This Mindfunda is about the film Girl Interrupted, directed by James Mangold in 1999. The film is based on the life of author Susanna Kaysen, who was not happy at all with the film. She felt that the scene in which Susanna and Lisa escape, a scene that never happened in real life, violated the story.
Girl Interrupted Opening Scene
The film opens showing a cleaned, multi-paned window. The window is divided in squares, the way society labels mental abilities. The Title: Girl Interrupted is inspired by a painting of the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. It is called “Girl Interrupted at her Music”. On this painting you can see a window, that is considered typical for Vermeer. The design of the window is a complex pattern of interlocking squares.
Vermeer expert Arthur Wheelock says:“Most Dutch genre painters included scenes with specific actions. However, Vermeer’s attempts at depicting movement or activities such as laughing and drinking resulted in artificial poses. In this painting, Vermeer arrived at the solution for this problem: the momentary interruption. This device allowed him to suggest movement without the need for specific gestures or facial expressions. She, rather than concentrating on the music they hold, looks out at the viewer”. (quoted from the site vermeer0708.wordpress.com).
And that is exactly the perspective of this film. The main character Susanna (played by Winona Rider) tells her story from the third person’s perspective. She is an objective outsider looking back at her time in a mental hospital. This gives us, the viewers the challenge to determine if this story is a representation of what happened in the mental hospital, or if it is a representation about the mental battle between her inner sub-personalities.
In the opening scene we are introduced to a holy trinity. Susanna and Lisa are holding each other. crying and Polly is standing against a wall crying. Susanna plays the supporting role of the mother goddess, Lisa plays the role of the dark psychotic goddess and Polly is the inner child, who mutilated herself while she was young so she never needs to grow up and face the coldness of this world.
The female perspective is the subject of this film, or more precise the range of female archetypical conduct to survive society.
Two broken lamps are on the floor. The film is about our view, our vision on reality. Why are there two broken lamps and not one? Because two visions will be compared throughout the film. The “sane” vision and the “mad” vision. They will merge, they will encircle, they will hopefully inspire you to research your own definitions of mental sanity.
Now that we have had a flash of the things to come in the opening scene, we are taken back into the story. The storyline flashes between the first perspective of Susanna and the third perspective of us as viewers. The camera zooms in at Susanna, it become clear that she is the main character of the film. She says:
“Have you ever confused a dream with life? May be I am crazy, maybe I am just a girl interrupted”
This is an introduction to the main theme of this movie. The movie contrasts the square way of labeling in society to the gliding scales of mental and sexual reality. Square models can’t contain circular, gliding shaped reality, so either the perception of reality has to break, or the personality has to be broken. Which is it going to be?
Girl interrupted: The Mental Institution
We see in a flashback that Susanna has had an affair with her father’s friend/business partner. We see how she has been in hospital after taking an overdose of aspirin with vodka. She tells the psychiatrist that she has no bones. This remark will get relevance later in the film.
The retired psychiatrist , a friend of her father. He has agreed with her parents that she will be admitted to a mental institution “To get some rest. You hurt everyone around you”. He puts her into a cab, were her suitcase is already in, packed and waiting. She has been betrayed by her parents.
There is a car waiting at the corner, with a woman inside. Two roads to choose from.
In the cab the radio plays the song “Downtown” from Petula Clark. A song about feeling stuck and looking for a way out to cheer you up and celebrate life.
Girl interrupted: The Animus
Valerie (played by Whoopie Goldberg) , the nurse is standing outside to welcome her. Susanna has to sign a consent form to be taken into the mental institution. “I don’t want to end up like my mother!” She says. She is told that she can talk about that with her therapist.
Valerie gives her a tour of the place, and again we get a look at the same Vermeer windows. Polly, the girl who was crying in the opening scene, is introduced now. She is in the art room on her own and she is not allowed there. Valerie warns another nurse. This informs us that Polly is not to be trusted to take care of herself. She should be watched at all times, like a kid.
Valerie introduces Susanna to her room mate Georgina (land worker). She has a bed fool of books, and Susanna wants to be a writer. Georgina hold up an important clue for understanding this story. A book called written by Frank Baum.
Valerie introduces Susanna to her room mate Georgina (land worker). She has a bed fool of books, and Susanna wants to be a writer. Georgina hold up an important clue for understanding this story. A book called written by Frank Baum.
Remember how Susanna told her therapist that she had no bones in her hand? The Crooked Magician in the story of this book (that is not about Dorothy, says Georgina), a man who indulges in magical arts contrary to law, has broken every bone in his body.
