Monday, April 25, 2011

War and Peace: an ANZAC Day memory

WW1: soldiers leave for the war in Europe
(A Frame family farewell at Dunedin Railway Station)

Janet Frame on the outbreak of the Second World War:

"Had I been a city, the shock of war would have torn apart all buildings, entombing the population, or as after a volcanic eruption there might have been an overflow of numbness, like lava, preserving all in a stone mask of stillness and silence. I had never felt so shocked, so unreal. I knew that war happened in history and in places far away, in other nations; that my father had ‘been to war’; that some of the stories I most loved featured young soldiers ‘on their way to the wars’ or wounded old soldiers coming ‘home from the wars’. I had relished Miss Lindsay’s reading of ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’ and the battles of the time of Arthur: ‘So all day long the noise of battle rolled . . .’ And year after year in the School Journal I had read:

In Flanders field the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below . . .
 In the Anzac Commemoration at the Waitaki Boys’ High School Hall of Memories I had heard Mr Milner proclaiming the British Empire’s glorious deeds in battle and sung, feelingly, without translation of the scene into one of undue horror:

O Valiant Hearts, who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through the battle-flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the Land you loved . . .
I knew of the pacifist belief of Mother’s religion, that two of her brothers had been conscientious objectors in the First War and imprisoned for their refusal to kill. I tried to imagine the people I knew in Oamaru – the Walsh boys, the Easton boys, the Luxons, even Jack Dixon, becoming characters in this new story and with knapsack or kit bag setting out cheerfully for the war. I had honestly believed that the days of war were over."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tales from the Tribe

Amidst the wider story of Bill Pearson, a NZ writer and academic who stayed in the closet in order to preserve his status and lifestyle in the face of homophobia, this book also contains a couple of rare and remarkable insights into the social life and relationships of Janet Frame, an author who moved in some of the same social circles, and whose own story intersects and contrasts with Pearson's.

No Fretful Sleeper (Auckland University Press 2010) is a careful study of a writer who allowed the narrowness of his times to stifle his literary expression. Bill Pearson's censoring of his own fiction in the face of oppressive attitudes towards homosexuality contrasts with Janet Frame's courage in valiantly pursuing her ambition to live as a professional writer despite a society that was every bit as punishing towards single women who did not conform to expectations of their behaviour. In Frame's case it seems the choice was either to marry or to teach, and she did neither. She chose to write. To this day the masculinist popular narrative of Frame (such as is conveyed in the reprehensibly patronising 'biography' currently displayed on NZ's official online encyclopedia) is that her abandonment of an unsuitable teaching career was a "failure", rather than the triumph it really was, of a brave dedication to her literary vocation. The Te Ara bio (written by Patrick Evans, ironically himself a former highschool teacher) even insultingly subtitles the article about Frame with the definition "schoolteacher, writer" thus defining her by a career that she never really started, and that she decisively abandoned for positive rather than negative reasons.

The sexism of this definition of Frame as a "schoolteacher" is cringe making, especially when the parallel Frank Sargeson biography doesn't similarly demean his purity as a writer by labelling him as a "lawyer", despite the fact that he before he started scribbling he did qualify in the law.

Frame chose to abandon teaching in her probationary year, to pursue her writing, a decision which led directly to institutional punishment that still did not deter her from her literary goals, which she reached despite all the hurdles she encountered.

It would be good to see some feminist research comparing the discourses about Frame compared to the way her male contemporaries are cast in a much more positive light despite their addictions and other weaknesses, and to 'reframe' Frame as a role model who managed to escape the "puritan straightjacket'. And to survive "as a person" as well.

Paul Millar does not in this particular volume succumb to the jaundiced masculinist perspective on Frame. His Frame vignettes - drawn from primary material and not the usual hearsay - are unusually fresh and will probably surprise those who know only the myths about Frame. Especially touching is the revelation that Frame was one of Sargeson's most trusted confidantes, and that in his letters to her we see him at his most honest and vulnerable. (Perhaps the more shocking, then, to hear how he refers to her behind her back!)

