In the Students’ Union Auditorium the Film Unit society came together with Medical Humanities Sheffield in a special collaboration to help promote awareness of mental illness in Sheffield with a screening of Girl, Interrupted. (1999) The Medical Humanities Sheffield is a research group made up of academics and students attempting to put the: ‘Humanity back into medicine.’
The evening was opened with an introduction from SAWN’s very own Professor Brendan Stone on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted. Brendan opened his talk with the idea that as human beings we naturally inhabit stories to help us find our identity. In essence, we are storytelling creatures. However, individuals with long-term mental health problems may not get to tell their stories in the same way. Brendan highlighted in his talk that for many people who suffer from diagnosed mental health conditions there is a stigma attached to their narratives. Individuals become defined by their clinical labels and attempt to resist these toxic, ill-fitting narrative structures to reclaim the terminology of their own stories. Brendan then revealed that although Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted has been a highly influential text in his own academic career he had never seen the film version of the memoir, and that this screening would be his first viewing.
The talk then went on to reflect that the memoir itself is an act of resistance. In Girl, Interrupted Kaysen is counter balancing the diagnosis of her psychiatric story. The memoir is effectively split into two voices: The retrospective Kaysen and the clinical medical voice of her case notes. Kaysen attempts to resist the definition that fixes her as a dysfunctional, difficult personality. Essentially, Kaysen’s story is a redemptive one, which shows an individual struggle to establish personhood in the midst of a medical narrative landscape that is full of medical jargon and sweeping definitions. As a result, Kaysen’s memoir is highly impressionistic in its style and is in stark contrast to the formal, objective structures of her then clinical surroundings. Brendan explains that language of science and medicine cannot describe what it feels like to be human. Nor can scientific language express how it really feels to experience mental health problems. In conclusion, he suggests that by turning to the Arts a person might reestablish some form of control of their own story. In using metaphor, impression and allusion, individuals are able to grasp their own narratives and discover a way to resolve the boundaries between their history of mental illness and the anticipation for a future that is more comfortable and reads as a story without stigma and silencing.
The film itself is widely considered to be a cult classic. With a star-studded cast including a very young Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, director James Mangold manages to create a snapshot of the tumultuous lives of Susanna and Lisa along with the often heartwarming relationships between the institutionalised women, without straying into the realms of melodrama or sentimentality. What particularly stood out to me in merit of the film was the way in which all the women are represented as highly individual. Although some of them have similar diagnoses the way in which they play out in the individual characters is entirely unique. Brittany Murphy as Daisy in particular stood out to me. Even to the other women on the ward she is considered strange and peculiar in how she keeps half-eaten chicken carcasses under her bed. Daisy is constantly striving towards the appearance of normality, but her condition is never far away, hiding like some kind of monster, quite literally under her bed. She can’t rid herself of her illness, but in some way she can attempt to control it by meticulously wrapping up her anxiety in tin foil and placing out of view.
The film very successfully displays how stifling 1960s society was for people with mental health problems. Winona Ryder’s character is consistently defined by what she is not, yet by the end of the film she is shown to be an individual riddled with fears, hopes, dreams and motivations that are not dissimilar to the viewers. What I believe the film really accomplishes is bringing down some of the barriers between people who are classified as being ‘mentally ill’ and those who are not. The film shows that definitions of mental health problems are not as clear-cut as the clinical language that surrounds them. One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in any given year (statistic from time-to-change.org.) yet, Girl, Interrupted shows that whatever your diagnosis, for each person suffering with mental health problems, their story will be different to anybody else’s. Although Kaysen is retelling her story from 1960s America, there is still a lot that is relevant to us in 2015 in the United Kingdom. For this reason mental health awareness is still a vitally important endeavor, and the screening of Girl, Interrupted reminded me that we all still have so many more stories to tell.
By Rachael Mobbs