United in Torment: On Fine Gråbøl’s “What Kingdom”

Emmeline Clein reviews Fine Gråbøl’s “What Kingdom.”

By Emmeline CleinMay 18, 2024

United in Torment: On Fine Gråbøl’s “What Kingdom”

What Kingdom by Fine Gråbøl. Archipelago. 152 pages.

THE GIRLS EMERGE from their spirals slowly. Shades, ghosts, gossips, pseudo-sisters, spitting images of girls they used to know, rosy cheeks rendered grayscale. An institutional color palette, an occupational therapy activity—girls sitting on the couch, the floor; girls trudging through snow; girls playing guitar and putting their heads in each other’s laps. They are alone in the frame only rarely, all feral gazes or averted eyes. Depicted together, they are, if not calm, at least making eye contact, trying to communicate. It’s the script that’s stopping them, with its stilted language and scientific stumbling blocks built to separate them—to teach them to lie appropriately rather than leave interlocutors uncomfortable.


The title of Fine Gråbøl’s debut novel, What Kingdom, comes from a moment in the film Girl, Interrupted (1999), adapted from a 1993 memoir of the same title. “What world is this? What kingdom?” wonders the institution’s head psychiatrist in voiceover, as the camera pans over girls in hospital gowns, bandaged wrists, and white, twin-sized sheets. I was searching ThriftBooks for a copy of the memoir to read alongside What Kingdom when I came across a Girl, Interrupted dots-lines-swirls coloring book, which I purchased immediately, and in which I found the girls I described earlier. They are the memoir’s cast of characters transposed to film and then submerged beneath stultifying whirlpool patterns, trapped in finely lined cages I can only unlock with repetitive motion and childlike docility as I fill in the pages. The activity is not unlike the routine creative projects included as part of both Girl, Interrupted and What Kingdom’s scheduled programming. In each, learning to draw within the lines is part of the version of adulthood that has been inculcated in us; urges to zig and zag or rip a girl out of her role like a sheet out of its binding—and thereby disturb a clearly delineated order—are understood as immature or ill. When I tear up reading these two narrative works and try to distract myself with the coloring book, I smear the ink with my leaky feelings and like the blurred girls better.


The narrator of What Kingdom never tells us her name—we don’t need to know. She tells us her friends’ names, though, and in the mental institution of Gråbøl’s imagination, selfhood is slippery and symptoms spread fast, so by learning their names we learn enough to recognize her too. Sara, Marie, Hector, Lasse, Waheed: her fellow patients; peer-sibling-soldiers stuck in the same peripheral space, struggling against psychiatry’s cold logic and diagnostic silos; actors forced to follow commonplace scripts of supposed care and cure. Incidentally, these narratives are as unrealistic and trite as too much fiction, especially fiction focused on institutionalization. These stories manage to find meaning and nuance only when their form refuses traditional narration, typically displacing normative, protagonist-based structures with an ensemble cast of characters you can’t always tell apart—characters stigmatized as ill and who might seem insane until you start to see through their eyes, until your newly clarified gaze lingers awhile in previously undiscovered corners that, however strange, often harbor truth.


¤


What Kingdom is set in the temporary housing unit for young adults in an unnamed Copenhagen mental hospital (the Danish title, Ungeenheden, translates directly to “Youth Unit”). Unlike long-term care facilities or crisis management–oriented hospitals, this unit is more like a daycare turned carceral boarding school, where patients are “meant to learn skills to take with [them]” when they’re deemed well enough to enter adulthood. Of course, Healthy Adult represents yet another scripted role to learn, not unlike that of Adolescent Patient. Theatrical rhetoric infuses this striking, slim story of support systems that simultaneously function as straitjackets, educational opportunities that are also indoctrinations; the “recreation room is like the beginnings of a theater piece, the outline of a stage design,” and the ward’s furniture “reeks of scenery.”


It makes sense then that, for those inside, a movie set in a similar institution can function as both a documentary and a daydream. Girl, Interrupted is “a staple of Friday film nights”—as Gråbøl’s narrator recalls, “we hardly watched anything else.” Observing a girl taking a bath on-screen, our narrator thinks “about fourteen-year-old Jamie, […] about Martha.” She explains how, like those fictional girls, “sometimes we cried ourselves to sleep, sometimes our bandages matched.” The “aggressive caring” relationships between patients in the film remind her of the rageful love the patients on her ward share. But memory is unreliable here, where routine renders time glassy and, while the cast watch each other bleed through their bandages, one day bleeds into the next. Moments are often written from a dissociated remove, or else ordered against chronology, so that a scene from before or after the narrator’s time on the ward is suddenly inserted between two others set mere days apart. This approach replicates the feeling that characters in these kinds of books typically describe in the wake of institutionalization: a dreamlike cast left on their lives by a combination of extended ennui, drugs, and diagnosis. And then, the dramatic punctures in an effective fugue state—a friend’s death, a self-injurer hospitalized, a screaming girl dragged away.


