Saturday, September 6, 2008

Framed by Fame

6 February 1990
Members of the Order of New Zealand
(NZ's highest civil honour)
line up with Queen Elizabeth

Janet Frame and Ed Hillary
were both suitably fitted for their "Kiwi Icon" status
by their remarkable achievements in their own fields,
their determination and courage
but also their down-to earth practical natures,
shy self-deprecating humour,
compassion, sense of justice, and humility.

All New Zealand mourned earlier this year when the great Kiwi hero Sir Edmund Hillary died. The country stopped still to pay respects on the day of his State Funeral. The Hillary family, long used to sharing their loved one with his admirers, coped remarkably well given the unrelenting public interest.

Janet Frame's family had a smaller taste of a similar outpouring of public grief, when Janet died 4 years earlier. We found that we shared our loved one with a nation who also loved her. Two weeks after her private funeral, a public memorial service was held in the Dunedin Town Hall, and attended by the Prime Minister, the Governor General, the Mayor of Dunedin, other dignitaries, friends, family and colleagues, and about 1500 well-wishers.

Janet's memorial service was broadcast live on TV, and so was Edmund Hillary's funeral.

At Sir Edmund Hillary's funeral his son Peter spoke, and something he said struck me deeply. He was talking about his long experiences of sharing his famous family member with the public. He learned at a very young age, he said, that there were several Ed Hillaries - there was his Dad, of course, and others too, playing various roles. One of the Ed Hillaries especially, was an Ed who bore very little resemblance at all to the Ed his family knew. This was the Ed that Peter first met in the school playground. The Ed his classmates knew and held dear. This was the legendary Ed, a man built up by genuine admiration, anecdote, perhaps some myth-making and some projection, and who had become to many people who maybe had never even met the real Ed, a solid living breathing person as familiar to them as the members of their own families.

I did envy Peter Hillary for learning this lesson so young. Janet Frame was already very famous in New Zealand terms by the time she came back to NZ in the early 60s (as she had "made a name" overseas), but she protected herself, and her family and friends, from the worst effects of the fame, by her insistence on living a private life.

Her inner circle - not a small group at all, but a fiercely loyal network - kept her confidences. Janet did not even nearly live the reputed life of a "recluse" - she was secretive, not reclusive (there is a crucial difference). But the lack of information about her actual comings and goings, and relationships, allowed the myth of reclusiveness to flourish. Which suited her I guess, because she thus managed to avoid as much as possible the pretensions and superficialities of "celebrity" life, which she detested.

All those years I thought that in our secretiveness we were protecting her from harassment and exposure. And we were I suppose. What I never suspected, was that she was protecting us from the fallout of having a family member who was famous.

Because Janet's true personal life and identity were so well hidden, it wasn't until after her death that I have encountered the power and persistence of her mythical alter egos. I have received angry comments from people who lecture me about my own best friend, and tell me I didn't understand her at all...

I receive poison pen letters from a crazed stalker who tells me I am mad and all my family are mad, including my aunt of course, and who makes the distressing accusation that I locked my own daughter in a madhouse at birth. This kind of cruel falsehood is sick or evil, or both, and apparently comes with the territory... No wonder Janet was so keen not to entertain her fame.

It is alarming to know that someone is so obsessed and hostile that they go to such lengths to be unpleasant... Janet was plagued occasionally by celebrity stalkers over her career even in spite of her attempts to live a relatively normal life. Anyone famous risks this and that's why famous people do throw walls up around themselves. The shame is that Janet Frame's self-protectiveness has been so pathologised, and that in challenging the fallacy of her "social inadequacy" I have become a target also, of slander and venom.

I must hasten to assure anyone reading this, that the messages received are not all so horrific!

Most of it is all good, and there are copious amounts of business mail to occupy me. if you want nothing but the positive news, look at the JFLT website for news of new editions etc.

In the same mail I also receive letters of gratitude and affirmation. Today some angel - a kind stranger - emailed to say "thank you for the fantastic work you do in honour of New Zealand's greatest writer", and a card came from a woman battling cancer, who had picked up and read a copy of Towards Another Summer that she found in hospital, and loved it so much she wanted to make contact somehow.

One of Janet's favourite songs was "I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden" - she used to sing it and say it to me over the years. When I was a teenager she sent me a postcard with a picture of a rose garden on one side, and she had scrawled "I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden' on the other. It was just like her to subvert the cliche refusal to provide a rose garden, into the statement of the gift of a rose garden, and to exploit the simultaneously opposite meanings of the one statement. That was her forte.

As a linguist I studied the phenomenon of the 'auto-antonym' - an ambiguous word that has two meanings, which contradict each other. Janet enjoyed hearing about my discovery of these - but of course it wasn't news to her at all. Her protagonist in Towards Another Summer is called "Grace Cleave", and cleave is an auto-antonym, the opposite of itself. Bind to, and separate from.

If your preoccupation is in being or defending those who are "socially isolated", you read Grace Cleave as incapable of connection, and you read her as Janet. But if you don't also get the double meaning of 'cleave', then half of what Frame is telling you is going "whoosh" over your head. Even if Frame was Cleave, she would still have to be the other meaning of Cleave, the one you're missing.

I'm not trying to say that your Janet, if you have one, is wrong. I would like you to consider that your Janet is only a part of the real Janet. I'm glad your Janet is a hero to you, and that you find inspiration from her deep knowledge and understanding of and compassion for the things and people that move you. You seem to think that was all she was though, and that you can define her by one part of who she was or could be. She was all that - but she was also more than that.

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