Susanna’s suicide attempt might have been related to the fact that her inner animus, as represented by her father, is not able to perform its magical anymore. She has tried to replace him by having sex with his friend, but this relationship had no bones.
This book has the boy Ojo as main character. Much like Susanna’s animus, Ojo is starving. He needs food. He needs to learn ways to manifests his talents in this world. He goes to his neighbors, the Crooked Magician and his wife Margolotte.
So here we symbolically see that Susanna rejects her mother and tries to identify with her father, which leaves her feeling like she has no bones and in a mental hospital.
Girl Interrupted: the Powder of Life
Her mother, as Margalotte, tries to make her a “patchwork girl” a servant that does tasks in order for Margalotte to sit back, relax and enjoy life.
“The Patchwork Girl of Oz” is about the search for the Powder of Life. As Margolotte brings the Patchwork Girl alive she begins to dance and kicks the powder of life across the room. The patchwork girl is the Girl interrupted in her Music. Because of the wild dancing the Liquid of Petrification is spilled on the Crooked Magician and on Margolotte. They are turned into marble statues. Playing by the rules, betraying your authentic self, becoming a boring predictable marble statue like your mother. It are all the fears and troubles that the obstinate Susanna faces when she explores the parallel universe of madness.
Growing up is always a time when you feel your parents are nagging about rules you need to follow. Sometime you wonder if they like you. Your mother is not an appealing role model. A sexless woman who obliges the rules and wants you to do the same. What other options are there to let the world hear your inner music without spilling your elixir of life?
Girl Interrupted shows how Susanna chooses to live embracing her “sane” sub-personalities because that is better than being death. She has to face her own sexual affection for her father, her own subversion of her mother and she has to crown three new goddesses that will guide her future behavior.
Girl Interrupted: Lisa the Tempting One
Lisa, diagnosed as a sociopath, practically runs the mental hospital “South Bell”. This name reminds us of the film “Gone With the Wind” were Scarlett O’Hara played her own song, but lost the man she loved. The film here predicts an ending that incorporates a loss of a loved one. It will turn out to be the loss of a love part of the personality of Susanna.
Lisa is vibrant, daring, beautiful but has a cold heart. Lisa has got the keys to the tunnels downstairs, a clear symbol of the subconscious. “Don’t take your medicines” says Lisa to Susanna. Lisa and the other girls go down secretly in the tunnels in the night to bowl. They go into the office of Dr. Wick and search her office for their files. The first step to healing is taken: you must acknowledge the image you portray in the world. It hurts when you hear or read what others think of you. But it is a necessary step to become aware of your own personality. The difference between what you feel in the inside and what you portray on the outside. The first one of the two broken lights in the opening scene has been restored here.
In the next scene, the girls have to pretend to be a tree. The tree of life.
While they are doing that, Vermeer’s windows show Daisy, who is moving out. Daisy has an affair with her father. That is what Lisa strongly suggests. Her father has bought her an apartment and there she can live, while her father can visit her whenever he wants to. For most young girls this is an early fantasy, even if it is not a conscious one. It is a thing each girl growing up has to deal with. Susanna tried to deal with it while she seduced the friend of her father. That was not the way, but the situation will be resolved in a rather harsh way later on.
Girl Interrupted: Stay Where You Are?
Susanna her boyfriend comes to visit her and she wants to sexually please him in her room but the nurses constantly check in. They both go outside and he asks her to escape with him. He tells her he loves her and wants to go away with her. She refuses. She tells him she has got friends in South Bell.
This is a second step in building a healthy relationship with your animus. Embracing your inner sub personalities. This important step towards maturity and independence is rewarded by male nurse John who replaces one of the broken lights at night when she is sleeping. Because this way, she is able to draw in the morning. That morning he will not be there and he really likes her so he wants to help her express herself within the rules of the institution.
Polly has an anxiety attack and gets transported into isolation. Now there is a third step towards releasing the authentic self. Lisa and Susanna secretly go to isolation to make music for Polly. they dare to break the rules and express their tunes. But it is too soon… There is another thing Susanna needs to do. That is to discover her goddesses within. She is now going to replace the old trinity, the one we met in the opening scene with new ones…
Girl Interrupted: The Mother
Nurse Valerie steps in and says she is going to report Lisa and Susanna. She is taken to Dr. Wick. First Susanna discusses the ambiguity of sexual behavior that is appropriate for girls and how that is different for boys. Susanna still follows the strict square pattern of the Vermeer window and clashes up against it. Dr. Wick shows her the necessity to research her inner boundaries because they are the boundaries of her Kingdom:
Dr. Wick: “Quis hic locus?, quae regio?, quae mundi plaga? What world is this?… What kingdom?… What shores of what worlds? It’s a very big question you’re faced with, Susanna. The *choice* of your *life*. How much will you indulge in your flaws? What are your flaws? Are they flaws?… If you embrace them, will you commit yourself to hospital?… for life? Big questions, big decisions! Not surprising you profess carelessness about them”. (quoted from lmbd.com)
In the next scene Susanna is in front of Vermeer’s window again. Looking outside. She now takes the pills that the hospital provides. She is battling her inner psychopath Lisa. In the next scene she is ready for the second goddess: Valerie. Valerie comes inside her room, takes her out of bed and shows her into an ice-cold bath. Valerie says (quoted from lmbd.com):
Valerie: You know, I can take a lot of crazy shit from a lot of crazy people. But you – you are not crazy.
