Sunday, March 8, 2009

Biographical Myths: Busted

Introducing a series of exposés of some of the commonly encountered biographical myths about Janet Frame.

If possible I'll investigate why particular fallacies have snowballed so far away from any kernel of truth. In part, it's because of the human tendency to embroider and exaggerate to make a good story.

Sometimes there is an easily discernible deliberate attempt to shape the Janet Frame myth - Frame herself did it, for instance, in her Beginnings essay in which her aim was to secure financial aid for her writing. So she made sure to give a good case for needing to write. She lived to regret that, and tried to suppress the essay subsequently!

She also clearly shaped the 'recluse' myth as a method of self-protection from the harassment suffered by all prominent people, and also to deter attempts by superficial people to waste her time by socialising with her as if she were some trophy.

To be discerning in the company you keep, and to be anti-social, are two quite different things. Janet Frame was the former.

In the early years of their friendship, Frank Sargeson often played up Frame's vulnerability in order to try to secure her some sort of funding. Other friends protected her loyally from unwanted advances, but this gate-keeping was sometimes without her knowledge and now and then more than a little motivated by possessiveness, or to cement themselves as having a rare and special status in Frame's circle and to exclude any competition.

The rule of silence she demanded from her friends and family did tend to encourage the wild speculations that form the basis of many journalistic portraits. I've been looking recently at the obituaries published around the world in early 2004, and it has been a shock to me to see how much misinformation there is, even from obit writers who ostensibly knew Frame well. Even one of the most accurate obits contains the extraordinary claim that she was "pathologically shy" - which is not a diagnosis, and has not issued from any qualified source. It's an invention.

She was shy, certainly, as are many if not most people in appropriate contexts, but her shyness had no part at all in her medical misdiagnosis, and it was a situation-specific shyness and was not excessive, as is indicated by the number of eye witnesses who attest to her cheerful nature, wit, and gift for brilliant conversation (see for example, CK Stead 2008).

The fact that Janet Frame had the discipline and motivation to at some point walk away from a convivial group and go to her study in solitude and to write a masterpiece, appears to have really really annoyed some people. So they pathologise her ability to separate life and work.

And apparently readers who never even met her can make their own decision about what was "wrong" with her. Many people assume that because of her brush with medical misadventure, she must have has something "wrong" with her.

I believe that most intelligent readers do realise that what was "wrong" was the narrow punitive society of the time, and the authoritarian and obtuse medical system. Unfortunately those people haven't written the potted bios one finds dotted around the Internet! (Perhaps they've written the obscure ponderous theses!)

Another factor in the Frame mythography is that embittered researchers or others spurned by Frame, or fellow writers out-shone by her, seem to have on occasion carried out vindictive or envious campaigns characterising her as disordered in order to disparage the value of her work.

This tendency has survived her death, alas.

Michael King, Frame's biographer, gathered a fair bit of evidence for that same phenomenon, but while Frame was alive it was too sensitive a subject for him to explore too deeply. He does touch on it in the biography so a careful reading shows the trend.

Ironically, some of Frame's (and King's) detractors claim that King withheld the "truth" about Frame, and merely reported a 'compassionate truth' about Frame while she was still alive.

Of course these commentators insist that the withheld 'truth' is a derogatory 'truth' about Frame herself - because why would King withhold a truth that revealed a Frame more sane, more self-directing and stronger than the popularly imagined 'Janet'? (Why indeed? - it's a good question!)

One of the stories that King did not tell, was in fact the story of the depth of resentment that a few of her associates harboured towards Frame. King didn't tell (much) about the deliberate character assassination... There were various reasons, including the fact that it would not have been compassionate for Janet (who was capable of deep compassion and forgiveness) if King opened old wounds and relitigated obsolete battles, that she had no wish to revisit.

But King wasn't protecting Frame as much as he was protecting those in whose interest it had been to foster the various myths about her. And of course while some of the protagonists were still alive he couldn't tell the whole story for fear of creating new literary feuds, or involving himself in litigation.

Some of the worst betrayals and false portrayals of Janet Frame may not even be told in my own lifetime, but I have some satisfaction in being confident that it will all come out in the wash, in the end.

Because the evidence is all out there...

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