Fretful Sleepers is an excellent study filling in a few gaps; it makes fascinating reading (although there are a couple of startling errors overlooked at proof stage).

Peter Wells reviewed the book for the NZ Listener, and highlights Millar's chilling summary of Pearson's choice:

"Although he survived as a man when he returned to New Zealand, he perished as an artist."
Of course here might lie one of the sources of the depersonalising attitude to Frame that comes out of male NZ academia (as has reached its climax in the bloodless portrait of her in Evans's fan fiction romance Gifted). Janet Frame did not perish as an artist, so the men assume (and perhaps hope) that she had to pay the price of her humanity, for the artistic choices she made.

One of the first disseminators of this derogatory attitude towards Frame - that she was in the world, but not of it - was her so-called "mentor" Frank Sargeson. We see in Millar's book that by 1963 Sargeson's attitude has so hardened towards Frame that he deplores the fact that her Scented Gardens for the Blind has won the NZ Book Award for the year, thus crushing his hopes that the top honour would be given to Pearson's novel Coal Flat. (The later Sargeson mellowed somewhat, but much damage had already been done to Frame's reputation within NZ.)

In masculinist NZ literary mythology Coal Flat is still mentioned in reverent terms as one of the contenders for the elusive "Great NZ novel". And it is a great novel, but now we learn why it was not truly great. Pearson censored himself. Perhaps the example of Frame's contrasting honesty on the page, leading quite simply to her persecution, was instructive.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I alfabetets utkant

There is a new Janet Frame foreign edition due for publication on 25th April 2011 from MODERNISTA Sweden:

(The Edge of the Alphabet)
translated by Lars Sundh.

Monday, April 18, 2011

True or False? #2

Janet Frame was on hugging terms with Norman Mailer.

True or False?

True or False? #1

Introducing a new series. True or False:

"John Money was Professor of Medical Psychology at John Hopkins University. When he retired he donated his huge book collection to institutions throughout the world & his art collection to the Eastern Southland Gallery in Gore. Michael King met John Money whilst he was researching the life of Janet Frame who lived in the basement of John Moneys Baltimore house for over 30 years."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Janet Frame Memorial Lecture 2011

JOY COWLEY delivered the 2011 Janet Frame Memorial Lecture.

The lecture, organised by The New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc) as part of New Zealand Book Month, was recorded at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa on 3 March 2011.

There will be a broadcast of the lecture on Radio NZ National on Sunday afternoon 24th April at 4 pm.

Audio of this lecture will be available after the broadcast on 24 April 2011.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You Are Now Entering the Human Heart

One of the best titles, ever! Now to be published in Dutch translation from De Geus.

Selected Stories by Janet Frame.

List of foreign language editions

At last, The BIBLIOGRAPHY page on the Janet Frame Literary Trust website has been updated.

The page now has the current list of Janet Frame foreign language editions (as of 7 April 2011). This is a work in progress as some early editions, sublicensed editions and reissues are still being identified.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Diagnosis: Poet

Further to the the incorrect statement in the April 2011 issue of North & South that "Frame's mental illness was never diagnosed", see above a copy of a highly authoritative letter written on this very topic by the UK psychiatrist who led the investigation into the misdiagnosis of Janet Frame (Clutha) by the New Zealand medical system.

Professor Cawley states in no uncertain terms:

  "She has been seen by a number of eminent psychiatrists, all of whom agree with me that she has never suffered from a mental illness in any formal sense."

Here is a transcription of the full letter:

To whom it may concern

     Miss Janet Frame Clutha has told me that a number of literary scholars and editors of anthologies are publishing biographical statements which refer to her previous state of mind as sick or disordered. I understand that some are going as far as to suggest that her creative ability is in some way related to a history of mental illness.