Susanna: Oh yeah? Then what’s wrong with me? What the fuck is going on inside my head? Tell me, Dr. Val, what’s your diag-nonsense?
Valerie: [hovering over Susanna] You are a lazy, self-indulgent, little girl, who is making herself crazy.
Susanna: Is that your… *professional* opinion? Is that what you’ve learned in your advanced studies at night school for Negro welfare mothers? I mean, Melvin doesn’t have a clue, Wick is a *psycho* and you… you *pretend* to be a doctor. You review the charts and dole out meds. But “you’s ain’t no doctor, Miss Valerie. You’s just a little black nursemaid”.
Valerie: And you’re just throwing it away.
Now you have two mother figures who are much more powerful than the biological mother. It is time to talk about the Patchwork Girl of Oz theme that reoccurs in the movie several times. But there are still two other loose ends that need to be resolved…
Girl Interrupted Solution?
The first one is the father issue. Susanna needs to detach from her father. She does so by escaping South Bell with her psychotic counterpart Lisa. They are going to Daisy who has consummated the sexual tension between father and daughter and who has profited from it. This escape from the world is too dangerous for a promiscuous girl like Susanna. So she has to visit her inner Daisy. Lisa tells Daisy that she likes the intercourse with her father. Lisa is very brutal and confronting. Lisa and Susanna wake up to an inner song. “The end of the world” by Skeeter Davis, a big hit in the 60s. It is about how the world goes on even if your heart is broken. Daisy has put this song on repeat, while committing suicide. It is the end of the world when a girl detaches from her father and goes into the world to discover her own sexual identity.
The second one is sexuality. Just like sanity, sexuality is portrayed as a gliding scale in this film. There are moments of sexual tension between Susanna and Lisa. Two opposites, both wild, both attractive and both in need for one another. Lisa, the strong one, needs the feeling of compassion that Susanna displays when Daisy kills herself. Susanna needs the guts of Lisa because like her mother Susanna is more attuned to comply. In the final confrontation between Lisa and Susanna, the last girl will proof to be the stronger one.
Daisy has left a cat, Ruby and Susanna takes it with her to South Bell. It is the same cat we saw in the opening scene. Ruby is a clear reference to the cat of Patchwork girl. The cat in Patchwork girl had a ruby heart. The cat is made of glass, so you can see though it as if it were a Vermeer window… The cat is an ultimate symbol of female sexuality. It is free, it is majestic and it has a mind of its own. In South Bell, we see Georgina watch “The Wizard of Oz. We see Lisa striped to a bed. Susanna approaches the bed and puts some pink nail polish on her nails: the brand is called sunspin. Even though Susanna has constraint the power of Lisa she still gets to shine and enjoy her beauty.
Susanna is free to go home now and leaves Ruby with her friends.
Girl Interrupted: Personal Note
In my opinion the film has shown us how reality, the world will always be (the son “the end of the world clearly indicates this). We have to shape up our personalities. get to know them. Take away power from destructiveness within us, no matter how attractive that destructiveness might be. When Susanna tells Lisa that her eyes are death, Lisa shivers because for the first time she has met her match. Someone who relentlessly tells the truth. The film has two break trough moments were people speak the truth: the one between Lisa and Susanna and the one between Valerie and Susanna. Both of these moments, symbolized by the two broken lamps in the opening scene are very powerful.
The Patchwork Girl of Oz
Susanna got hospitalized because she was trying to kill herself. The Patchwork girl of Oz is a book from 1914, and it features Dorothy and the Wizard even though they do not play a leading role. Here is a summery of the book from the site goodreads:
“Forced to venture out of the dark forest, Unc Nunkie and Ojo the Unlucky call on the Crooked Magician, who introduces them to his latest creation: a living girl made out of patchwork quilts and cotton stuffing. But when an accident leaves beloved Unc Nunkie a motionless statue, it is up to Ojo to save him. In his search for the magic ingredients that will restore his uncle to life, Ojo is joined by the Patchwork Girl and by the conceited Glass Cat, who boasts of her hard ruby heart, the resourceful Shaggy Man, and the lovable block-headed Woozy, whose tail hairs are just one of the things Ojo needs to rescue Une Nunkie.
