Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Letter to North & South



An edited and abbreviated version of this letter to the editor has appeared in the Letters column of North & South May 2011 pages 14-15.


Dear Editor,

I'm writing to challenge a false claim that was made about Janet Frame in your April 2011 issue (page 46) in the article 'Different Strokes'. It is incorrectly stated that "Frame's mental illness was never diagnosed". This deceitful proposition is akin to propaganda of the "have you stopped beating your wife?" variety. The wording leads us to presuppose, because her misdiagnosis of schizophrenia was famously overturned, that Frame must thus be in need of yet another psychiatric label applied by so-called 'medical experts'.

These are the same 'experts' exposed by Frame "who over the years as my ‘history’ was accumulating, had not spoken to me at one time for longer than ten or fifteen minutes, and in total time over eight years, for about eighty minutes; who had administered no tests, not even the physical tests of E.E.G. or X-rays (apart from the chest X-ray whenever there was a new case of tuberculosis, a disease prevalent in the mental hospitals then); the experts whose judgment was based on daily reports by overworked irritable nursing sisters." (Quote from An Angel at My Table.)

Of course medical science has clearly progressed since the 1940s. You don't even need to meet the person for ten minutes now, before you give them a label. You just need to watch a TV docudrama about their life.

The New Zealand medical authorities failed Frame the first time and it has been disappointing to see how keen they are to fill the apparent vacuum with another misdiagnosis. She was in fact given a final diagnosis by a world class panel of psychiatrists in London who made a careful and professional examination of Frame herself and of her medical history, and determined that she had never had a mental illness, as is made quite clear in Janet Frame's autobiography and in Michael King's biography Wrestling with the Angel: a Life of Janet Frame.

Your journalist mentions that a 2007 New Zealand Medical Journal article "surmised" that Frame "had high-functioning autism, or Asperger's". This misleading reference should be qualified by the further information that the article was an opinion piece only and was not evidence-based ('Did Janet Frame have high-functioning autism?' NZMJ 12 October 2007). The author, Sarah Abrahamson, a Kiwi medical doctor working at the time in an Australian rehabilitation facility, used highly visualised anecdotes apparently derived from mythologised popular accounts of Frame, to illustrate her thesis. That article, by the way, is also one source of the patronising claim that Frame never secured an adequate psychiatric diagnosis in her lifetime.

Given that Frame had numbered among her many close friends at least one each of a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, a psychiatric nurse and a psychologist, (as well as the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers), and that the diagnoses of 'high functioning autism' and 'Asperger's' were available for many years prior to her death in 2004, if such a diagnosis had been a relevant one for Frame she would have recognised and embraced it.

In fact Michael King had told Frame that some in the Asperger community were claiming her as "one of them". She discussed the concept with her confidantes, considered it, and discounted it, based as it was on the myths about her rather than the real her. King clearly stated in an interview in September 2002 that Frame was not autistic. (Not, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, that there is anything wrong with that.) So it is simply scandalous for Abrahamson to arrogantly assume that she "knows best". Without ever having met Frame and without having consulted anyone close to her or even Frame's family doctor, Abrahamson went ahead and published her 'viewpoint' article, ostensibly asking a harmless and a subjective question. But the news of Frame's so-called diagnosis of autism was reported around the world as having been determined by 'experts' and Abrahamson has subsequently vehemently defended the 'diagnosis'. But by definition, posthumous diagnosis relies on caricatures and exaggeration; and the temptation to overlook the counter-evidence has obviously been irresistible.

I note in closing that 'Different Strokes' introduces us to a young man who is the son of a second cousin of Janet Frame. Given that both Janet Frame's parents came from families of 11 siblings, and that from the marriages of the 20 or so aunts and uncles she consequently had so many dozens of cousins she hadn't met them all, and probably hundreds of second cousins, I'd guess that the pool of 'third' cousins is starting to become rather large, and I'd wager that the statistical distribution of people with autism amongst that population is likely to be the same as that in the general population. Of course your magazine wisely did not draw an explicit link between the lad's diagnosis and the disputed opinion about his famous distant relative. But the reader is left with the idea. That's the way scuttlebutt works best, slyly, and in ways so subtle it is almost impossible to refute.

Pamela Gordon,
Chair, Janet Frame Literary Trust
Dunedin

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