Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sarah Abrahamson’s Pursuit of Janet Frame

Sarah Abrahamson’s Pursuit of Janet Frame
Part One: The Article

by D Harold
(Janet Frame Literary Trust trustee)

Janet Frame lacked imagination – she said so herself. This is the exciting discovery of Sarah Abrahamson, rehabilitation physician in Ballarat, Australia.

Sarah read Frame’s autobiography and found this revealing admission, strangely overlooked by Frame readers, critics and academics.

'no imagination'

 I thought this was ground-breaking research on Sarah's part, so I checked the autobiography and sure enough I found that Frame definitely admits to a lack of imagination, in fact not once but a number of times. This is what Sarah wrote in her peer-reviewed study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in October 2007:

She did not feel that she had imagination, in common with many people with autism. To compensate for this deficiency she analysed poetry to determine how she could seem more imaginative and artistic.

Spot on. And here are further admissions by Frame in her autobiography:

I looked with interest and envy at this girl who had the poetic attributes I longed for. I wanted to be a poet, and I knew that poets must be imaginative, dream great dreams. No one had ever called me imaginative or poetic, for I was a practical person, even writing poems which were practical, with most never failing to mention some new fact I had learned or giving lists of people, places, colours.
I began to collect other words labelled ‘poetic’ – stars, grey, soft, deep, shadowy, little, flowers . . . some having begun as my words in my poem but being used, in the end, because they were the words of ‘poetry’, and because poetry emphasised what was romantic (dim, ineffable, little, old, grey) I felt that I was well on the way to becoming and being known as ‘poetic and imaginative’, although I was wretchedly conscious that I had none of the disability esteemed in poets: I had not even a parent dead.
I remained uncomfortably present within the word of fact, more literal than imaginative. I wanted an imagination that would inhabit a world of fact, descend like a shining light upon the ordinary life of Eden Street, and not force me to exist in an ‘elsewhere’.

Sarah is right. Janet Frame does bemoan her lack of ‘imagination’, and in the movie of the autobiography, which Sarah also perused in her study, Frame's lack of and longing for ‘imagination’ is even more graphic: Janet Frame’s classmate Shirley sits in the class, dreaming, and the teacher calls out to her, 'What a dreamer you are, Shirley! Always lost in your poetic world of imagination!' The Janet character in the movie 'looks across at Shirley, with envy' (as stated in the screenplay by Laura Jones, Pandora: London, 1990).

'significant childhood language difficulties'

 Sarah astutely gleans insights about Frame’s inner life from Jane Campion’s movie based on the autobiography – for example Frame’s 'significant childhood language difficulties'. In the autobiography, Frame is not yet four years old and tells a story to her siblings:

the bid bodie came out from behind the hill and ate up the hawt

In the movie this scene is enacted by an actor who is at least twice the age Janet Frame was when she told her story:

The big bogie came out from behind the hill and ate up the hawk

A much older child acting the part of a three year old is odd. Sarah has admitted she got her ‘insight’ into Frame’s supposed ‘language difficulties’ from watching the movie. Sarah finds evidence that Janet Frame had 'very likely a language delay. She mispronounced many words.'

Frame, in reality, had no early language difficulties whatsoever. This is easily verifiable from all the available material.

To comprehend Janet Frame’s actual age at the time she told her story about the ‘bodie’, you need to read the autobiography closely. It is also surely a good idea, rather than to rely on a movie for factual information, to refer to other sources. The biography of Frame, Wrestling with the Angel, by Michael King, is very useful as it correlates events, places and dates with some precision. In 'Did Janet Frame Have High-Functioning Autism?' (NZMJ Oct 12, 2007) Sarah nowhere mentions having read the biography.

Sarah’s ‘analysis’ of Frame reads like that of someone who viewed the movie, skimmed the autobiography, and ignored the biography.

'extreme difficulty with most social interactions'

After dealing with Janet Frame’s relationship with language when she was a child, Sarah goes on to analyse Frame’s 'social inadequacies'. According to Sarah, Frame, on leaving London after living there for almost seven years, 'had become such a loner that she had to ask a neighbour she barely knew to see her onto the boat, having no close friends.'

Actually this ‘neighbour’ was Janet Frame’s ex-flatmate and good friend Mildred Surry.

In the biography, there are 12 entries after Mildred’s name. For example: 'Her flatmates came from Kentish Town, and she formed a closer relationship with one of them, Mildred Surry, the librarian.' And later: 'Every two months she went to North London to visit the librarian friend, Mildred Surry.' And later: 'she was seeing rather more of Mildred Surry'; then: 'Frame accompanied Surry to her parents’ home in Bury, Sussex.' And later: 'She had Mildred Surry to dinner' … And so on.

This whole rich history of friendship is reduced in the autobiography to four discreet references, and Sarah misses all of them. In the movie there is only one: the 'librarian' is rendered as barely an acquaintance, who replies to Janet Frame’s greeting with the formal 'Miss Frame'.

Frame in her autobiography evokes the 'brief self-pity' she felt on leaving London. She exaggerates her solitude by downplaying the friends and acquaintances she had made there. She admits that she is being selective in telling her story:

There were many people I knew whom I do not describe here; they are living and I have tried to restrict myself to my own story without presuming to tell the stories of others.
In her autobiography Frame used pseudonyms for many of her friends to preserve their privacy. For example 'Mildred' became 'Millicent'. (King explains this in the biography.) A close friend who willingly takes a long lunch time to farewell Frame at the docks becomes for Sarah 'a neighbour she barely knew'. Sarah does not even mention the other longtime friend who also farewelled Frame, her literary agent Patience Ross.

