This character analysis is based on the character, Susanna Kaysen (played by Winona Ryder), from the feature film ‘Girl Interrupted’ directed by James Mangold and distributed by Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. in 1999, Rated MA15+. The film is based on the true story of Susanna Kaysen’s time in a mental institution, set in the 1960s. Exploring Susanna Kaysen’s character through an interactional viewpoint, many psychological concepts can be applied to analyse her condition.
In addition, a critical evaluation of applying behavioral and social science knowledge in the profession of social work will also be explored to appreciate the .
Susanna Kaysen is an eighteen year old that has been placed in a mental hospital ‘Claymoore’ after an attempted suicide. However, Susana is in denial of attempting suicide and claims that she drank the bottle of aspirin and bottle of vodka to cure her head ache. The purpose of Susana’s short stay at the hospital was ‘to get genuine rest’ as mentioned by the psychiatrist that she meets in courtesy of her parents.
Susana is diagnosed with a ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ as she is manifested by uncertainty about her self image, long term goals, types of lovers and friends to have and which values to adopt. At Claymoore Susana meets a group of unusual young women who eventually become her closest friends and as a result light her way back to something she had lost herself. She is intelligent and her goal after graduating was to write rather than go to college. As an understanding of Susana’s character there is actually nothing wrong with her. Susana is a typical teenager who refuses to conform to the life her parents want for her. However, after spending some time at Claymoore and seeing more than one psychiatrist she starts believing that there is something wrong with her, however does not know what exactly is wrong with her. The major changes for Susana are conforming, family, changing perspectives about the world and self.
Erikson saw conflict as the basic mechanism for development. Identity vs. role confusion is one of the eight stages that Erikson discusses. In this stage the adolescent’s task is to define a comprehensive sense of self, or identity, which incorporates the relics of past identifications and aligns the adolescent’s own unique attributes with the opportunities society offers (Peterson, 2006, p56). This can be related to Susanna as she is an adolescent who is searching for her own identity. Susana has a distinction of being the only senior of not going to college and the reason is because she plans to write. Susana mentions that she ‘does not want to end up like her mother’. Overall, Susana’s sexual orientation, careers, values and social networks are all aspects of her identity problems.
According to Bowlby (1969), “an attachment is a strong affectional tie that binds a person to an intimate companion.” As cited in (Kail & Wicks Nelson, 1993, p100) Sroufe & Fleeson, 1986 mention that “attachment is the first social relationship, and many theorists believe it is the prototype for most subsequent social relationships.” From a social perspective it is perceived that secure attachment which involves trust in the caregiver will lead into later confidence and skill in dealing with peers. By relating back to Susana it can be concluded that she has had an insecure attachment early in life. This is evident as she doesn’t really interact with her parents. For instance on her father’s birthday she comes late and then spends her time in her room rather than celebrating with her family. Also when she was taken to Claymoore, her mother was just sitting in the car watching her getting into the taxi. There was no emotional bonding present in that particular situation. As cited in (Santrock, 2004, p.351) Ainsworth believes that “secure attachment in the first year of life provides an important foundation for psychological development later in life.” However, due to Susana experiencing an insecure attachment, it is believed that it had caused her to have insufficient skills in interacting and socializing with others including family and friends.
“Freud adopted an irrationalist view of behavior, meaning that he assumed people are often unaware of why they behave as they do (Moghaddam, 1998, p477).” Similarly, Susana claims that the bottle of aspirin and bottle of
vodka was taken to cure her head ache. She does not believe or admit that it was taken as an attempt of suicide. Therefore, Susana is seen to be not in denial but she is she is distorting the truth by claiming that it was taken for her head ache. Correspondingly, Carl Rogers stressed that ‘the significance is not in what happened to the person; instead it is the individuals reaction and interpretation’ (Engler, 1985). Individuals reactions and interpretations are based on the thinking patterns that an individual beholds. Distortion of the meaning of the experience can be seen as one defense mechanism and denial of the existence of the experience is the second defense mechanism that Rogerian theory describes. Denial involves the conscious removal of the experience while distortion allows the experience into awareness but only in a form that won’t disturb the self-concept, making it consistent with it (Pervin, 1989).
Rogers (1985) agreed that the only question which matters is ‘Am I living in a way which is deeply satisfying to me, and which truly expresses me?’ (Myers, 2005, p242). By relating back to Susana this concept is vividly emphasized when she states to the psychiatrist ‘look I’m not going to burn my bra or drop acid or go march on Washington’. This shows that this character does not express who Susana really is. However, the pressure that has been put on her has caused her to behave and react in such ways. Conformity is a social issue that Susana is facing in her life. Social psychologists define conformity as ‘changing one’s behavior or beliefs in response to some real pressure from others’ (Gilovich, Keltner & Nisbett, 2006, p215). Therefore, in Susana’s situation she is supposed to conform to the time era that they are in where after graduating seniors attend college. She is also supposed to conform to her mother’s action. However, Susana chooses to write and mentions ‘I don’t want to end up like my mother.’ this can have an influence on Susana psychologically. The feeling of shame, guilt or depression all interact and influence her behavior.
