What is mental illness? What is mental health or normality? In the world of Girl, Interrupted, the answers aren’t as clear-cut as one might expect. For one thing, the film questions idea that mental illness even exists. Set to the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the whole world outside of Claymore seems to have gone crazy. As Susanna’s draft-dodging boyfriend says, “Everything’s changing, man. What the f--k do they know about being normal?” Repeatedly, Susanna questions the validity of her diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, and at the end of the movie, even after she has taken advantage of the services available at Claymore, she reiterates that she still does not know what her diagnosis or even mental illness mean. One possible interpretation of these plot points, however, is that Susanna, like the rest of the world, is simply different from the others at Claymore. At first glance, the film does seem to create a dichotomy between Susanna (‘sane’) and these others (‘crazy’). This is true not only at the start of the film, when she first enters a psychiatric unit of women behaving bizarrely, but is continuously reaffirmed. The head nurse (Whoopi Goldberg), for instance, explicitly differentiates Susanna from those who are actually “crazy.” In contrast to them, Susanna is “driving herself crazy.” Similarly, Susanna’s psychiatrist tells her that, for her, “sane” and crazy” are “courses of action” that she must choose between. Together, these scenes seem to imply that some people are just fundamentally mentally unstable, while others are not (but can choose to be).
To a large extent, these statements are undermined by the events of the film. Susanna is only in Claymore because of a suicide attempt, and she delivers a heartbreaking soliloquy about just how much emotional pain it took to get her to that point. It seems doubtful that she chose to be that way any more than anyone else would choose to experience debilitating suffering. Rather than a black-and-white crazy-or-sane world, what Girl, Interrupted portrays is a spectrum of mental health, with mental illness on one end and mental health on the other. Interpreted differently, Susanna’s psychiatrist’s words sound less like an affirmation that she is not like those others but that she rests somewhere in the middle of this continuum, with more opportunity for recovery but not necessarily as someone fundamentally unlike her peers. The film also attempts to provide hope even for those at the far end of this spectrum. Even Lisa (Angelina Jolie), the diagnosed “sociopath” who feels no sympathy or guilt after Daisy’s suicide, breaks down after being called “dead inside,” and the film implies that she may yet recover. “Crazy,” Susanna says in her final voiceover, “isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It’s you or me amplified.” In the world of Girl, Interrupted, those who are mentally ill and those who are perfectly sane are fundamentally the same.
Even as it provides a less than straightforward depiction of mental illness, Girl, Interrupted’s portrayal of the mental health care system is even more ambiguous. Not only is Susanna’s diagnosis consistently questioned, but so is the process of psychiatric care. Susanna’s first psychiatrist, for instance, sleeps during one of their therapy sessions; incompetence thus becomes more than just an implication, but a fact. Even the idea of recovery is brought into doubt. While Susanna does ‘get better’ and leave the hospital, the idea that one cannot recover from mental illness, that all that’s required to escape Claymore is to lie, is brought up time and again. When Daisy (Brittany Murphy) is released from Claymore, for instance, she is clearly not recovered or healthy, and she engages in numerous self-destructive behaviors before committing suicide. Overall, the film appears to criticize the mental health care system for its vagueness, inconsistencies, and incompetence, even as it acknowledges that psychiatric care can be beneficial for at least some people.
Girl, Interrupted is a film about mental illness and its treatment, created over a decade ago, set in the late 1960s. While both of these facts date it to some extent—particularly in the treatments portrayed—the movie remains relevant in its exploration of mental illness, mental health, and psychiatric care. Are “crazy” people really all that abnormal or different from the rest of the population? Is psychiatry legitimate? Can treatment work? The questions are still pertinent, and the film’s answers—that those with mentally illnesses aren’t that much different from anyone else, that the system can help but has fundamental problems—continue to resonate.