Thursday, April 14, 2011

Critics of Sarah Abrahamson #10


The Editor,

New Zealand Medical Journal.

Dear Sir,

Re: 'Did Janet Frame have high-functioning autism?'


As a long-term friend of Janet’s, I was surprised to read the above article.

I met Janet in 1959, when I was completing my training as a Registered Mental Nurse at the Maudsley & Bethlem Royal Hospitals, where Janet was an in-patient. As fellow Kiwis, we quickly became friends, & when I returned to New Zealand in 1960, we kept in touch by letter. On her arrival in NZ a few years later Janet soon phoned & visited us in the Waikato, with her sister & family.

Although we were unable to see one another often over the next years, never living in the same area, we corresponded & telephoned regularly. Janet always welcomed my occasional visits & was always interested in my growing family.

In her last years in Dunedin, & my retirement, I stayed with her several times, & we talked often on the phone. I visited her a few days before her death.

I consider ours was ‘a normal peer relationship’, unimpaired, & I know of several other close friends who would say the same.

In all those years I don’t recall any behaviours which suggest high-functioning autism. Initially, in the Maudsley, Janet’s condition was just what one would expect after years of incarceration in NZ Mental Hospitals. As I had spent time as a trainee nurse in a NZ hospital in 1949-50, I know only too well the damaging effect & iatrogenic symptoms which institutionalization produced. Of course Janet’s confidence was severely affected, but Janet still related to other patients & staff well, showing a great sense of humour & amusing us all.

I have considered the list of features of High-Functioning autism carefully, & Dr Abrahamson’s argument for each. I cannot agree with her on any of these. But then I only knew Janet well for 55 years.


T. Westenra
October 2007


[NB: The NZ Medical Journal editor refused to publish this very important letter, and so its author sent it on to Frame's family. Considering that it is an authoritative and enlightening account from a long-time close friend of Frame's who was also a trained psychiatric nurse, one can only wonder at the reasons for its suppression.]

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