Whether you’re familiar with Susanna Kaysen’s memoir about her hospitalization for mental illness in the 1960s or it’s new to you, I recommend reading Girl, Interrupted if you plan to write a memoir. Here’s why:
Kaysen employs a pattern of chapters focused on topography, whereby she maps out the features of different places (both figurative and literal), starting with the “parallel universe” of mental illness (“Toward a Topography of the Parallel Universe”). Traversing the boundaries between different states of mind, different locations, and different social positions is a major theme of her memoir. In a heartbreaking chapter called “Stigmatography” (stigma + geography), Kaysen illustrates the difficulty of regaining one’s place in society after hospitalization because of the stigma of mental illness.
Not literal time travel, but a metaphorical journey in which we stop at various points (arranged by theme instead of chronology) in Kaysen’s life. For example, in “Topography of the Future,” she recalls meeting a man before her hospitalization, eventually getting together with him (and receiving a marriage proposal) while hospitalized, and what was to come in the future of her past self (Kaysen at the time she was contemplating the proposal) all in one chapter. Kaysen also uses verb tenses creatively to bring immediacy to certain moments from her long ago past, like the conversation about shaving in “Sharps.”
Kaysen’s dialogue shows us that the characters in her memoir are more than their diagnoses. Even if readers haven’t experienced mental illness in themselves or loved ones, they can find something relatable in these characters. For example, Lisa’s declaration that “This place is a fascist snake pit” (“If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now”) or Kaysen’s outspoken assessment of her therapist (“The Shadow of the Real”). Lisa’s commentary on the strictly controlled nature of hospital life makes sense, as does Kaysen’s grasp of psychoanalytic concepts. These snippets of dialogue produce different results, but they both exemplify how Kaysen brings herself and some of her ward mates to life.
Though your memoir will be unique, you can find inspiration in Kaysen’s methods.