Authors: Susanna Kaysen

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist and memoirist

November 11, 1948

Cambridge, Massachusetts


Susanna Kaysen is an American writer who came to prominence in middle age through her achievement as a novelist and memoir writer. Whether fiction or nonfiction, much of her work possesses strong autobiographical elements, and it is the ability to convey her own experiences meaningfully that has garnered her a significant reading public. {$I[AN]9810001823} {$I[A]Kaysen, Susanna} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Kaysen, Susanna} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Kaysen, Susanna} {$I[tim]1948;Kaysen, Susanna}

Susanna Kaysen was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her father, Carl Kaysen, was a respected and successful scientist who worked at different times at Harvard and Princeton. Kaysen grew up in privileged surroundings, in the ambience of the American East Coast establishment. This setting, though, did not bring personal happiness, as Kaysen experienced a turbulent and unhappy adolescence and young adulthood whose trials are partially chronicled in her prose memoir Girl, Interrupted. During her teenage years, she suffered from acute depression and suicidal tendencies, and she received the psychiatric diagnosis that she had a borderline personality disorder.

From 1967 to 1969, Kaysen was confined to the McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Cambridge. This was at once the low point and the defining period of Kaysen’s life, where the very core of her identity was questioned and, eventually, affirmed. When Kaysen was twenty-one, the institution judged that she had “recovered,” and she was left to construct some semblance of a life. For years, she worked at a variety of jobs, never completing her college education. She eventually began working as an editor and proofreader for various publishers, earning her living this way during the 1970s and a good part of the 1980s. The combination of this experience, the connections provided by her family, and her residence in the academic hub of Cambridge gave Kaysen hopes of succeeding as a writer, but nothing consequential came of these hopes until an agent expressed interest in a novel she had written.

This novel, eventually published as Asa, as I Knew Him, sets patterns that are characteristic of Kaysen’s published books. Kaysen’s work focuses on the contrast between two different perceptions of the same person, event, or situation. In Asa, as I Knew Him, the contrast is between two participants in an extramarital affair: the young female Jewish narrator and her older married lover, who is male and an Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Some critics thought the novel’s contrast between warm, life-affirming Jew and cold, stolid Protestant too stereotypical, but Kaysen sometimes complicates these crude dichotomies. Asa’s best friend as a boy had been a Jew, and the name “Asa” itself is from the Hebrew Bible and belongs to a former king of Judah.

Asa, as I Knew Him received respectable reviews but was, in general, lost in the shuffle of first novels that were printed by publishers in droves during the publishing boom of the 1980s. A similar fate greeted Kaysen’s second novel, Far Afield. Based, as was her first novel, on a real-life romantic relationship of Kaysen’s, the novel concerns a woman who accompanies her anthropologist boyfriend to the frigid, isolated Faroe Islands. The anthropologist comes to the islands with the attitude that, as a Harvard academic, he is necessarily superior to the uneducated peasants he is studying, or that he at least has a greater perspective on the world than they do. At the end of the novel, though, he finds that the natives have more to teach him than vice versa. The novel is more than a parable of innocence and experience; in Kaysen’s hands, it becomes a commentary on the academic crisis experienced by anthropology as a discipline toward the end of the twentieth century, a crisis fueled by a suspicion that traditional anthropology only served to justify European imperialism and the entrenched power of the cultural elite. Kaysen enriches her novel with allusions to Scandinavian literature appropriate to the Faroese setting.

Girl, Interrupted was well publicized and received wide acclaim; Kaysen’s prose memoir succeeded where her novels had not. Kaysen uses the technique of employing two different perspectives and applies it to two phases of her own life: her adolescent self and the middle-aged self that is remembering her experiences. Kaysen forestalls any tendencies toward melodrama or self-pity as she recounts her teenage experiences in the mental hospital by including the original medical documents of her various diagnoses during her treatment. This gives the narrative objectivity to complement its depth of lived personal experience. Kaysen’s own self-analysis is valuable as well. She pinpoints aspects of her past trauma that she could not have seen at the time, such as the way women are particularly victimized by psychiatric dogma, and the relation between her own psychological turbulence and the social upheavals of the 1960’s. The book’s wide popularity was partially attributable to its evocation of various themes from the “recovery” movement, as evidenced by codependency theory and Twelve Step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, that became popular in the early 1990s. Kaysen’s personal odyssey resonated with the emotional themes characterizing the recovery movement even as clear intelligence and prestigious background gave her narrative particular authority among educated lay readers.

In 2001, in The Camera My Mother Gave Me, Kaysen chronicled her often comic, sometimes surreal encounters with health experts in an effort to diagnose and treat her excruciating and constant vaginal pain. This critically acclaimed book observes what happens when sexual pleasure is replaced by pain and challenges readers to think in new ways about the centrality and power of sexuality.

Kaysen’s 2014 autobiographical novel, Cambridge, draws heavily from the author’s memories of her childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the 1950s. The novel tells the story of Susanna, a gifted, moody, and contrary preadolescent who clashes with others as much as she struggles with herself. Kaysen decided to call the book a novel instead of a memoir because she believed that her memories might not be accurate and because she wanted the creative freedom to change factual details to suit her story.

Author Works Long Fiction: Asa, as I Knew Him, 1987 Far Afield, 1990 Cambridge, 2014 Nonfiction: Girl, Interrupted, 1993 The Camera My Mother Gave Me, 2001 Bibliography Adams, Phoebe-Lou. Review of Far Afield, by Susanna Kaysen. The Atlantic Monthly 266, no. 5 (November, 1990): 172. An accessible and insightful review. Cheever, Susan. “A Designated Crazy.” Review of Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen. The New York Times Book Review, June 20, 1993, 71. This review was a prominently placed notice that was a major assist to the financial success of Girl, Interrupted. Gates, David. Review of Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen. Newsweek 122, no. 1 (July 5, 1993): 56. A favorable review. Kirsch, Jonathan. Review of Asa, as I Knew Him, by Susanna Kaysen. Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1987, sec. 5, pp. 1, 16. Praises Kaysen’s “unusual perspective” and “marvelous powers of observation in evoking the agonies and ecstasies of adolescent sexuality.” McAlpin, Heller. “Before She Was ‘Girl, Interrupted,’ She Was a Girl from Cambridge.” Review of Cambridge, by Susanna Kaysen. NPR: Book Reviews, 24 May 2014, Accessed 5 Sept. 2017. Presents a review of Cambridge, a novel based on Kaysen’s childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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