     Miss Clutha was under my care between 1958 and 1963, and I saw her frequently during that time; she and others have kept me informed about her activities since then. She has been seen by a number of eminent psychiatrists, all of whom agree with me that she has never suffered from a mental illness in any formal sense. She went through a long period of considerable unhappiness before making various decisions about how to spend her life.

I have told Miss Clutha that in my opinion any writer who publishes comments referring to her "disordered mind" or "mental illness" is running two risks. One is of public ridicule at the hands of scholars more knowledgeable and informed about these matters. The other is litigation.

R.H. Cawley PhD, MRCP, FRCPsych. Physician
The Maudsley Hospital

29th April 1974

So, all the eminent psychiatrists who examined Janet Frame and knew her well for many years, were unanimous that she had never had a mental illness; the diagnosis was overturned and it is incorrect to claim either that Frame had a mental illness, or that she had one that was never diagnosed.

Michael King reproduced this letter in his biography of Janet Frame, so any researcher claiming to investigate Frame's "mental state" is either negligent or dishonest if they do not acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that the issue of whether Frame had any mental illness had been thoroughly and professionally investigated and answered, in the negative.

Not apparently, to the satisfaction of the journalists and literary critics of New Zealand!

And ignorant lay people "know" the truth about Frame, with the fervour of fundamental religious faith. They have acquired their beliefs during pub gossip, through classrooms infected by the official myth, and by watching the telly.

It's wonderful that so many mildly autistic adults are "relieved" to acquire a diagnosis and finally have an explanation for their "difference".

But it's an imposition on Frame's integrity and agency to claim that she too would be "relieved" by the posthumous label that has been so violently and ungraciously applied to her.

She was not searching for another label, as the letter above clearly shows.

She knew why she was "different". She was a writer, a fish out of water in a judgmental provincial conformist small pond.

Diagnosis: poet.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Writers and Their Cats

Janet Frame near the end of her life,
 with her last cat.

Anyone who knows Janet Frame's poetry knows that like so many other writers, she was a cat lover.

"The cat of habit
has the place marked,
the joint cased."

"You know you were my favourite purr-being"

There's a wonderful collection of snapshots of famous writers and their cats,
at this link:

Poison Pen Letters

Ever since I spoke publicly in October 2007 to challenge a posthumous "diagnosis" of Janet Frame as autistic, I have been hounded, publicly and privately, and around the internet, by a person or persons who are deeply offended by my stance. These people claim to be associated with the autism "community" and place me as an enemy of this community because I have refused to agree with their opinion that Janet Frame must have been on the autistic spectrum.

My opinion is actually informed by a thorough knowledge and understanding of the latest research on autism, but more importantly than that, it is based on a close personal association with Janet for 50 years, as well as an extremely good working familiarity with all of her published and much of her unpublished work. I happen to know that the person they are "diagnosing" has no resemblance to the real Janet. 

Pamela Gordon with Janet Frame: a fifty-year friendship

My argument is not with autism itself.

My argument is with the description of Janet Frame that is used as the base for their posthumous diagnosis of Frame. It is patently wrong.  Their delusions about Frame include such especially outrageously incorrect claims such as that she had "extreme difficulty with most social interactions" (Dr Sarah Abrahamson, speaker slide, Victoria Autism Conference 2010).

There is a host of possible evidence from a multitude of sources including Frame's autobiography, the biography about her, and even her whole oeuvre of literary work taken in context, that this myth of Janet Frame is not just an exaggeration or a matter of scale; it's completely off-track. Numerous people who knew Frame have put on record her extraordinary verbal and communicative facilities, and her ability to relate with ease to anyone from the Prime Minister to the Queen of England to the family next door, from gang members to the artistic elites of New York.

The evidence they cite for Frame's 'social and communicative disability' is taken largely from Frame's fiction, and also from selective readings and misreadings of her memoir, which in itself was a selective document in which Frame told her story, not the story of her relationships, because she didn't want to intrude into the privacy of those who were close to her.

