Table of Contents
2 A Borderline Topography
3 Parallel Universes
3.1 World Inside vs. World Outside
3.2 Refuge vs. Prison
3.3 Adolescence vs. Madness
3.3.1 Suicide Attempt vs. Cry for Help
3.4 World of the Insane vs. World of the Sane
3.5 Conformity vs. Rebellion
4 What’s Normal?
4.1 The Role of Women in the 1960s: Establishment and Parental Expectations
4.2 Finding One’s Way
6 Works Cited
In her autobiographical novel Girl, Interrupted Susanna Kaysen deals with the probably most difficult and influential period in her life. At the end of the 1960s, when she was eighteen, she was committed to a mental institution after a half-hearted suicide attempt and diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. She spent two years at McLean, where also famous persons like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell and Ray Charles have been in treatment.
During her stay, she gets to know many people and their stories, like Lisa, the sociopath, who “kept [their] spirits up” (Kaysen 20), Polly, who set herself on fire and Daisy, who committed suicide because she could not stand living in the world outside.
What they all share is their knowledge about the so-called “Parallel Universe”, which is “invisible from this side, once you are in it you can easily see the world you came from“ (Kaysen 6). Their major problem is that they are in some way different from other people in the world they come from, most of them just have not found their way yet – and the 1960s were a troublesome time. “The wild ones went to Woodstock, the unlucky ones went to war, but if you didn’t know where you were going, they sent you to [McLean]” (Girl, Interrupted movie trailer). In Susanna’s case, this happens subsequent to a twenty minute interview with a doctor she has never seen before.
This paper will be trying to point out the difficulties with which people, especially women, were confronted in the 1960s, when they were different in some way and how this could result in being caught in a kind of parallel universe or, even worse, being stuck in between two worlds and not knowing were they belong.
2 A Borderline Topography
Identifying the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) has always been controversial, as there are many symptoms that overlap with other personality disorders. The term has been reworked over and over again (Millon 480).
According to DSM-IV, at least five of the following criteria indicate a BPD:
- frantic effort to avoid real or imagined abandonment
- a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation
- identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self
- impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)
- recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior
- affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and rarely more than a few days)
- chronic feelings of emptiness
- inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights)
- transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms
(qtd. in Millon 479)
Despite its serious symptoms, “the borderline personality can . . . be viewed as existing on a continuum with normality” (Millon 481). There is a variety called “mercurial style”, which is explained as “living a roller coaster life” (qtd. in Millon 481). The persons concerned deal with experiences rather emotionally, they are spontaneous and creative, dependent on the affection of others; they do not suffer from chronic feelings of emptiness but follow activities that help them make life enjoyable, and although they are emotional and impulsive, they can see the consequences of their mood. (Millon 481/82) The definition of this style again shows how difficult it is to draw a distinct line (“border”) between normality and abnormality.
“Borderlines are notoriously difficult patients” (Millon 511), which also makes therapy problematical. Often the patient begins to take against the therapist and diminishes him, and therefore quits therapy. “Those who do continue may require repeated hospitalization as indicated by the strength of the impulse for self-mutilation or suicide.” (Millon 512)
One main aim of the therapy is to “bring calm to the borderline’s chaotic relationships.” (Millon 513) Also, the therapist has to be careful not to get into a vicious circle which can result from not keeping enough distance to the patient (e.g., allowing him to call at any time or to arrange extra meetings). If there is not enough distance between them, the therapist can easily fall prey to the patient’s manipulation attempts (Millon 513).