Monday, August 1, 1994

Q&A Susanna Kaysen: Fame, Pain, & Girl, Interrupted


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date Approximate.)



HB: So what’s worse, Susanna, fame or nuttiness?

SK: Fame.

HB: Why?

SK: There’s no outcome to fame except becoming unfamous, whereas nuttiness leads to insight. Not that you get better from nuttiness. I’m not any better than I was, but I understand myself better. I understand why I am the same way I always was.

Whereas fame, like beauty, is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Do you think a person who gets famous goes to the mirror and says, “Wow!, you are so famous!” No. A person who gets famous goes to the mirror and says, “Where did I get that zit?” Fame is for other people. It has nothing to do with your experience of yourself or the world.

HB: Not even a temporary sensation of wind in your sails, a feeling of power?

SK: What kind of power? I’ve been more alone and more depressed since I allegedly got famous. I’m always on the road and such friends that I have don’t know when I’m here. They think I’m busy doing something a famous person would be doing. They don’t call me up and I spend all my time eating rice by myself, and when I’m not eating rice by myself I’m going to some godforsaken part of the country giving readings. It makes no sense. I have no normal life. I don’t know. I don’t know what famous is.

HB: Well, I don’t either.

SK: I’m not even famous, believe me. I was famous for about a week. And I wasn’t here for that week. I was in Seattle having trouble with the time zones, rushing around up and down the West Coast. If I had been here when I was famous maybe some people I knew would have told me, yeah, it’s true, you really are famous. But being in some weird hotel in Seattle trying not to eat cilantro — you’re famous but you are not there to know it. Fame is something that happens outside you. It’s different from being rich.

HB: Or nutty.

SK: Oh, nuttiness. Nuttiness is a constant sort of bath, a kind of internal atmosphere. Once having been in a loony bin, you carry a little loony bin with you, for potential use. Certainly when anybody points out you’ve been in a loony bin your face appears behind bars. Two minutes before they didn’t know those bars were there.

HB: Maybe one reason Girl, Interrupted (1993) is so popular is that you have shown you can go down and come out. Fear of insanity, of a painful and permanent loss of self, is not uncommon.

SK: As is fear of loss of control. And permanent stigmatization, the loss of social esteem. You can have your mind gnawed upon by a very nasty rat for a number of years. The rat can get smaller, the pain can diminish. You’re left with the loss of social esteem. That’s the wound. I don’t worry, oh, I don’t know, I do still worry when I get unhappy, but not that I’m going to go back into the loony bin.

If I hadn’t written a book about this, if I had only talked about it for a year or two, I certainly wouldn’t be interviewed now. I’ve taken what is usually seen as a social deficit and have managed, with the cooperation of the media, to turn it into a public asset. But for most people having been in the loony bin is in no way an asset.

HB: Is your celebrity, such as it is, a trial?

SK: I wanted it very much, and of course anything you want and get you are bound to be irritated by and disappointed with and can’t want anymore because you have it. What I wanted was a thrilling, delicious F. Scott Fitzgeraldian or Virginia Wolfian type of social life with all kinds of fascinating people. Hah! I had that before! I didn’t know it.

An, old friend of mine, a writer, describes fame as a kind of currency, a draft to be drawn on the bank of public opinion. He says I haven’t informed myself yet of what is for sale in the fame store. I don’t know what they’ve got on the shelves, and I don’t know if I want any of it. He says my problem is I have a lot of currency and no idea what to buy.

HB: How about a leather jacket?

SK: That’s money. Money I don’t have problem with. Money is a thrill after not having had any.

HB: How have you been treated since becoming well known for a book about nuttiness? Your own nuttiness, after all. It’s not as if it was a novel.

SK: It’s not even as if it’s a book. I think most of the people who react to Girl, Interrupted are unaware that they are reacting to a book written by a writer. So the pleasure has a thorn in that it doesn’t feed my literary ego. The larger success, the one that has brought me whatever this fame is, has nothing to do with literature. The talk show host is not interested in how this book was written. The talk show host is interested in prying some information out of me about my family, or in finding out if I’m still crazy.

It’s silly but I can hardly carp. Because that is why it happened. I wrote two perfectly good novels which nobody paid any attention to because they weren’t about this kind of thing.

HB: What is it about this kind of thing?

SK: The country is in a feeding frenzy for disclosure. And the topic is an age-old obsession. Am I crazy? Am I going to catch it if you’re crazy? Is craziness contagious? Is it lurking in me? Is it coming? Did I do a crazy thing? Many people worry about this a lot. And then there’s another bunch of people who couldn’t possibly entertain the notion. They find craziness too frightening to think about in personal terms.

HB: The book goes right to the fear.

SK: Not only to the fear but to the experience. An awful lot of people have gone to visit someone who is in a mental hospital. Maybe they only went one time but they went.

Madness was, once, part of religion — visions, trances. What’s really screwy about this culture right now is tremendous emphasis on a kind of dopey self-psychologizing at the same time as absolutely no weight is given to the value of suffering, the value of pain, the kind of pain and suffering you have to go through for insight or change. Cheer up, shut up, take a pill, blame him, be a victim — these are the quick fixes for things that don’t have a fix.

