Thursday, 8:52am

Elizabeth Winston

Feb 25, 2012

I've been thinking recently about the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, as I do every few years. This time, it's in part because I'm doing research for a lit paper on what Foucault called the "Great Confinement" of the 17th Century, when the mentally ill in Europe - "unreasonable" people - were, on a large scale, put into institutions. Madness was viewed as the opposite of reason, and in the dawn of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, that was a bad thing. The director Jane Campion made a film of Frame's three-volume autobiography, titled "An Angel at my Table" after the first of the books. It's beautiful and heartbreaking, the story of Frame's childhood and young adulthood in New Zealand (she was born in 1924), and follows her life as she traveled through Europe during her early years as a writer. It could be the story of any young writer, except that Frame - an unusually shy child whose life was scarred early by the separate drownings of two of her sisters - was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic in her early twenties. Confined for eight years at the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum near Dunedin, she underwent repeated electroshock treatments, and a scheduled lobotomy was only cancelled when a book of short stories she had published while hospitalized won the Hubert Church Memorial Award. Eventually, it was determined that Frame's diagnosis had been incorrect. She was released from the asylum, and began the long process of putting her life and her sanity back together. In addition to An Angel at my Table, a remarkable memoir, Frame went on to publish eleven novels, four short story collections, and a volume of poetry, which won numerous awards. She died in January, 2004, in Dunedin. Many of the "stories and sketches" in Frame's 1963 collection The Reservior are about the obsessions of childhood; learning to draw, wandering with her siblings to the terrifying and seductive nearby reservoir on summer afternoons, competing with her schoolmates for handwriting and poetry awards. The work is alternately dark and hilarious, and always pentrating. In "Royal Icing," she begins,
My mother had no money and no clothes except for an old sack tied around her waist, and a costume, with moth balls in the pockets, hanging in the front wardrobe. Her titties were flat and heavy against her tummy. Her legs had varicose veins. Her forehead was damp with steam or sweat or something which, sighing and waving her powerful arms in the humid air, she called "atmosphere." "The atmosphere's very heavy today," she would remark. "It's something in the atmosphere that is responsible." Responsibility was a terrible substance to be apportioned, and mostly it came to rest upon the government; but the atmosphere could accept it just as well.
Almost twenty years later, Frame published Faces in the Water, a novel about her experiences in mental institutions, her fellow inmates at Seacliff whose lives, we can only assume, were not saved by writing. In part, the book is about the fear people have of the "insane," the marginalization and silencing of those who fell for one reason or another, in the mid-20th century, into the category of "unreasonable." It's a difficult book, and I haven't read the whole thing. I picked it up again this week, thinking about the classifications of sane and insane, reasonable and unreasonable - about our need to categorize. Locked in a mental ward, Frame needed to write - to explore the vast middle ground, to make sense of herself outside her diagnosis. Fortunately for us, it saved her.