Susanna Kaysen saw her troubled past re-created by Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted
By Sarah Saffian
Us, February 2000
WHEN WINONA RYDER FINALLY MET Susanna Kaysen, the writer she would be playing in Girl, Interrupted, the movie star was very nearly speechless. “She said. ‘lt’s you … I’m you … you’re me… I’m me!'” recalls Kaysen, who wrote the best-selling 1993 memoir on which the film is based. Like the movie, the book begins in 1967 when Kaysen, then 18, was diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder after she swallowed 50 aspirin. In the wake of this suicide attempt, Kaysen was whisked off to McLean Hospital, near Cambridge, Mass., where she spent two years in a ward for teenage girls. “Of course, I was sad and puzzled,” Kaysen writes. “I was 18, it was spring, and I was behind bars.”
But Kaysen wasn’t sure if she was insane or simply suffering from a bad case of late-teen angst, symptoms of which include a fragile self image, moodiness and uncertainty about the future. All in all, it’s a situation to which Ryder could relate. Six years ago, when the actress first read Kaysen’s book, she was reminded of a similar breakdown in her own late teens: After having chronic anxiety attacks, depression and insomnia, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital for a week and began working with a therapist. The experience, though troubling, eventually helped Ryder bring depth and resonance to the character of Susanna.
“Winona’s own memory of what it’s like to feel alienation added gravity and a sense of purpose to her work in the film,” says Girl’s screenwriter-director James Mangold, 36. “Significant aspects of her personality–her sensitivity, the way she is so affected by things–fused well with aspects of Susanna’s. The movie is about who Winona is as much as it’s about who Susanna is.”
Still, Kaysen, now 51, was initially skeptical about the movie. When producer Douglas Wick approached the writer about buying the film rights to her memoir, “I thought he was crazy,” says Kaysen. “It’s not a narrative. It’s rather static and intellectual, and it has no obvious story line. How could they make a movie from this? I figured they would have to do radical things to it; otherwise, it’s just a bunch of girls sitting on the floor smoking cigarettes.”
Indeed, in adapting the book for the screen, Mangold decided to craft a cohesive, chronological narrative and to intensify the relationships between the characters. Most crucially, he fleshed out Susanna’s friendship with Lisa, a charismatic sociopath (played by Angelina Jolie) who serves as a symbol of rebellion and escape from the cares of the adult world. “In facing adulthood, Susanna can go two ways,” Mangold explains. “One is the way of the pod people in her parents world, marching off to war or college or family life; the other is Lisa’s way of seductive freedom.” Kaysen didn’t mind the changes. “If someone had told me what to do in my book, I would’ve killed thern,” she says. “But the movie is another endeavor, a variation on a theme. They can’t change what I wrote or my experiences in my life.”
Those experiences have been, by and large, internal. Kaysen has lived a fairly sedentary existence, as perhaps befits a writer. She has lived in Cambridge most of her life, including a brief stay on a commune. Although her father, Carl Kaysen, was an Ivy League economics professor, Kaysen resolutely avoided college, drifting instead from job to job, making a living as a copy editor and writing all the time. In 1987, she published her first novel, Asa, As I Knew Him, about a woman imagining her old flame’s youth, and followed it up with 1990’s Far AfieId, about an anthropologist doing research in the North Atlantic’s Faroe Islands. According to Kaysen the genesis of her memoir actually stemmed from her work on the latter novel: “There were paralels between being dropped into a foreign country and being dropped into the loony bin,” she says. These days, Kaysen still lives in Cambridge and suffers from depression, but says she has made peace with her demons, periodically seeing a psychologist, whom she calls her “tuneup woman.” She has also made peace with being alone. Although she was briefly married in her 20s, she has been single for most of her life. “I’ve been looking for a date for 10 years,” she admits, a fact that success hasn’t changed. “Fame, she says, “doesn’t bring a woman in America a date.”
Blown away!! The 1st two words I could think of to best describe my take on this riveting documentary about the life and suicide of Ruth Litoff told through the eyes of her sister Hope. The documentary was released in 2017 and is currently on HBO OnDemand. I had this on my watchlist for about a month and just decided to check it out last night. I was not prepared for the depth, tragedy, artistic expression and passion of Ruth’s life. Now I’m not really an “art” person. But, check these out for yourself:
Original art of Ruth Litoff via Goggle Images.
Nice, right??!! Ruth was creative and artistic beyond description. There are tons of original pieces on Google and more information about her life and legacy. I did not want to start with the details of her suicide because she was much more than mentally ill. Her family and friends speak of her as complex, beautiful, secure within herself and much more. Although the documentary had a lot of nudity, it really captured the essence of who Ruth was. One of my favorite movies, Gia, about the life and death of Gia Carengi, one of the 1st American supermodels who contracted AIDS in the 80s, is very similar.
Ruth & Hope in happier times.
They should have been twins, right?? Adorable!!
Ruth literally wrote every detail, kept every medication, every picture, medical document in tons of storage containers in an effort to share her creativity and inner demons with her sister Hope. In certain scenes of the documentary Hope became obsessed with Ruth and it began to really affect her life and family in negative ways. To the point that Hope started drinking to cope with the pain and guilt of losing her sister.
Her “favorite person”… “Her everything.”
Ruth kept pills from every prescription she ever had. Wow!!
Hope putting the pieces together…
I was definitely in research mode after watching this!! There a lot of similarities between bipolar and BPD (bipolar personality disorder.) You may also want to check out Girl, Interrupted, the autobiography of Susanna Kaisen. I know you remember the movie with Winona Ryder, Brittany Murphy and Angelina Jolie. Borderline people are toxic together. I would say Ruth was codependent and Hope was controlling. But, that’s just my opinion.
This blog entry was created to raise awareness of mental illness and its many dimensions. Let’s continue to share our stories with truth and transparency.
Braids, Locks & Product Reviews
Because We all need to find a way to live with ourselves
Living with Bipolar Disorder & Mental Illness
Faithful Bipolar One
MentalBooks. MentalMovies. MentalLife.
A Quiet and Sometimes Very Loud Struggle
Thoughts on life, love, marriage and yes...sex
Random Glimpses of My Inspiration
Truths liberate the Soul
A JOURNEY INTO THE MIND OF A LEO.....