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5 Books like Girl, Interrupted: The Soul Beyond The Mind

Mandy Baldwin itcherIt can’t be pure coincidence that the books listed here are set during periods when freedom of individual expression was being most passionately defended. Books like Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of her time in a psychiatric hospital in 1967, such as ‘The Bell Jar’, ‘Catch-22’ or ‘The Stepford Wives’, explore the nature of norms in society. ~ Mandy Baldwin

Secure In Sanity

It’s a little known fact that liberal Sweden carried out more Lobotomies per head (so to speak) than any other nation on Earth. Confinement, mind manipulation, drugs, surgery and fear: this is not our image of the Woodstock Generation.

But the free-loving Sixties, described by the Baby Boomers of today, had another side: those in power learned their trade in the 1940s, an era of ‘perverted science’ and social control.

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Books Similar to ‘Girl, Interrupted’…

‘The Bell Jar’ (Sylvia Plath, 1963)

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Set in the 1950s, Sylvia Plath’s only novel fictionalises her own descent into depression which saw her committed in the same hospital as Susanna Kaysen.

Achieving her life’s ambition to be a writer, a young woman realises that independence is a facade. She is trapped in a series of damaging relationships and her career is seen as a stepping stone to domesticity: she can only be whore or haus-frau.

A brilliant description of the slide into paralysing despair, it has moments of sheer poetry – as to be expected from a woman most famous for verse.

Similarity Match: 85%
The same hospital, the same situation.. but Kaysen’s memoir is stark observation, whereas Plath’s novel is lyrical prose.

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‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ (Ken Kesey, 1962)

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A novel about imprisonment of every sort, this shows a convicted petty criminal choosing life in an institution as the soft option. But he finds that his life is now ordered as if in a fascist regime – with minute attention paid to control and no concern for suffering.  

As he carries out petty rebellions which would lead to minor penalties in jail, he learns that to disagree with those who can dictate his own horrific destruction through Lobotomy.

Funny, devastating, enraging, and heart-breaking, ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ epitomises an age when freedom was dangerously assumed to be a right. 

Similarity Match: 80%
Another sane person confined and branded for rebellion – but Kaysen’s message is intensely personal, compared to Keysey’s statement on a decade.

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‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892)

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A short story now widely seen as one of the most important feminist statements ever made.

Based on the author’s own experiences, and told through diary entries, it documents a woman’s depression after the birth of her child, when her doctor decreed – as was usual at that time – that what she needed was complete lack of any activity, company or stimulation, physical or mental.

Parted from her child, she is confined to a small set of rooms with barred windows, a dull space in which the only colour and pattern was the vibrant yellow wall-paper.

The woman descends into complete insanity as her bright mind brings the wall-paper to nightmarish life, which interacts with her.

Still in print, available for sale, this is a short but entirely devastating expose of the abuse of power by ignorance – and the destruction of a creative mind.

Similarity Match: 75%
The age (of the victim and her era) strongly affect her treatment and it’s outcome – but the powerlessness of a woman judged incompetent is timeless.

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If You Like ‘Girl, Interrupted’, You Will Like…

The following books show different ways in which the minds of both sexes can be – literally – blown away.

‘Catch-22’ (Joseph Heller, 1961)

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Probably the most funny, subversive, famous satire in history, the phrase “Catch 22” is now the way to describe an no-win situation.

Simplified synopsis: Toward the end of WW2, Pilot Yossarian flies an American bomber. While under fire, he gets increasingly enraged that thousands of people he has never met want to kill him. Therefore, he hates those people.

On the other hand, he realises that he is also aiming to kill thousands of people he has never met, therefore, they hate him.

Unable to deal with the mental conflicts any more, he applies for non-combatant status on grounds of insanity.  His plea is refused on grounds of Clause-22: put simply, he must be sane, because only the sane would want to end their current situation.

I am going to come right out and say it – reading ‘Catch-22’ is a rite of passage.  You would only not do it if you were forever doomed to be (a) scarily humourless or (b) scarily conformist.

This is crazy authority in (at the time) an all male arena, so Kaysen’s messed up teenage girl wouldn’t relate to this – but the concept of life and death decisions on sanity are shared with ‘Girl, Interrupted’.

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‘The Stepford Wives’ (Ira Levin, 1972)

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The other side of ‘liberation’. Beautiful female conformity – or death.

In Stepford, a heavenly corner of Connecticut, all the men are adored and all the women are dutiful. But for one newly arrived, not-so perfect wife, something nasty seems to be happening, centring on the Men’s Association.

Women here, she realises, soon fit into the smiling groups of shiny-skinned domestic Goddesses – even those she thought were fellow individualists. They aren’t so much embraced as consumed. And then, her husband joins the Men’s Association, too…

This is the book that made women look for places to burn their bra. Read it and be grateful your mother’s generation were rebels.

The same closed community with no escape, the same norms enforced. Different in that this was destruction dressed as domesticity.

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Rebelling Against Reality

“I can leave.  I signed myself in,” says Susanna.

“You signed yourself into our care. We decide if you leave,”  her psychiatrist replies.

And there is the ultimate fear – of ownership by strangers until mind and soul conform.

They say she must be normal before she goes.

But who sets the norms?

Do you find definitions of ‘disturbed’ disturbing?

Know any book like ‘Girl, Interrupted’ (there’s also a great movie adaption – find similar films here)?

Please share your thoughts with us.

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