Sometimes you just have to suffer. Somebody dies and you just have to be miserable for a couple of years. This is the way of the world. There’s no way around it. And we don’t tolerate that. We don’t have time for it. You have difficult family, it’s going to take a long while to straighten it out. Forget going on a talk show and yelling about it. So all right, if that’s the shape of your life, if you know it, accept it, you can wrestle with the peculiar realities you were given. There can be a lyricism. It can have integrity. But, no, no, everything has to be fixed and solved in this culture. No time, no real time for psychological life and its complexities.

HB: You don’t see psychology as about fixing?

SK: No, the opposite. It’s about tolerating, understanding and tolerating what cannot be fixed, which is most things. The point is to stop trying to fix things you cannot fix. It would be better to say to people, look, you’re having a divorce, you’re going to be unhappy, it’s a major loss. You are probably behaving badly, doing things you feel guilty about, somebody is probably mistreating you, you feel terrible and wounded. These are normal feelings. There’s no point going to the therapist to make them go away; they’re not going to go away. But nobody says this. They say, come, come, come, I’ll make them go away.
H: Do you reverse the order of sane/insane in Girl, Interrupted? Sometimes the patients seem a lot more human than the staff.

SK: The professional constraint the nurses were under, plus the fact they were designated as nurses, made them less able to be supportive and loving. It was much easier for the patients to support each other. There was no taint, no barrier, no professional distance that had to be maintained. That’s the reality. It’s different from saying nurses are crazy, patients are sane.
H: The structure is crazy.

SK: The structure is crazy. The problem is with the structure of refuge. People need refuge at times. People sometimes need refuge from other people and other people need refuge from them. You can be so irritating you have be removed or so frightened you have to be feel protected from those around you. There has to be refuge. But how do you set up and sustain adequate refuge?
H: Coffee shops?

SK: Coffee shops, yes, are partial refuge. Mental hospitals fall prey to hierarchical structure, and the us/them relation. It’s almost unavoidable. It’s a sort of philosophical problem inherent in creating refuge. My book points out and faults some particular stupidities but on the other hand, looking at the big picture, of course they did it that way. What else could they do? This is the way our society deals with it. You have to be a real visionary to think of anything else and it may not be anything better.

It’s hard to afford protection to people without patronizing them. Perhaps it’s not possible.

HB: Aren’t there also people who don’t ask for protection but are sentenced to it?

SK: You have ambivalence. I tried to write about that in the book, wanting freedom and protection simultaneously. Warring impulses, what do you do with them?

HB: I’ve seen people with psychological problems or a history of mental illness turn to you as if they want you to take on a certain role — authority, leader, guide. Does his make you uncomfortable?

SK: I feel beset, beseiged by people’s needs. I don’t know what to do. I feel like people’s stories adhere to me. Even though I know people’s wanting to tell me is a kind of compliment, the outcome is disturbing.

I am uncomfortable as a spokeswoman for anything. I am a spokeswoman for myself — the end. If people who have been locked up find the fact that I wrote a book about it helpful, I’m happy. If people who haven’t been locked up found out something they didn’t know, I’m happy. But I can’t help anybody beyond what I’ve done. I did what I could do. What I could do was to write this book.

HB: What further help do people expect from you?

SK: It is confusing. I think I’m a particularly reclusive and private non-joiner sort of person so it’s especially disconcerting for me. I don’t want to yield up more details. Enough is hanging out there. I must have some privacy in this world. I fear if I give in, I will be pressed and not know where to draw the line. I feel like I have to establish a boundary quite far out because of the nature of what I wrote about. If I am perceived as permeable or semi-permeable I’m going to get a lot of feet stuck in my gut and I don’t want them there. It may be callous but I am not a psychiatrist to the world or a spokesperson — I am a writer who was locked up when she was a teenager and has written about it.

HB: What got you to write about it?

SK: I was working on a novel about an anthropologist dropped into a foreign culture. After about two and a half years, or midway through work on the book, I found myself flooded with intense memories of the loony bin. I couldn’t figure out why at first but I started writing down what turned out to be Girl, Interrupted. I realized, then, the two projects were parallel. Being dropped into an alien culture where you don’t speak the language, don’t understand the social mores, don’t know how to behave, and have no idea of your role or how things work was exactly what had happened to me.

So I wanted to write an anthropology of the hospital. Hence my dry detached tone, thoroughly misunderstood by ninety percent of my readers. Incidentally, I finished the novel — Far Afield — that Girl, Interrupted had interrupted, and still regard as by far the best thing I’ve done.

HB: You’ve had far more impact as a writer of nonfiction than as a novelist. What does that say to you?

SK: I have enough hubris to think it says more about the readers than it says about my work.

HB: Readers are incapable of negotiating fiction? It is no longer possible, as E. L. Doctorow puts it, “for fiction to give counsel.”?

SK: It saddens me. I learned more by writing my second novel than by writing this memoir. If I have a grain of wisdom it’s in that book rather than this one. It makes me sad that people find it less pleasurable and more demanding to read fiction than nonfiction. And sad, also, that wisdom has to come in such sensationalized packages for people to pay attention. Not many people read fiction in America, so I will have to be content with small audiences, as I was previously.

HB: What do you think would have been the fate of this book if you had turned the narrator into the third person, changed the names, and told your editor, “I have a novel for you”?

SK: I don’t know. Several people thought I should do that. I didn’t do it but not because I thought nonfiction would be more successful — that didn’t occur to me. I didn’t do it because I thought the most important thing I could do in the book was to claim the stigma. If I didn’t do that I wasn’t writing the book honestly. That was the point, that was the main point. To say, this happened to me. 

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