Saturday, December 17, 2011

FACES IN THE WATER: 50th Anniversary

"Frame's best book" ~ Joyce Carol Oates

"A masterpiece" ~ Anita Brookner

Janet Frame published her influential novel Faces in the Water in 1961 - fifty years ago this year.

Time Magazine said:

"Janet Frame's evocation of madness is unforgettable... Faces in the Water is especially brilliant in its description of what happens inside the patient's mind"... "[Frame] writes with a cool eye, a detached sympathy, and a warm but unsloppy love of sane and insane alike."

In several parts of the newly released book Janet Frame In Her Own Words, Frame talks about Faces in the Water. She calls it an "exploration", then a "documentary" but also points out that "Faces in the Water was autobiographical in the sense that everything happened, but the central character was invented."

Frame drew from her experiences in New Zealand psychiatric hospitals of the 1940s, but she made it very clear that it wasn't until she wrote her autobiography An Angel at My Table (1984) that she had told "the true story". When she was writing Faces In The Water, she tells a confidant in a letter, she realised that her readers "would wonder what on earth a person thinking and observing so ordinarily and usually, was doing in a mental hospital". So Frame says she deliberately invented a fictional narrator and gave her what she "imagined might seem a 'madder' interior".

Even so, I have often times seen this baffled question expressed in reviews of Faces in the Water: How did we get this lucid view of such torment if this eyewitness is so disturbed herself?

In fact Frame's scorchingly critical picture of the mental institutions of the day, and some of the brutality and negligence of the staff, was one of the factors in NZ (and elsewhere) that led to a soul searching on the part of mental health professionals.

The immeasurable consequences of Frame's courage and honesty in her writings about her experiences as a misdiagnosed mental patient, is surely one of the reasons she is remembered, for instance, as one of the 60 Makers of Modern New Zealand (1930-1990) in an exhibition currently showing at New Zealand's Portrait Gallery in Wellington.

Faces in the Water has been used as a text for medical students and nurses, giving a salutary fly-on-the-wall view of life in an institution. Her empathy and ability to describe the intricate social interactions between patients, staff and family, give tremendous insights to the thoughtful reader.

In her autobiography Frame says that she wanted to speak for those who had no voice. That was one of the things that kept her going in the years she found herself with a label that seemed to mean there was no escape for her from an institutional fate.

(Anyone who tries to insist that Frame's New Zealand hospital admissions were 'voluntary' over the decade or so that she was mislabelled, is clearly ignorant of the power of the label over those who have been labelled, and of the coercive nature of hospital 'admissions' where the threat of being 'committed' into the care of the State, and its consequent loss of civil rights, was a weapon used to manipulate people into signing a 'voluntary' admission. Most if not all of Frame's multiple New Zealand hospital admissions were reluctant, as becomes clear on a careful reading of the evidence gathered by Michael King for his biography Wrestling with the Angel.)

Here is an earlier blog post about Janet Frame's groundbreaking novel Faces in the Water detailing some of its publication history and featuring a few of the covers:

"A shrewd and clever book" ~ Hilary Mantel

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