As they travel to the Emerald City, home of the wise and powerful Ozma, they meet Dorothy, the kind and sensible girl from Kansas; the gallant Scarecrow; and, of course, Toto. But no one proves more loyal than the spirited Patchwork Girl, who, although she was brought to life as a servant, is determined to see the wide world for herself.”
With this hidden theme it is clear that Vermeer’s window represents a personal view on the world. Girl Interrupted tunes into these windows in the opening scene, when Susanna gets a tour of South Bell, when Daisy leaves South Bell, and when Susanna is in isolation after escaping with Lisa.
Is Susanna the Patchwork Girl from Oz? The Patchwork Girl was made to be only a servant that brings release to the mother figure, the wife of the Crooked Magician.
It seems like her biological mother wants her to perform the tricks that society demants: be present at parties, be nice, polite, well educated and married. For Susanna this means giving up freedom, giving up her authentic self.
What do we get to know about the mother of Susanna?
There is not much affection between Susanna and her mother (or her father) because when she needs to be hospitalized both of them are invisible. Turned into marble.
When Susanna checks into the mental hospital she clearly states that she does not want to be like her mother. In a conversation with therapist Melvin who talked to Susanna, her mother and her father about his diagnosis of Susanna as having a borderline personality, the mother is scared and asks if this is genetic. This implicates that the mother and the daughter both suffer from borderline personality disorder. Has the mother stitched patches of behavior together to keep herself warm in her pleasant but boring relationship? Has she fabricated a quilt for Susanna to live under and be warm, safe and bored to death?
Like the Glass Cat, she has got a brain and she is not afraid to use it. When she is diagnosed by her father’s friend the therapist Crumble he tells us that her father is a colleague. So she is the daughter of a therapist. She picks up the book that he wrote: “The Inner Workings of the Mind”.
This resonates deeply with Bungle, the Glass Cat in The Patchwork Girl who had pink brains. “It was quickly reasoned that it was Bungle’s pink brains that had made her so conceited, and the Wizard of Oz eventually replaced them with clear ones to make her more agreeable” (Wikepedia).
Is Susanna more like the Glass Cat? She leaves the cat, Ruby, a present from Daisy’s father to her daughter, behind. So she also sheds off her heartless behavior when it comes to sex. She is called promiscuous because she offered sex as a way of thanking men. Like she put a stamp on a letter, to make sure it would be sent.
So were in the film does Susanna find the antidote that brings her back to Iife again? In the book “The Patchwork Girl of Oz there are five components of the antidote:
- A six leaved clover found in the Emerald City.
According to the book it was forbidden in the Emerald City to pluck the clovers. But when the ladies follow Lisa downstairs to bowl, make fun and read their own files, I think that is the moment they pluck the forbidden clover and start healing. Everybody hurts when they read an interpretation about their own character. But it can be helming to acknowledge what your behavior invokes in other people. We hate the fact that we are labeled, but we label other people too. It is convenient. You have to acknowledge it and digest it. And when you feel the inner need, adjust the way you act. And you can only get that healing when you break some rules.
- Three hairs from the tip of Woozy’s tail.
Woozy is a dog with square legs. Square like the windows of the film. Three is a holy number and dog in reverse is god. Susanna restores her belief in herself when she tells her boyfriend she does not want to run away with him. It is the first time in her life that she does not let a man safe her. It is the first time in her life that she chooses the company of women over men. When she flees the mental hospital with Lisa, she prefers the company of a woman friend over that of a man again. And she rejects the seduction attempts of a man in the bar when she has ran away with Lisa, even though he offers her acceptance and understanding. He asks her if she sees purple men. She denies and he tells her that his friend saw purple man. She asks him how his friend is doing now. He tells her that he still sees purple men but tells nobody about it anymore.
- A gill of water from a dark well.
“The well must be naturally dark, and the water must never have seen the light of day, for otherwise the magic charm might not work at all.” (the Patchwork Girl of Oz) I think that Susanna reaches deep into a dark inner well of emotions by writing in her diary. It is a perfect exercise to become a writer (one of her biggest dreams) and it helps her to structure her emotions and get a clearer view of who she is. She has looked up to Lisa, who is in every inch of her body the opposite of her mother. Lisa has become a new mother for her, one of the triple goddesses. The second goddess being Polly, the goddess that symbolizes the inner child of Susanna. The child that never grows up, so people will eternity love her and take care of her. Lisa betrays Susanna by steeling her diary, her structure, an dreading it aloud. Crossing the line of confidentiality in such a destructive manner enables Susanne to break the inner spell between her and her shadow side.
