bottle of aspirin and a bottle of vodka was a suicide attempt. This she denies. He recommends a short period of rest at Claymoore. Claymoore is a private mental hospital full of noisy, crazy people. Georgina is a pathological liar. Polly has been badly scarred by fire. Daisy won’t eat in the presence of other people. Lisa is a sociopath, the biggest exasperation for the staff – like Nurse Valerie – and the biggest influence on the other girls in the hospital. Lisa has a history of escapes, so gaining access to personal medical files is not a problem… Susanna’s boyfriend Toby is concerned that she seems too comfortable living with her institutionalized friends… Written by David Woodfield

My Thoughts:
There is so much I could potentially write about this film, a film that tackles the nature of reality, of what is insanity, and of how we perceive difference, so I am going to scale back a bit and focus on two conversations in the film that I thought were particularly interesting and which could lead to fruitful discussion.

The first is a conversation Susanna (the main character, played by Winona Ryder) has with her therapist Dr. Wycke (played by Vanessa Redgrave) about half way through the film.  The conversation begins when Susanna, off-handedly says that “ambivalent” is her word of the moment.  Dr. Wycke picks up on this and asks her if she knows what it means.  Susanna replied “I don’t know” and when Dr. Wycke comments that its odd that she doesn’t know the meaning of her word of the moment, Susanna says that was the definition, clearly confusing ambivalence with apathy. Dr. Wycke corrects her by defining the word.  The conversation continues thus:

Dr. Wycke: The word suggests that you are torn between two opposing courses of action…”
Susanna (filling in the blanks): Will I stay or will I go?
Dr. Wycke: Am I sane or am I crazy?
Susanna: Those aren’t courses of action
Dr. Wycke: They can be dear… for some

Here Dr. Wycke points out the importance of action.  We can conceive insanity as a state of being, or something someone is, but here Dr. Wycke challenges us to think of it as something someone does.  If you are “sane” you act a certain way, you follow society’s norms and morays.  If you are “crazy” your actions are different, erratic.  Others judge you by your actions.  Because in reality, your thoughts could be all over the place.  You could think whatever you wanted, the “craziest” thoughts, thoughts inexplicable, indescribable, or even scary but if these thoughts didn’t effect your actions nobody would know.  This sentiment is echoed later in the film when Susanna has a conversation with a male friend.  He explains that he knew someone who saw purple people and was institutionalized.

Random guy: Time went by and he told them he didn’t see purple people no more.
Susanna: He got better.
Random guy: No, he still sees them.

The “insane” purple people seeing guy learned to not let his thoughts (his view of reality which conflicted with society’s) effect his actions any longer and so the institution deemed him insane.  Sanity and insanity, after all, are relative terms.  They are dependent on one another for their existence, and throughout the film Susanna struggles with figuring out what insanity is, and if she is insane.  This may be why she was classified “borderline”.  She was able to choose what actions to take, she was on the border and could choose which path to go down.

And she is not the only one.  We are all on the border every day.  Maybe not between sanity and insanity, but definitely between right and wrong, between action and inaction.  We have to choose to get out of bed, we have to choose to do the right thing, we have to choose to step up.

Susanna learns this though tragedy.  She and Lisa, self-proclaimed sociopath and “lifer” (played by Angelina Jolie), have escaped the mental institution and visit a released girl, Daisy, (played by Brittany Murphy).  Lisa gets a rise out of Daisy by playing on her insecurities and saying some pretty awful things, while Susanna just lies there with a pillow over her head, letting it happen.  That night Daisy hangs herself, and in the morning Susanna finds her.  She breaks down and voluntarily returns to the Institution.  When Nurse Valerie (played by Whoopi Goldberg) comes in to comfort her, Susanna asserts “I couldn’t stand up to her.  A decent person would’ve done something, shut her up, gone upstairs, talked to Daisy.”  It is this turning point that allows Susanna to take control of her life and her choices.

Bahá’u’lláh counsels us to “Let deeds not words be your adorning.” It is important to take action, and to have our deeds match our words, to have our actions match what we say we value, which Susanna learned, or else we can be prisoners of ourselves.  Which brings me to my second theme, the nature of imprisonment.  Susanna entered the institution voluntarily but was not allowed to leave when she wanted to.  She acts out because of this, misbehaving, not owning up to the fact that it was her choices- her behaviors, her level of engagement in therapy, her (in)ability to control her moods without medication – that were keeping her in that physical prison.

Later on, when she looks at Lisa, someone who has been institutionalized for 8 years, and most likely will spend her life breaking out and returning to the place, she realizes that even outside Susanna is imprisoned by herself, and has limited herself to be this destructive, seemingly uncaring person.  And I think this is something we all can learn from.  We all imprison ourselves through our expectations of ourselves.  If we think we can’t do something it will be a lot harder to do that thing.  And I am not talking about the grand metaphors, like climbing Mt. Everest or becoming President.  I mean the everyday things, like if we don’t think we can forgive something, than we take away our choice to be able to.   We imprison ourselves to hold onto painful grudges.  Or if we do not think we can be on time, “It’s just my nature to be tardy”, then it will be a lot harder to take actions to correct that behavior.

I think it takes a lot of insight to realize that we are our greatest prisons.  That an institution can’t have the power, even if we are in it, that we have over ourselves. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who was imprisoned by the Ottomans for most of his life, said that “Unless one accepts dire vicissitudes, he will not attain. To me prison is freedom, troubles rest me, death is life, and to be despised is honour. Therefore, I was happy all that time in prison. When one is released from the prison of self, that is indeed release, for that is the greater prison. When this release takes place, then one cannot be outwardly imprisoned. When they put my feet in stocks, I would say to the guard, `You cannot imprison me, for here I have light and air and bread and water. There will come a time when my body will be in the ground, and I shall have neither light nor air nor food nor water, but even then I shall not be imprisoned.’ The afflictions which come to humanity sometimes tend to centre the consciousness upon the limitations, and this is a veritable prison. Release comes by making of the will a Door through which the confirmations of the Spirit come.”

And Bahá’u’lláh challenges us to “Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance, for it will come to thee no more.”

Your thoughts?