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.


Andrew said...

A fascinating, historic artefact, Pamela. Thanks for sharing this.

Jocelind said...

It's frustrating the way creative people are frequently seen as being abnormal. The mental health system over-diagnoses and pathologises people who are in situations that can be fairly understood if you look at the life experiences they have been through. There is too much emphasis on people fitting some narrow idea of "normal".