“[Y]ou wonder if those hospital years were real,” the narrator of What Kingdom muses, echoing the voiceover at the end of Girl, Interrupted, when, riding away from the institution in which that movie unfolds, its narrator (a fictionalized version of the memoir’s author), Susanna Kaysen, asks herself if it all really happened, before realizing it must have, because she thinks of those girls every day. For its part, What Kingdom wonders whether it even matters if it all really happened—after all, aren’t diagnoses as fictional as drama, as film? On these institutional sets, life resembles movies and plays in more than one way: the scripts are provided, the scenery circumscribed. Time moves strangely. As I mentioned, such narratives often feature ensemble casts— Janet Frame’s novel Faces in the Water (1961) and the movie version of Girl, Interrupted are two mentioned in Gråbøl’s book, but other examples abound—and tend to dislocate our usual understanding of the “first person.” These stories are choral, sororal, and elegiac, efforts at remembering the people most of us refuse to recall—or even see in the first place, which is why they’re hidden in hospital halls. These stories highlight the fact that “healthy,” well citizenship is an act too, a test, which those who pass have to pretend they’re not playing or taking lest they end up in an institution themselves. “You could ask why all these sick people had to be put together under the same precarious roof, and you wouldn’t be surprised by the answer,” Gråbøl’s narrator muses early on.


Her diagnosis, like Susanna’s, is borderline personality disorder, along with bipolar. But, as the narrator quotes Susanna wondering, on the border between what and what? Every diagnosis functions as a border, raising additional questions about crossovers and the original purpose of all these categories—crucially, are they cages? Codes that allow for easy billing and equally simple stigmatizing? What Kingdom is curious about the economic and political impetuses undergirding diagnostic structures, the forces and systems that, in turn, provide characters for patients to play. Often, there’s typecasting going on. As the narrator relates, those inside the unit can tell “what sort of diagnosis a person’s got even before they’ve mentioned it: boys are schizotypal, girls are borderline or obsessive-compulsive. Eating disorders are easily spotted.” Gender roles are reinforced by stigmatizing sicknesses; resistance starts to look like not reading your lines.


Gråbøl’s book has much to tell us about how we value people who do not (often cannot) conform to the demands of citizenship in individualist Western nations, especially as capitalism encroaches in supposedly socialist Denmark. In a line Gråbøl’s narrator quotes from Girl, Interrupted the film, the head of the institution tells Susanna’s parents that “[p]sychiatry and economics are different,” while informing them their daughter will need to stay institutionalized longer than they might want to pay for or can readily afford. But that film and its original print iteration, like so many mental institution memoirs, biographies, and novels, both take place in a private hospital, where wealth is assumed and discretion is paid for.


Yet, however unintentionally, many of those gilded cage–set stories obscure the far more carceral as well as capitalist elements of state-run or public-private institutions—the economic angst that What Kingdom refuses to shy away from, infecting both patients and staff. The narrator writes that “[t]he grammar of the ill is gendered, but also a matter of economics; the curable versus the chronic, benefit rates and supplementary payments, diagnoses and deductibles. Cash assistance subsidies, invalidity pensions, disability supplements.” Even violence against the self, inflicted intensely enough to require immediate emergency care, is instantly reframed as a financial problem, bleeding as an economic drain; the narrator remembers being taken to the hospital for cutting into her wrist, the accusatory glances she got as a “self-harmer stealing time from those who are really injured.”


¤


On this temporary ward, young people are intended to learn the skills of citizenship, to follow routines that might help them hold a job and care for themselves out in the world. And accordingly, they practice making meals, going grocery shopping, and developing hobbies. The intention is to produce “distinct, independent individuals”—the types of people who carry “a bag and would be able to relate to the days of the week.”


But what’s really sane, much less survivable? Being bogged down in the “clingy feelings of the citizen” or “united in […] torment”? Seated with another patient near a third, ostensibly “sicker” one, the narrator says, “We look at each other as if we’re able to separate ourselves from him; sorrow makes us a precarious we.” This precarious “we” provides solidarity of a sort that the rest of society disavows, and reveals the cruelty and callousness of our individualistic, hierarchical notions of mental health. Diagnoses attempt to reinforce those, but the ill don’t let labels lie to them like doctors do; they know they’re not so separate, no more or less deserving of help based on which part they’ve been cast in or script they’ve been assigned. In regard to a girl with an eating disorder, a blame-laden diagnosis that doesn’t trigger as lavish a financial benefit as her own, the narrator writes: “It felt shameful to come home from the supermarket with my groceries, my borderline personality disorder and bipolar diagnosis and my top-rate benefit, and walk past Ellen’s teenage room, her wheelchair in the corridor.” After all, she sometimes vomits up her food too, and dreams “of ingesting: various objects, meals, people.” She dreams of a camera that pans instead of zooms in, a frame that fits more people and admits the existence of society’s sickness—“an all-encompassing time frame; the potential of sharing a polypersonal psychosis.”