They do not know or describe the real Janet Frame, so how can they possibly diagnose her?

The caricature they describe is based on hearsay, provincial ignorance, malicious gossip, cultural myths, a fictional portrayal, and a poor understanding of the literary genres Frame employed. And it suffers from vast omissions of all the counter evidence to a diagnosis of autism.

I have sustained the most vicious and unkind personal attacks on me from people who seem to think that because I am "in denial" as they term it, about my aunt, that I must have a poor opinion of anyone who is on the mild end of the autism spectrum. According to them, that can be the only reason I do not agree with them. They have drawn a portrait of me as an autism hater.

I am nothing of the sort, and I sincerely hope that this is obvious to any reasonable observer. But the defamatory attacks on me continue to this day.

Almost anywhere there is mention of me or Janet Frame on the net, these internet "trolls" come in with derogatory and defamatory comments about me specifically in an obvious attempt to discredit me. I have tried to ignore it and to "rise above" but the trouble is, this sort of mud sticks.

I have never said anything disparaging of any autistic person, no matter what end of the spectrum, and I have known many people who genuinely fall along that spectrum, from one end to the other. But I am often quoted by my attackers as saying that the only reason I don't like the autism diagnosis of Frame is because I am supposed to take it as some sort of "slur" on her character.

If she had been autistic, I would not see it as a slur. I don't think it is a slur on anyone to say that they have any degree of autism. The reason I speak up against a false diagnosis of my aunt, is because I prefer the truth, and their diagnosis is based on a whole bunch of lies.

The suggestion that Janet may have had high functioning autism is a satisfying one to those who believe the myths about her, but I can't help preferring to point out that the person the diagnosis-hounds think they are talking about just did not exist. But they want their poster child and they don't care who they will slander and try to destroy in order to secure their cultural property.

Because it is known that my daughter has classic autism, my detractors claim - repeatedly, although I try to explain that they are wrong - that I must just ignorantly not realise there are two ends of the spectrum. They patronisingly tell me, over and over, and say of me, that high functioning autism manifests differently to 'classic' autism.. They think I confuse HFA with the severe type that they believe my daughter to have.

I do not have a negative opinion of any kind of position on the autism spectrum - not of one end or the other. Some of my detractors apparently have a low opinion of those who like my daughter are located nearer the severe end. They seem to have a horror of any association of autism spectrum disorder with "retardation" or even of 'mental illness". They put words into my mouth and then slander me for their own terror of any possible "dark side" to an autism diagnosis.

They seem to be the ones who fear any association of high functioning autism or Aspergers with intellectual disability or mental illness! In fact they seem to be the ones with a deep disrespect: for people with mental illness and severe autism.

Perhaps they are are afraid they will be given these labels themselves? In fact they seem to be shopping around for the coolest geeky label they can find, and "genius-autist" is the label du jour.

I've had to put up with abusive emails and texts, with toxic poison pen emails and vicious blog comments including those casting aspersions on my own love for my daughter and even cruelly suggesting that I might be ashamed of her.

It's incredible to me that anyone who claims to speak for the "autism community" should so horrifically attack a mother who has supported and loved a family member with autism for nearly 40 years, but there you go.

And in attacking me, these so-called "autism advocates" are attacking someone who, for many years before autism was a well-known condition, advocated for human rights for people with autism and belonged to and served in a voluntary capacity in organisations publicising autism. And I also was studying issues of communication in people with autism less than ten years ago, when I was enrolled for a PhD in linguistics. Yet these people say of me, "she must have issues with accepting her own daughter's autism and that's why she rejects the truth about her aunt".

Generally I just delete the toxic attacks but not until I have saved them and saved the IP information identifying where the person was when they posted the comment to the internet. In case I ever decide to sue these people to try to stop the slanders once and for all. I do have plenty of evidence, including facebook posts and radio interviews, and the libellous messages these people send to my associates and family members, signing their own names.