“Lisa: You know, there’s too many buttons in the world. There’s too many buttons and they’re just – There’s way too many just begging to be pressed, they’re just begging to be pressed, you know? They’re just – they’re just begging to be pressed, and it makes me wonder, it really makes me fucking wonder, why doesn’t anyone ever press mine? Why am I so neglected? Why doesn’t anyone reach in and rip out the truth and tell me that I’m a fucking whore, or that my parents wish I were dead?
Susanna: Because you’re dead already, Lisa! No one cares if you die, Lisa, because your dead already. Your heart is cold. That’s why you keep coming back here. You’re not free. You need this place, you need it to feel alive. It’s pathetic.
[Lisa falls down to her knees and screams]
Susanna: I’ve wasted a year of my life. Maybe everybody out there is a liar. And maybe the whole world is “stupid” and “ignorant”. But I’d rather be in it. I’d rather be fucking in it, then down here with you”.
Here you can see how she faces her inner wild side and chooses to make herself fit into the squares of the Vermeer window.
4. A drop of oil from a live man’s body.
In the film John, a male nurse, replaces the light in the room of Susanna. That way she is able to draw in the morning. He also is involved in a nightly encounter were both Lisa and Susanna play music for Polly who is in isolation. John tells Susanna and Lisa to stop, because he is going to get fired. But Susanna starts kissing him. A kiss of life that instigates the formulation of a new animus figure. A supportive animus figure.
5. The left wing of a yellow butterfly.
When Lisa and Susanna escape the mental institution they visit Daisy. Daisy lives in an apartment and is addicted to valium. Lisa is so hard, cold and confronting to Daisy. Daisy kills herself in her bathroom. By giving her left wing, she enables Susanna to recapture her sexuality.
Susanna looks into the bathroom and takes out a bottle of aspirins. This connects her first suicide attempt to her feelings for her father. The aspiring box is empty, just like there is no valium. No aspirin for Susanna, no valium for Daisy Susanna has got to face the world without drugs or help.
Susanna takes Ruby back to the institution. After the final goodbye of her sexual oriented affection for her father, she leaves the cat in the mental institution were the cat will be nurtured and cared for in a proper way.
It is no surprise that when Susanna says goodbye to everyone, Georgina, the girl who introduced the Patchwork Girl of Oz theme into the film is watching the Wizard of Oz. You can here Dorothy say: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”
Here are open ended questions for you to think about. The questions are for your own pleasure, to help you unravel the mythology of the film more easy.
- In my interpretation I presume that all the characters in the film are a part of Susanna her personality. Another interpretation might be that Susanna is wrongly diagnosed. If you interpret the film in that way, how does it change your understanding of the story?
- There are two songs in the film: The End of The World and Downtown. Only one of them returns several times: “Downtown”. It is about how boring live can be and how you can always go downtown to find entertainment. Lisa has got the keys to the downtown section of the mental institution. Do you think it is a good thing that Lisa is left strapped to a bed in the institution? Do you think Susanna will survive without her wild side?
- Why is the father only a flat character in the film? (a flat character is a character that is not really shown in detail).
- What has happened between Susanna and her mother that makes Susanna resent her so much? Is it just the Electra Complex she is suffering from?
- Would you consider the male therapist Melvin a substitute for the father figure?
- In one of the flashback scenes you see Susanna sleeping during her graduation. The viewer does not know if this is an actual dream or a memory. The blurry line between dream and reality is introduced immediately in the opening line: “Have yo ever confused a dream with live? Has this ever happened to you? Write those memories down and try to deduce which sub personalities played their role in them.
- I have suggested that the parents of Susanna are turned into marble statues like in the Patchwork Girl of Oz, and that she has to find an antidote to bring them back to live. How do your thoughts about this film change if you interpret the film as being about Susanna looking for an antidote to bring herself back to live?
- When Susanna is about to be released from the mental hospital she tells the committee that has to judge if she is ready to face the world that her father arranged for her to work part time in a bookstore. What are your thoughts about that?
- There is a difference between the book and the film. Writer Susanna Kayser was not pleased with the film. In the book Susanna marries her boyfriend, in the film she turns him down and tries to find her own way (even though she needs her father to get her a job). What would be the reason for the scriptwriter James Mangold to make such an important change?
- Has this film changed your understanding of yourself or your life?