It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, to watch genuine communalism catching: individuals arrive and are accepted into this eccentric otherworld, at once run by routines and rent by periodic moments of crisis. Those conflagrations trouble time and identity, whether by leaving the reader questioning when in the narrative a suicide attempt actually happened or by revealing the overlapping flames of a sudden fire sparked by shared impulses rather than lit by an individual. One night, there is an “agitation on our floor that didn’t come from anyone in particular yet was peculiarly ours.” These breakdowns amid otherwise highly ritualized scheduling are part of the group’s resistance to a form of treatment predicated on constriction: as the narrator observes, “they call containment of the emotional register treatment.”


Limiting expressiveness and siloing off extreme, supposedly infectious emotions are the recourse of an anxious society acutely aware of its sickening effect on our minds—and unwilling to admit it. This can cause cognitive dissonance for those of us willing to admit to unhappiness that, simply, hurts enough to demand expression, often physicalization (here, characters cut and inflict burns on themselves, among other forms of self-harm). It can also cause unexpected realizations for those who think of themselves as well. As Girl, Interrupted’s film narration asks, have “you ever told a lie and enjoyed it”? Have “you ever wished you could be a child forever”? Breaking one norm can open a door, and a hospital might look like a home soon enough.


It’s these subtle slips that reveal how bendable the line between sane and insane, ill and well, is—raising, in turn, the possibility that our subdivision into so many diagnoses might obscure similarities that could otherwise allow for communion. After all, it’s easy to slip into someone else’s storyline in a place like this, where hallways end in dead ends and you might have a room of your own, but someone else always has the key. Marie, one of the narrator’s fellow patients on What Kingdom’s youth ward, grew up in foster care before she found herself living just a few floors below her birth mother, who is housed on the permanent adult ward, oblivious to the entire situation. “Why hasn’t anyone told Marie’s mother that the daughter she felt compelled to hand over to a system promising kinder circumstances in which to grow up, has now been housed four floors above her own permanent accommodation unit?” the narrator wonders, before fearing that the institutions intended to support both women are instead “setting up an encounter that isn’t theirs to set up.” Yet she herself has “often imagined the meeting of Marie and her mom, as if it were [hers] to imagine.”


The moment is another theatrical set piece. It’s also a stark exposition of the cruel economic and political layers at work in spaces designed, ostensibly, to facilitate healing, but which are in fact capitalist and carceral at their core. The narrator’s curiosity about Marie and her mother spirals into questions about any kind of care:


Why doesn’t anyone wonder about the line between trauma and treatment? Why doesn’t anyone wonder about the relationship between compulsion and compliance? Why doesn’t anyone wonder about the relationship between submission and help […] between care and abuse […] between surrender and obliteration?


¤


For What Kingdom’s narrator, the hospital’s hallways serve as portals, liminal spaces suspended in between-times, dead-end corridors with a different sort of geometry, horseshoes with bridges between opposing poles. There, sick notions of health exert pressure on patients and employees alike. The narrator reads Janet Frame and “understand[s] everything: The gray crater of the long-dead mad lies empty enough to be filled with many truths together.” On the ward, relationships between staff and patients are emblematic of these contradictory yet simultaneous truths, as they role-play friendship, convincing even themselves occasionally, though everyone understands the power dynamics at play. “I know I shouldn’t get attached to anyone whose job it is to care for me,” the narrator acknowledges, “the workers and wage earners who, like me, though in a different way altogether, are vulnerable to cutbacks, restructuring, reforms.”


Still, for humans who smile, laugh, breathe, and hold each other while bleeding, it’s alluring—almost healing—to forget all that for a moment. Running into one of the workers on her ward, the narrator thinks fondly that he “always seems so glad to see [her],” adding, “I love that, as if we were just friends.” Yet, elsewhere she writes of the danger of “depend[ing] on relationships that can only work by virtue of my own capacity to intimately share secrets.” But relationships of that lopsided nature exist outside of wards like this, a point the rest of the book makes in its condemnation of a society that refuses to countenance pain expressed honestly, to reciprocate with authentic care rather than automatic incarceration. This is why the narrator doesn’t always want to leave the institution, doesn’t actually know if she can “build on top of this broken world, these interior ruins.”


Her reticence is relatable, in a world where “[p]sychiatry exists on the premise of internally directed treatment forms” and staunchly refuses to recognize that emotional distress might throb with political fury, economic dread, or gendered fear. She daydreams of structural change, daring to ask, “Could we not imagine treatments that are instead externally directed, involving the outside world gearing itself towards a wider and more comprehensive emotional spectrum?” She admits: “I don’t know.”