The below "anonymous" comment was made on a blog post I wrote in September 2008. The blog post was about the fact that Frame was a lone twin: her twin died in utero:

Here's the anonymous comment that was made:

"Mrs. Gordon - noone agrees with you on this, except perhaps for a few people with no idea about autism and some autists in denial. Any of us with autism will know she exactly describes the mental state in so many of her books, especially the ones which are definite autobiographies or very thinly veiled, and the biography. I don't think you know how little most respect your opinion on this, how most people who meet you think you are a stuck-up bitch with a very boring public speaking style, and how much of a laughing stock you are among people with some idea about autism. You don't even have any friends or colleagues who can be bothered posting any comments supporting you (maybe you need to make some up?) And by the way noone is fulled by your A Customer Amazon posts: can't you even try to sound like a normal person not a literary wanker? And the biography clearly documents your daughter has a severe mental retardation issue, not just autism, so that doesn't really make you an expert on that, apparently. JF said herself anyway that despite this she could identify with her! Have a good hard look at yourself woman. Little hope of this I know but whatever, you've annoyed and offended lots of good people, and the autism community, without it appears feeling any "empathy". Maybe you should just try even meeting one or 2 non-retarded autistic people, but oh no, Pamela knows everything.

Love an autistic non-fan"

Tracking software indicates the above comment originated from Victoria in Australia from a medical server

I did compose a reply that went more or less like this:

Dear "Anonymous",

I have to concede that my speaking style isn't scintillating; I have never felt that the role of literary executor really called for a high level of entertaining delivery. Believe it or not, I'm not doing this extremely challenging job for my own personal glory. I'm here because of the loving personal relationship I had with my aunt, and out of a sense of duty to her hugely important literary legacy. And because she asked me to do it. She knew I had the qualifications, including a post graduate degree.

Sorry but I don't know what you're talking about with the Amazon comments, I have never in my life posted anything on Amazon or any of the other places I'm accused of posting. This blog of mine is where I have my say. It sounds like you've encountered a genuine "literary wanker".

Or, perhaps, as has happened several times on Wikipedia, somebody has impersonated me just for the purpose of attacking me, because they have been unable to cope with my silence there.

And the reason my friends and colleagues and other experts don't "rally to my defence" is not because I don't have support - it's because your position and your methods, are beneath contempt and do not warrant their effort or even their comment. And because they think I'm doing a good job anyway.

Oh and by the way, if you want to be an effective health advocate, it might be a good idea not to call somebody with an intellectual disability "retarded" - that's incredibly insulting.


Posting my response just led to a further stream of abusive comments and I became tired of the negativity and just took it all off line.

But I don't like the idea of being bullied into silence by these stalkers, so I have posted the above poison pen letter here for the record.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Having the the Time of her life

Here's another terrific portrait of Janet Frame in her prime, taken by Henry Grossman for the TIME magazine review of Intensive Care (1970).

In a New York state of mind

For Bill on his birthday

Bill Brown and Janet Frame, April 17th 1992, Palmerston North

I took this photo in Janet's back yard in Palmerston North at Dahlia Street. I was staying with her for several months while she was recovering from surgery for ovarian cancer.

Her dear friend Bill had come for a visit from the States to spend time with her.

There's Janet giving instructions about where to find the button on the camera.

Transforming reality into fiction

"We were busy converting her fiction into our fiction"
- Bridget Ikin
cited in:

Film producer Bridget Ikin is describing above the process of adapting Janet Frame's autobiography into Jane Campion's movie AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE. It is interesting that Ikin refers to Frame's autobiography of her early life as 'fiction', when Frame herself insisted that she had told the truth of her life in the three volumes of autobiography. Frame admitted that as a novelist, she used her skills as a fiction writer to tell her story (only until the age of forty), but she didn't invent any of it. Her raw material was her life, which she turned into 'literature' not 'fiction'. A rare achievement.

