“Interrupted Girls” showed us how thin the line is between “normal” and mental distress


Life is complex, sometimes indecipherable to the point of being unmanageable in some cases, and it is useless to deny it because in the end this is what also allows us to marvel. It has happened to everyone at least once to feel subjugated by events, to question oneself, not to like oneself, if not to feel a real repulsion towards what one is, not to understand the world and feel excluded, overwhelmed. In these cases and in others – beyond what social pressure prompts us to believe – it is necessary to take a break to put in order the meanings and forces of the world and of our being. Interrupted girls, a 1999 film, starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie (who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), seems to remind us of just this, how difficult it is to exist, to build oneself; how much will, courage, generosity and understanding are needed to be able to cross the “bardo”, that intermediate dimension of transition, on the border between death and rebirth.

The film is based on the autobiography of the same name by Susanna Kaysen (played by Ryder), released in 1993, in which the writer – daughter of John F. Kennedy’s first counselor – tells of her stay at the age of nineteen in a psychiatric institution private – and reserved for extremely wealthy people – in the late 1960s due to depression and then a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. The original title of the book – Girl, interrupted – resumes that of the painting by Jan Vermeer much loved by Kaysen – “Girl interrupted at her music” – and immediately returns to the background theme of the story, that is the power that society has to influence the evolutionary path of the individual, interrupting him, diverting him, distracting him. This story shows us how from birth no human being is a monad, but how each of us is, like it or not, in relation to others and therefore has a responsibility over them – and how much in a democratic and equal social fabric he is obliged to recognize it and to assume the weight of their behavior.

Donald Winnicot, a famous pediatrician and psychoanalyst, believed that the encounter with the other always destroys our self, which is why for some of us it becomes unbearable, and in some moments it is necessary to withdraw into solitude just to rebuild that self from time to time. , our original nucleus, unreachable from the outside and sacred, which recomposition after recomposition will perhaps change. In fact, identity is dynamic, and when it crystallizes or amplifies it ends up representing an obstacle to existence. History seems to suggest that sometimes being diverted from what inclination would lead us blindly to be can prove to be fundamental, enrich us, if not save us. Recent studies, not surprisingly, they have highlighted an interesting phenomenon linked to self-introspection, the imaginative capacity and at the same time various mental disorders. Susanna appears in fact as a fragile girl, full of insecurities, who takes refuge in her mental universe and in writing – what she recognizes as her vocation, but whose value no one around her is willing to recognize. For all the others what is her reason for living appears as a foolish ambition and this contributes to further undermine her identity, preventing her from finding a place in the world. This is to say that sometimes certain behaviors can be positive or negative even with respect to the situation in which the subject is immersed.

If even today people with psychiatric disorders are unjustly reserved a sort of stigma born of suspicion and a kind of fear, Susanna ends up meeting those who will become her first true friends right in the clinic, managing to build positive relationships that she was not never been able to set up before, in the world of “healthy” people. Without ever slipping into rhetoric and indulgent do-goodness, the film shows us how Susanna manages to discover what it means to have a sincere bond with the Other, without being destroyed, swept away by it, even if this Other is considered the zero degree of society. Indeed, Susanna sees in her sick companions – who offer themselves as an ironic and moving roundup of human cases, in which it is difficult not to identify at least a little – people who are in some respects preferable to those who consider themselves better than them. Susanna, disowned by her family and catapulted from one moment to the next from the world of the “right” to that of the “wrong”, understands that every individual – no matter how broken, broken, missing (as every human being is) – has something to give. As we say at the end of the film, sometimes the only difference between the presumed normality (which does not exist) and a diagnosed pathology is only the intensity of the problem, how much one of our characteristics affects the whole of our existence.


The whole story has as its background the melee between the internal perception of the individual and the presumed objectivity of the world, which in some moments end up colliding irremediably, in others to resonate in unison. Another fundamental point touched by the film is in fact the ambiguity of some diagnoses and of the description itself of various disorders. In the course of the plot we can glimpse the discriminations that the society of the time poured on certain individuals only to put them on the sidelines and discredit the value of their word – as it happened in a systematic way, for example. with the women and the Afro-descendants. We understand then that some pathologies were not real diseases at all but simple divergences from the road imposed by a moralistic, rigid, bigoted and obscurantist society. These discriminations then ended up acting as a basis trigger for the development of other serious psychological problems. In particular, this is the case of Lisa (masterfully interpreted by Jolie): narcissistic, histrionic and antisocial. A cheeky, magnetic, rebellious, manipulative and courageous woman, with a strength and a personality that suggests that if she were born a man she would not have been made to weigh on her and would have led her to roles of power. Lisa’s is in fact a psychological profile which – as was pointed out by psychologists Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare in Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work it has often been found in the figure of great charismatic leaders.

Today, beyond the psychiatric diagnoses, looking at the film it is easy for a woman to identify with Lisa, because, like her, it will often happen that she undergoes an objectifying gaze and finds herself sewn onto an image that does not correspond to her true individual self even from a distance. Objectification is in fact the starting point for any violence, whether it be more or less serious. Lisa is strong, unscrupulous, fascinating, wild, the society of those years – right on the border of the cultural revolution brought by ’68 – does not even try to bring it back on the right path, because it is now considered a deviant, it is the mirror of all drives , the shadows and violence of society itself, which does not want to scrutinize itself, and never wants to see its authentic image, because it would be unsustainable and would shatter it. It is Lisa that the world holds as a bad example for Susanna: this is what you could become, do you really want to be like her? Lisa knows that by now the world expects this from her, and almost in order not to disregard her order and expectations, she never misses an opportunity to play the role of the villain, the antagonist. Susanna, however, despite fearing her, loves her, because she is her alter ego. He knows that despite appearances they are much more similar than everyone believes. Yet while Susanna rebuilds Lisa continues to be pure destruction, of herself and those around her.

At a certain point, at the end of the story, Lisa denounces the difference in attention and care that the world reserves for Susanna and which instead has never deigned to reserve for her, as if it were irrecoverable or did not deserve it. A kind of stigma. No one has ever wanted to see beyond her disturbing behaviors, no one has ever given her the opportunity to change, believing in her improvement. This is perhaps the most touching part of the film. Because you see all the desperation, envy is the resigned anger of an individual who has never been “seen”, beyond his characteristics. Kaysen thus manages to show Lisa, the real invisible, and to give her a voice.

Interrupted girls shows us how social pressure, for better or for worse, affects our lives, but when at the same time the possibility of establishing a dialogue and contact with others can nourish and lead us to develop a dormant inner will, capable of giving us direction and make us evolve. This is why it is essential to find the right people, because people make the difference in our being in the world.


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