By Susanna Kaysen
When Susanna Kaysen is 18 years old she makes a feeble attempt to take her own life. After a single session with a psychiatrist she is diagnosed as having a ‘borderline personality’ and is sent away to McLean Hospital, the private psychiatric centre that treated Sylvia Plath and Ray Charles, among other famous names. While Susanna’s descriptions of life on the ward are intriguing and compelling, we’re certainly not talking One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest here. More provocative by far are her lucid thoughts – once she is declared ‘sane’ – on precisely what it is that deems some people ‘mad’ and others ‘sane’. The ‘mad’ Susanna may seem more like yourself than you are comfortable with, and that’s really her point. Society, rather than the cushy, expensive, drug-pushing hospital, is at fault, and Susanna’s poignant reflections are just as pertinent to the 21st century. This is an elegant read which is subtle in its challenges. And, perhaps it’s worth noting, it’s nothing at all like the film.