When Sarah was criticised by Frame’s literary executor for the demonstrably untrue suggestion that Frame was a loner who could not make long-term meaningful friendships, Sarah replied that it was insulting to suggest autistic people could not have friends. Sarah has a wonderfully flexible way of developing an argument.

'autistic tendencies' everywhere you look

Intelligent analysis requires thorough research. One cannot expect a memoir to provide all the information that is relevant, and though an autobiography such as Frame’s aims to be truthful it is also selective. One needs to correlate it with other evidence, and in this case the Frame biography by King is a good start. One cannot take a movie adaptation at face value, either. A movie, particularly one as creative as Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, is redolent with the director’s own fascinations. For instance Campion’s treatment of Frame’s parents in the movie is arguably refracted through her attitudes to her own parents. These are issues that any sensitive reader/viewer soon learns to keep in mind; a superficial reading and viewing of a topic only leads to one creating one’s own fiction.

The movie highlights several touching scenes between Janet Frame and her father. He seemed, according to Sarah, to have autistic tendencies. Janet Frame, according to Sarah, came to understand her father more than her siblings [did]. Yet, neither in the movie nor the other texts is there any indication that Janet Frame had a ‘closer’ or more ‘different’ relationship with her father than her siblings. Almost every point Sarah makes about Janet Frame is skewed by her agenda, everything is interpreted in the light of her ‘insight’ and what does not fit, what counters her theory, is disregarded, or not even ‘seen’. The Irishman Janet Frame meets and socialises with in London also, according to Sarah, appeared to have autistic tendencies.

'strong special interest'

Having an obsessive special interest is another 'autistic tendency' Sarah discovers in Frame. For Sarah, Frame's autistic special interest is 'poetry'.

autistic autopsy

The biography by King covers 76 years of Janet Frame's life, and thus gives much more of a whole context for her life than do the autobiography and movie, which cover only the first 40 years. If you were attempting to analyse someone, surely you would engage with their whole life. If you intend a diagnosis surely you need the person to be alive, and to meet them; otherwise the undertaking smacks of an autopsy. The simple truth, vouched for by her many friends and close relatives, is that Frame did not have the 'autistic tendencies' that Sarah attributes to her. But Sarah did not ask one of us for our opinion. I was a friend of Frame during the last 15 years of her life, and find the claim that she was on the autistic spectrum objectionable, not because there is any stigma to autism, but because the claim is not true.

Is Sarah Abrahamson saying to all of us who knew Janet Frame well, that we are liars?


Pamela Gordon said...

Is anyone else highly amused by the fact that there is an unexpected imbalance of reference in this critique? Janet Frame is referred to by her surname 'Frame' throughout, which is the standard scholarly practice.

Dr Sarah Abrahamson however, is repeatedly cited only by her first name. This is of course the opposite of her own patronising treatment of Frame in the NZMJ article, who is frequently called the dehumanising "Janet" (reserved for children and other underlings), when Frame's legal name was actually Dr Clutha. Unlike Abrahamson whose main degree, one assumes, was a Bachelor of Medicine, and so her title does not reflect a real academic doctorate, Dr Janet Frame Clutha had attained the status of not one but two honorary doctorates. But in Sarah's use of the first name, a common belittling strategy of the hierarchical academic and medical fraternities, Abrahamson just betrayed her general attitude of disrespect for Frame's autonomy and agency. As she also did, of course, by her over-literal and selective readings of Frame's autobiography.

Cy Mathews said...

The "no imagination" comment reminds me of something Orphan Pamuk once said, about how when he was younger he had felt true poets got their inspiration by "listening to God." He himself tried to listen, heard nothing, and then decided to imagine (I paraphrase): "if God had said something, what would it have been"?

Both Frame and Pamuk's comments seem to be those of people encountering idealized (and arguably unrealistic) concepts of imagination/inspiration and finding ways to move beyond them.

Pamela Gordon said...

Fascinating insght Cy, thanks for that.

I bet Frame never expected anyone would interpret her yearning for a 'literal imagination' (the poetry of paddocks and fantails as opposed to nightinglaes and meadows) to be read literally as evidence that she was incapable of figurative understandings!

Delia Morris said...

It seems to me people who say Janet Frame had autism, have never read her books. I have two relatives with diagnosed autism and they could never understand human interaction the way Janet did when she wrote of other people (not herself). I read all her books except short stories in the 1980's while ill, she helped me tremendously to get through that with her witty words much of the time. Has it occurred to those who try to psychoanalyse Janet Frame that she cannot be categorised? Maybe leave the matter there.

Pamela Gordon said...

Thanks for your comment, Delia, of course I agree with you! The people who are most keen on diagnosing Janet Frame have usually not read her books, by their own admission. Or they have read some of her work in a selective way looking for "evidence" and ignoring counterevidence. Or, ironically, they may themselves have a high functioning autism that prevents them from being able to recognize Frame's subtle understandings of human nature and interaction. They miss the irony. (Not that everyone on the spectrum misreads irony, but the ones who proclaim on Janet Frame sure seem to!)