The unreliable narrator
I had seen the movie(starring Angelina Jolie) which led me to the book. From the beginning I was conscious of the unreliable narrator. This is a memoir of a girl who spends time in a psychiatric hospital (the one Plath had been admitted to) about her time in the hospital. The extent of unreliability can depend on the mental illness of the patient too (she addresses this in the book by saying had she been a schizophrenic the reader would be constantly wondering what is made up and what is real), yes, but it made me wonder of the subjectivity in general first person narrations (from memory for example) and how a story can be looked at from different points of view irrespective of whether the person is sane or not and their credibility. This thought made me comfortable reading the book because I began to trust the narrator. It can be risky while reading a memoir because it is non-fiction by design and we would generally give the benefit of doubt to fiction. The author addresses the credibility of stories told by the inmates at several places in the novel and it makes one ponder. The author has placed documents of evidence amidst the text to help us decide for ourselves too.
This paragraph is from an article on Salon by Vivian Gornick titled ‘A memoirist defends her words’- To state the case briefly: memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.
This is thought provoking and raises questions like: Why a memoir then? Why not autobiographical fiction? But that’s a debate for another day.
Sylvia Plath wrote ‘The Bell Jar’ (a book I would recommend)- a roman à clef i.e. a novel in which real persons or actual events figure under disguise according to Merriam-Webster.
Susanna describes the everyday life of the inmates. She talks about specific patients and also becomes philosophical about her condition. She has inserted conversations that the inmates have with residents/doctors etc. in the book. The pattern of the conversations reminded me of the intertextual novel- Dora: the Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch, a retelling of Freud’s famous case study from the point of view of the subject of the case. The book parodies the nature in which people with disorders/ mental illnesses are looked at by others (sane). The brilliant introduction to the book by Chuck Palahnuik ends with these lines: ‘The world of Dora is not just possible, it’s inevitable. It’s revenge as the ultimate therapy.’
Similarly, the narrator in this memoir knows what the person questioning her wants to hear, she knows what makes them uncomfortable and has fun with it.
Susanna talks about life post being discharged from the hospital, the albatross hung around their neck always. She talks of mental illness, their changing definitions with time, sexism and more. A good read. The writing is good too.