Susana’s psychiatrist suggested that her affair with one of her parents’ friends, along with her misconception that chasing a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka is anything other than a suicide attempt, could be signs that she may be suffering from ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ (BPD). “BPD
is a severe and persistent mental condition characterized by marked impulsiveness, aggressive and auto aggressive behavior and a wide range of unstable patterns of interpersonal relationships; self-image and affect regulation are core features of this disorder” (Koch et al, 2007, p235).
BPD involves a dysfunction of parts of the central nervous system involved in regulation of emotions. The primary environmental influence on the disorder is considered to be an invalidating environment in which the person’s communications about private experiences are met with responses that suggest they are invalid, faulty or inappropriate or that over simplify the ease of solving the problem (Magnavita, 2004, p222). Shearsby, Walton & Franker (2006, p 5) state that ‘clients with BPD find it very hard to resist or control impulsive urges.’ Engaging in impulsive behaviors is used as a way of filling emptiness and escaping their emotions. For instance Susana is labeled as ‘promiscuous’ as she is constantly engaged in casual sex. This behavior can be seen as a mean for Susana to break away from her disturbing emotions. Intentional self damaging acts and suicide attempts are frequently associated with BPD. Susana has experienced a suicide attempt. This action of self mutilation can be used as a coping mechanism to release or manage emotional pain.
From an interactional perspective it is clear to see that the biological, psychological and social factors all interact and affect Susana’s circumstance. Her age, the time era that she’s living in and the biology of her BPD all has an affect on the way that she interacts with others and the environment. From a social perspective her insecure attachment, isolation, negative skills in socializing and her impulsive behavior all affect her interaction socially within the environment that she is living in. Susana’s irrational views and pressure of conformity affect her psychologically. Therefore all these factors interact together and affect Susana’s everyday life. These interactional aspects can also be seen as contributing factors to the development of Susana’s BPD. For instance the biological, social and psychological factors such as attachment, genetics, family environment and isolation can be seen as instrumental in the development of the disorder.
In applying behavior and social science knowledge to Susana in the professional social work field a number of different approaches and aims should be achieved. Firstly understanding the biology of the BPD and being clear about the plan with the client is crucial in order to have realistic expectations of what both you and the client are going to successfully achieve. It is important to be enthusiastic rather than negative and pessimistic. (Shearsby, Walton & Fanker, 2006, p16) I think that when dealing with BPD several factors should be recognized and taken into account. For instance past history such as psychiatric history, current context such as social situations and the client’s mental state should all be considered and thought about. The fact that BPD often leads to self harm and usually suicide attempts, I think that contracting can be seen as a useful approach. For instance by encouraging and giving the client a chance of signing in the contract it can perhaps prevent or reduce self harm. It is common for involuntary clients to behave inattentively. Therefore, workers should be well aware of that and investigate behavior. I think that councelling sessions in Susana’s situation would be beneficial. Gaining and exploring a clearer understanding of Susana’s situation can be identified through councelling sessions. Through these sessions Susana’s situational problems of her interactional and interpersonal factors to the wider society would be discussed. This would clarify how Susana feels and what is affecting her mostly regarding family, conformity, friends, world and self. However, individual councelling can possibly be disadvantageous for BPD clients. Therefore in this case group treatment would be beneficial. This is because therapists are able to recognize and work with interpersonal behaviors that show up with the rest of the group. In groups clients have the opportunity to interact with people like themselves. This can be seen as an advantage as it can also be seen as a support group for the client (Linehan, 1993, p10).
In conclusion, the movie ‘Girl Interrupted’ has further added to my knowledge and assisted my learning in various ways. The chosen character ‘Susana’ was assessed and analyzed in relation to the study of individual and social processes. By understanding and explaining Susana’s character, it was clear to see that various interactional factors and behaviors that all contribute
to the biological, psychological and social well being of an individual. Hence these aspects are very important in the social work profession, if these interactional perspectives are not identified it would make it very difficult for professional workers to evaluate the behaviors of individuals. Reference
Engler, B. (1985). Personality Theories: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Bouston: Houghton Miffin Company Gilovich, T., Keltner, D., and Nisbett, RE, (2006). Social Psychology, Norton & Company Inc, USA, (p 215) Kail, R., and Wicks-Nelson, R., (1993), Developmental Psychology, fifth edition, Prentice Hall Inc, USA, (p 100-101) Koch, W., Schaaff, N., Popperl, G., Mulert, C., Juckel, G., Hegerl, U., Tatsch, K., and Pogarell, O., (2007) Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience (p 234- 240) Linehan, M., (1993), Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder, The Guildford Press, New York, (p 10) Magnavita, JJ., (2004), Handbook of Personality Disorders: Theory and Practice, John Wiley & Sons Inc., Canada (p 222) Moghaddam, FM., (1998), Social Psychology: Exploring Universals Across Cultures, W.H. Freeman and Company, New York (p 477) Myers, DG., (2005). Social Psychology, eighth edition, McGraw Hill, New York (p 242) Pervin, L.A. (1989). Personality Theory & Research. Canada: John Wiley & Sons, Inc Peterson, C., (2004), Looking Forward Through the Lifespan, fourth edition, Pearson Education, Australia, (p.56) Santrock, J., (2004), A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development, second edition, McGraw Hill, New York, (p. 349, 351) Shearsby, J., Walton, C., and Franker, S., (2006), Guidelines for the Management and Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, Sydney South West, Area Health Service (p 5, 16)
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