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The Portrayal of Mental Illness in Girl, Interrupted

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The Portrayal of Mental Illness in “Girl, Interrupted”

The film “Girl, Interrupted” is a true story adapted from the original memoir by Susanna Kaysen. Set in the 1960s, it relates her experiences during her stay in a mental institution after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder following a suicide attempt. Many films include characters with a mental illness; the actors who play these characters have the immense challenge of staying true to the illness they portray.

The main character in “Girl, Interrupted,” Susanna Kaysen, played by Winona Ryder, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. According to the DSM-IV-TR (2000) borderline personality disorder is a pervasive pattern of instability in relationships, self image and affects, and marked impulsivity. Individuals with this disorder tend to make frantic attempts to avoid real or imagined abandonment and are intolerant of being alone; they also have a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by extremes of idealization and devaluation (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). They have identity disturbance; markedly and persistently unstable self image or sense of self, and also display impulsivity in at least two areas that are self damaging; for instance spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating, and so on. People with borderline personality disorder also show recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures or threats or engage in self-mutilating behavior. Another symptom is affective instability due to marked reactivity of mood such as intense episodic dysphoria, irritability or anxiety lasting only a few hours and only rarely more than a few days. They experience chronic feelings of emptiness, and also display inappropriate intense anger or difficulty controlling anger by frequent displays of temper, constant anger and physical fights. Lastly, they experience transient stress related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). Patients are known to display impaired in social function which remains stable over time (Gerrig et al., 2008).

Susanna displayed only a few of these symptoms; she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of aspirin, made several remarks about suicide in a conversation with her boyfriend Toby, and she showed self-mutilating behavior in her wrist banging. Susanna also showed dysphoric attitude, she admitted to the cab driver that she was being institutionalized because she was “sad,” she also told Dr. Potts in a therapy session that she had “not exactly been a ball of joy”. According to the DSM-IV-TR (2000), patients must display five or more of the above mentioned symptoms to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Susanna did not meet this criteria. Though she did attempt suicide, this behavior was not recurrent. Moreover, she made no frantic attempts to avoid abandonment and showed no intolerance of being alone; this was evident when she showed no interest in continuing a sexual relationship with Professor Gilcrest, she also made no attempt to make peace after an argument with Toby and just left instead. Again, she refused to leave the hospital with Toby when he suggested she flee to Canada with him. She also did not leave with Lisa after they had discovered Daisy’s body. She did not have any unstable relationships characterized by idealization and devaluation. Susanna showed no signs of intense anger and did not get into any physical fights. She also displayed no obvious signs of stress related ideation, dissociative symptoms or any clear signs of the other symptoms. Though the character did not accurately display the symptoms of the disorder, the question of whether she deserved to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in the first place remained unanswered. Therefore she accurately displayed the symptoms to the extent that she needed to achieve the effect of a questionable diagnosis.

Having been diagnosed with a mental disorder affected Susanna’s life in several ways. She was placed in a mental institution, where she experienced a whole new way of life, she was constantly monitored and checked on, had to undergo therapy, take medication and was not allowed to do certain things for or by herself, such as lighting a cigarette or shaving her legs, even though she was perfectly capable of doing these things. Her parents became embarrassed by her condition and were anxious to know when she would be released from the hospital, most probably so they would not have to explain to people where she was and what had happened to her.

Lisa Rowe, played by Angelina Jolie, was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder which, according to the DSM-IV-TR (2000) is a pattern of disregard for and violation of rights of others. People with antisocial personality disorder, or sociopaths, fail to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior, they perform actions that are grounds for arrest such as destruction of property, harassing others, stealing and pursuing illegal occupations (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). They are deceitful, manipulative and repeatedly lie and con others to gain personal profit or pleasure. They display impulsivity and fail to plan ahead; they make decisions without consideration of consequences to self or others. Sociopaths are irritable and aggressive; they get into fights and assault others, for reasons other than self defense. They are extremely irresponsible and engage in sexual behavior, substance abuse or other behavior that has high risk of harmful consequences. They show little or no remorse for the consequences of their actions; they show indifference or provide superficial rationalizations for their actions, they blame victims for being foolish, helpless or deserving their fate. They fail to compensate or make amends for their behavior. They lack empathy, are callous, cynical and contemptuous of the feelings, rights, and sufferings of others. Sociopaths have an inflated self-appraisal, lack realistic concern about their current problems or their future; they are excessively opinionated, self assured and cocky. Lastly they display a glib superficial charm and can be voluble and verbally facile as in using technical terms or jargon to impress someone unfamiliar to the topic (DSM-IV-TR, 2000).

There are several instances in the film where Lisa fails to conform to social norms; she runs away from the hospital, Polly makes



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