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Jewish Journal

Winona Ryder—Girl Interrupted

by Naomi Pfefferman

December 23, 1999 | 7:00 pm

At first glance, the author Susanna Kaysen and the actress Winona Ryder have little in common. Kaysen, who is in her 50s and the author of several well-received volumes, grew up upper-middle-class and Jewish in Cambridge, MA and is the daughter of an economics professor. And Ryder, the movie star, spent many of her formative years in a Northern California commune, the daughter of a Jewish hippie intellectual who often chatted around the kitchen table with poet Allen Ginsberg and LSD guru Timothy Leary.

What the two women share, however, are dark memories of childhood's end; a time in their late teens when each descended into severe depression and landed, for a while, in a psychiatric hospital. Kaysen eloquently wrote about her experience in her best-selling memoir, "Girl Interrupted" -- a book that Ryder's rare book dealer father, Michael Horowitz, chanced to give her in galley form in 1993. At the time, the actress was emerging from her own two-year crisis, and Kaysen's book was the first she had read, from a women's perspective, that articulated her own sense of "feeling you are going crazy."

Which perhaps explains why Ryder became obsessed with the novel and, subsequently, used all her Hollywood clout to bring the story to the screen. It took all of six years, and the actress, who is also making her producing debut, persevered despite the emotional toll. Ryder's youthful anxiety attacks returned during the three-month shoot at a real psychiatric ward, one that strongly resembled the grim, brick structure where Kaysen was incarcerated in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, the Oscar-nominated actress endeavored to finish the film, which, because of the personal connection, she regards as perhaps the most important of her career.

The waiflike Ryder, who has enormous, intense brown eyes, has explained that she did not have to conduct research to portray Kaysen. By the time she was 19, she was in the midst of an identity crisis, the result of virtually growing up on screen, and was suffering from paralyzing insomnia and anxiety attacks. She was exhausted and overworked; there was a painful and public breakup with her first love, actor Johnny Depp, and most troubling of all was that she could not describe her feelings even to her loved ones. "And then, of course, actors are not allowed to complain," she told the Journal, with a thin smile. "When actors complain, it sounds a little nauseating."

And so Ryder checked herself into a psychiatric ward, a "stark, bare, scary place where they take everything away from you," but left a week later, feeling that the stay had not helped her. It was only slowly that she recovered, with the help of a good psychiatrist. But her memories of the experience, she says, were invaluable as she brought "Girl, Interrupted" to the screen.

During the recent Journal interview, Ryder said she has been influenced by another Jewish girl, interrupted: A Russian-Jewish cousin, also an actress, who looked like her and was about her age when she died in the Holocaust. It was Ryder's grandmother Horowitz, who is now 99 and a resident of Brooklyn, who first showed her the photographs of the young woman and the other relatives who died in the camps. Sometimes, she has said, the dark-haired cousin has been almost like a spirit guide, perhaps as much an influence on her life as Kaysen. "I learned about my family history when I was of the right age to hear about something so tragic," she says, softly, "and it has been a very big part of my life."

"Girl, Interrupted" opens this week in Los Angeles.

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