The book prompts other questions of form. Can we not imagine literary genre geared toward the same dimensional understanding of narrative, toward spacious and ample stories that don’t conclude when we expect them to, instead looping and folding in on themselves, crossing their wires and cross-pollinating? Genre runs along regular tracks, as unidirectional and restrictive as diagnoses. Yet honest, incisive, genuinely novel accounts of experience rely on reports from the liminal and interstitial, the glittering gaps between fiction and reality, sick and well.


What Kingdom replicates its argument against reductive, stigmatizing, and profit-oriented diagnostic structures in its formal choices, its refusal to choose a genre, to resemble a novel, a poem, or an essay entirely. Finely wrought scenes fall into the void, preceding only blank space, or else run into dead ends before undergoing resurrection as essayistic digressions or polemical paragraphs. Individual pages read like prose poems or fragments of songs: rhythmic, opaque, open to interpretation yet startling in their emotional specificity; renditions of illness I hadn’t previously heard but immediately recognized, synesthetic, amnesiac experiences of emotion set against time in the thick of the kind of pain people don’t respect—or are afraid to hear about out of fear of realizing they scribbled down a similar song once, and hid it away.


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David Foster Wallace, who spent time in the very same mental institution described in Girl, Interrupted, once asked us to reconsider our “skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.” The speech in question took issue with liberal education’s emphasis on learning how to think. Instead, it argued, what’s truly powerful is an awareness that we have “total freedom of choice regarding what to think about.” Though youth wards often disseminate the kind of education Wallace rejects, it’s the tender rebellions, shared cigarettes, stolen secrets, and personal revelations that get labeled “symptoms,” and simple insistences on words like “we” that comprise what the narrator chooses to think about. Taken together, these reveal the power of what might seem obvious: the possibility that we can shift our frame of reference, reorient our gaze, look at society through a microscope or a kaleidoscope—anything save for the rose-tinted glasses we’ve been wearing.


In a short story Wallace purportedly wrote about a woman he once loved who struggled with mental illness, the woman’s longtime therapist dies of a questionable suicide. The woman is consequently left adrift, desperately reaching out to a “Support System” of adults with lives of the kind of “functional and blissful[l],” theatrical normalcy What Kingdom mocks in the outside world. Some are empathetic, while others try to get off the phone; no one can really help because no one really gets it. Things similarly fall apart for What Kingdom’s cast of characters when their trusted ward leader is forced to step down, leading the patients toward what, though it reads like a daydream, is really a revolt—against the economics that trapped them there and made it impossible for one of the few people who cared for them to continue to do so; against the individualistic rhetoric of cure that intended to inspire a desire to escape, but not like this, not through polypersonal psychosis with an eardrum-shattering emotional register. The patients “help each other detach the long fluorescent strip lights.” They “stand on chairs, receive the ceiling panels with glee, […] empty the kitchen cupboards and drawers […] All for freedom and for pleasure.” What is needed in this hospital isn’t another ward leader, or stricter rules and more comprehensive routines; what’s needed are “[s]weeping measures across the healthcare system.” Since this has been a stage all along, since theater is often an exercise in metaphor, and since this cast no longer wants to play their parts, it’s time to strike the set, so they dismantle the ward itself.


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I began with Girl, Interrupted, the film from which What Kingdom takes its title. I want to end with where Girl, Interrupted’s title came from. Near the end of the book the film is based on, Susanna—by now years out of the mental institution—visits a painting she saw when she was just a girl, before she became a psychiatric patient. At the time, the Vermeer painting had felt like a warning, though she didn’t read its name back then: Girl Interrupted at Her Music. In it, a man leans over a girl, pointing something out to her in the sheet music she’s been absorbed in. The girl might want to roll her eyes at the intrusion, but there’s something like fear in her gaze too, an understanding that this isn’t the first interruption, nor will it be the last—of her growth, her search for something beautiful, for meaning and song among those pen markings, if only someone would give her enough time to really read them.


Observing the painting and recognizing herself in its subject, Susanna speaks directly to the girl, tells her she sees her, “[i]nterrupted at her music: as my life had been, interrupted in the music of being seventeen, as her life had been, snatched and fixed on canvas: one moment made to stand still and to stand for all the other moments, whatever they would be or might have been. What life can recover from that?” What Kingdom wants to know, and offers a possible answer: a life that is lived alongside others and against restrictive categories and timelines. A life that reaches for new genres and more complex forms. A life that remains tender toward bruised souls and brave enough to tell us where it hurts.

LARB Contributor

Emmeline Clein’s first book, Dead Weight: Essays on Hunger and Harm, is out now from Knopf. Her chapbook Toxic was published by Choo Choo Press in 2022. Her essays, criticism, and reporting have been published in The Yale Review, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and other outlets.

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