In any case, the Ikin quote is a very good piece of evidence that the movie version of Janet Frame's life was deliberately fictionalised by its makers. The attitude that Frame's autobiography was 'fiction' must surely have informed the additions and omissions and exaggerations that made up the final filmic masterpiece.

Certain scenes were invented by the film makers and Frame also reluctantly granted them permission to use scenes from her actual fiction, as they insisted they needed them. Frame was afraid that the invented scenes in the movie would lead viewers to believe these things were true about her in real life, and so she was proved correct.

One of the aspects of the film that Frame complained about was that the reasons for her sadness at various times in her life were left out; therefore giving the audience no sense of WHY Frame is so alone, or so distressed on occasion. The viewers then must assume that Frame's unhappiness is congenital and endogenous and they use this belief about the ten unhappy years before Frame found her place in the world as a professional writer, to characterise the other seventy years of her life.

Another significant aspect of Frame that is downplayed in the film is her career as a writer - her ambition, her determination, and her success.

So again, a caution not to read this very beautiful and inspiring film as a documentary of Frame's life. Best to actually read the autobiography and think about the differences between the book and the movie...

Certainly AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE (the book and the movie) is in my opinion a not very common example of a great book leading to a great movie. And the success of the movie is partly because the filmmakers were not constrained to be too realistic.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Calling Rugby World Cup tourists

Janet Frame wears her blue-and-yellow Otago supporters scarf

More news from the Janet Frame Eden Street Trust:

The Janet Frame Eden Street Trust has received funding to open Janet Frame's childhood home at 56 Eden St Oamaru during the duration of the Rugby World Cup 2011.

The funding comes from the REAL New Zealand Festival 2011: "a nationwide celebration of all the things we love most about New Zealand, with events and experiences throughout the country."

The aim of the  REAL New Zealand Festival is to enrich the experience of the many Rugby World Cup tourists who will be visiting New Zealand in September and October: "to bring your Rugby World Cup 2011 experience alive with a nationwide celebration of New Zealand arts, food and wine, heritage, culture, entertainment, business and lifestyle."

What a great idea!

And Frame was a rugby fan, supporting her local Otago/Southland team the HIGHLANDERS.

Eden Street chairwoman Carol Berry said the trust was looking forward to welcoming world cup tourists in October, as they sought to "engage with the real New Zealand".

Photo credit: Reg Graham

Monday, April 4, 2011

Eden Street gets a web site

On the weekend the Friends of the Janet Frame House in Oamaru unveiled their brand new web site.

Congratulations to them, and welcome to the internet!

It will now be easier for culturally-inclined tourists to find information about the Oamaru house where Janet Frame spent most of her childhood. They can access contact details, the current opening hours, notice of events to be held at the house or organised by the Eden Street Trust, etc.

Please note that the "Janet Frame Eden Street Trust" which owns and cares for the house at 56 Eden Street, Oamaru, has no formal connection with the "Janet Frame Literary Trust" which is the charitable trust that Janet Frame herself founded in order to manage her literary estate.

Except of course, that the Literary Trust and the Eden Street Trust are friends!

We're united in our admiration and respect for Janet Frame and our wish to protect and care for her legacy and promote her work.

Another misunderstanding that sometimes arises is the idea that members of the Frame family are responsible for the care of 56 Eden Street. I'm often asked if I live there! But the Frame family never owned the house at 56 Eden Street, they just rented it, so the property at 56 Eden Street has no legal connection with any members of the Frame family either.

Although speaking for myself, I'm always deeply moved to visit the house, because of my family connections with it as well as my own awe that it was the childhood home of one of the great writers of the world.

When I visited the house a few days ago, a fantail flew into the house through an open door and stayed for a while, flying from room to room, before finally being persuaded to leave. Beliefs about such an event vary, but many New Zealanders regard such a visitation by a fantail as a deeply spiritual event suggesting a link between one world and the next. It certainly impressed those of us who witnessed it.

A fantail visits 56 Eden Street