Indulge is a word that comes up a lot in and around the movie Girl, Interrupted. When the protagonist, Susanna Kaysen, meets for the first time with the head psychiatrist at Claymoore, the psychiatric facility she’s committed to, Dr. Wick tells Kaysen her “progress has plateaued.” Played brilliantly by Vanessa Redgrave, sitting calmly in a sweater set that’s a shade of yellow too muted to evoke happiness, Dr. Wick continues, “Does that disappoint you?” “I’m ambivalent,” Kaysen bites back. (She, too, is played brilliantly by Winona Ryder: unmoving eyes, mouth in a disapproving half-snarl, taut posture but for her limp, cigarette-holding hand.) Kaysen equates ambivalence with not caring, but Dr. Wick corrects her: it means to care immensely, caught between two poles. “It’s a very big question you’re faced with,” she explains. “How much will you indulge in your flaws? What are your flaws? Are they flaws? If you embrace them, will you commit yourself to a hospital for life?”
Girl, Interrupted is an iconic, cult-classic, highly problematic representation of girls losing their minds but finding each other’s in a psych ward set in the ’60s. It premiered 20 years ago in December to a mixed reception. In a mildly sexist review of the film published upon its release, the New York Times critic Stephen Holden called it a “small, intense period piece with a hardheaded tough-love attitude toward lazy, self-indulgent little girls flirting with madness: You can drive yourself crazy, or you can get over it.” It sounds worse than it is, though, coming from him—he’s actually paraphrasing a line from Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Valerie, a Black nurse frequently taunted by racist comments from the white girls she looks after on the ward. After such an incident, she tells Susanna, “You are a lazy, self-indulgent little girl who is driving herself crazy.’’ And she’s right. In Girl, Interrupted, there’s a seeming divide between the girls who are actually “crazy,” and the girls who are just flirting with madness—choosing it, even, over their other imagined options, which feel to them impossibly suffocating in their conformism.
In the 1970s, the New York Wages for Housework Committee wrote, “For all women, at every stage of our life, ‘going crazy,’ is the other side of housework, the lifelong unpaid work which is expected of all of us, forced on us, taken for granted, every day of our lives until we die. ‘Craziness’ is our very confinement to this work as well as our ultimate escape from it; it is our rebellion against it as well as the punishment we receive for it.” In this vein, of her nonexistent plans after high school, Kaysen tells her college counselor, “I just don’t want to end up like my mother,” meaning, a respectable housewife. Girl, Interrupted is perhaps best seen as a case study of stifled, middle-class white girls, so dissatisfied with their mundanely oppressive conditions it’s become unbearable—unlivable, even. They want to reject society and its expectations but aren’t sure it’s possible to do that without entirely negating themselves.
I relate to both this desire and confusion: the need to reject the path laid out for you, and the draw of madness to accomplish this. I’ve gone through bouts of acute depression and anxiety in my life; sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed. It’s hard to know what’s a chemical imbalance and what’s a natural response to the evils of surviving under capitalism; how much “fixing” yourself is putting yourself back together to be a cog in a machine, and how much it’s in your own, autonomous best interest. But also, those who live on the edge of productivity, of participation in normative society, are often those who can. Those who can afford to have one foot in the door and one foot out, financially and otherwise, are usually the same people who have the support to make it back in, rather than remaining locked up forever, or deteriorating physically and emotionally without the means to get help.
When I can’t or don’t want to produce—writing, art, work in an office, what have you—I like to think it’s a cultivated refusal. It’s one that sometimes feels political, but might actually be meaningless. Coming upon writings years ago about the undervaluing of feminine labor and the rebellion inherent in rejecting productivity culture was revelatory; I recognized myself. But now I’m not so sure. Finding meaning in doing nothing and being sad sometimes feels life-saving and sometimes feels empty, like tricking myself. Flattening myself before anyone else can do it. Opposing our productivity culture with what? To do nothing is to do nothing; maybe making it seem like something with any meaning is just a smoke show.
Some of the girls in Girl, Interrupted are sicker than others, but even this divide is suspect: is it the institutions that drive us insane, or is there an innate insanity within some of us to begin with? Angelina Jolie gave an Oscar-nominated performance as Lisa, a diagnosed sociopath who’s been hospitalized since age ten. She repeatedly runs away and is treated as irredeemably unwell. She’s assumed by her keepers to have no moral compass, something broken inside of her; they fail to consider the possibility that a lifetime of institutionalization is actually what’s broken her, instead.
Unlike Lisa, Kaysen gets better. She stops indulging in her madness. She leaves the ward. Lisa remains behind, medicated against her will and strapped to a bed. But so, too, does Valerie, left to field the racist abuses and destructive whims of the girls who will come after. In all the current, misguided discourse about emotional labor that misconstrues the concept as a way to transactionalize all relationships, including friendship, what’s expected of Valerie is the real meaning of the phrase: forced to act the benevolent nurse for an underfunded paycheck to the unstable white women who fall in her path, a stomped-upon stepping-stone in their journeys to self-actualization.
(Updated 3/2/22 with new details)
Sophia Giovannitti is a writer living in New York.