Friday, May 23, 2014

They just make it up

Today a brand new Janet Frame anecdote emerged out of the back rooms and entered the public realm. It was told as an afterthought to a blog post about an extended interview with another great Kiwi author Keri Hulme. The journalist Ali Ikram described Hulme as " a notoriously reclusive famously cantankerous writer" (although from the lengthy TV item that emerged it seemed that Hulme had been very generous with her time and her responses). Ikram, debriefing with his producer, consoled himself with the thought that his difficult interview with Hulme wasn't as bad as an alleged notorious interview had apparently gone with with Janet Frame:

“At least it went better than when John Sellwood interviewed Janet Frame. She wouldn’t let him in the house and spoke through a crack in the door, then chased him round the garden with a broom.” Yet such a reaction from a brilliant loner doesn’t always mean they don’t like you. Janet was fond of John. In her will Frame specified it was to be he who played the bagpipes at her funeral. There he was, a character in her final scene.

I was amazed to read this pack of nonsense. When am I ever going to get used to the way these people invent such rubbish, and then embellish it? And surely some rational soul will demur? And suggest this can't be true? Not so. Not only that, but the usual suspects sniff a derogatory story about Janet Frame on the breeze and come running. It shores up their already held false beliefs, of course, so they won't question it. So, for example, journalist Philip Matthews, a strong supporter of the Professor Evans fictional/feral "Janet", as exemplified in the revenge fantasy novel (and stage play) Gifted, which Matthews vigorously promoted and defended, fell with alacrity on the anecdote:

Philip Matthews @secondzeit
I like the story about John Sellwood and Janet Frame. @RuminatorNZ @AliIkram
Of course he did.

But what was true, and what was a lie? I can tell you, because I was present on the relevant occasion.

(1) "she wouldn't let him in the house" FALSE
The friendly Janet Frame warmly and kindly invited John Sellwood, his cameraman, Michael King (whose biography on Frame was the reason for the filming) and myself, into her home, to sit at her dining table, for scones, biscuits and tea. She was a good host and perhaps someone should ask John Sellwood (and his offsider whose name I forget) for their first person version of these events, because I find it hard to believe that they are the ones dehumanising Janet Frame in such a churlish fashion after having been treated to her hospitality.

(2) "spoke through a crack in the door" FALSE
Well you can see that this bizarre misrepresentation is untrue if you look at the edited news item as it appeared on TV:

At one point, Janet Frame does open her front door, after being filmed (at the journalists' request!) closing it. The journalists and biographer have bid farewell, filmed her closing the door, and she, having thought that the filming was over, opened the door again, to say goodbye properly (not just on camera) only to find she had been ambushed by the still waiting camera, even though she had already generously carried out all the agreed activities in support of publicity for Michael's book: being filmed chatting affably to him, etc. It was never intended to be an interview; Frame only agreed to being filmed greeting Michael at the gate, but the camera had been left running surreptitiously and some secretly filmed pieces of conversation were broadcast. Despite her cooperation, to then have the clip of her opening the door again being used to falsely depict her as antisocial and reclusive, is unfair, but typical.

(3) "chased him around the garden with a broom" FALSE
This is a toxic fancy. It seems to have a touch of tarring her as a "witch" about it, and seems to link to the hostility earlier expressed towards Hulme. I would guess this is a relatively new rhetorical embellishment to the anecdote (in each retelling these kind of stories about Frame - this is not unique! - are added to and polished up).

(4) "yet such a reaction from a brilliant loner doesn't always mean they don't like you"
Lumping Frame and Hulme together here as "loners" is based on trumped-up evidence in the case of Frame. I know that Janet was never a loner, and I have met Keri often enough in sociable company to suspect that she doesn't exactly fit the stereotype she has been fitted with either. Frame was choosy about how she spent her time and who she spent it with. That didn't make her a loner.

(5) "Janet was fond of John" TRUE
She did get on well with John: he's a likeable chap and she was a charming personable old lady. And she had a soft spot for bagpipe players.

(6) "In her will Janet Frame specified it was to be he that played the bagpipes" FALSE
They just made that up! It's a good story though!

Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

(7) "There he was, a character in her final scene." TRUE, although  this last statement has been nicely shaped to fit the fiction of the anecdote. Or has the anecdote been shaped and enhanced to build up to the ending?

John Sellwood did very kindly play the bagpipes at Janet Frame's funeral. But not after being chased by Janet with a broom and being spoken to through a crack in the door and being rejected and not finding of her supposed affection until after her death when the will was read; that's a fable, a demeaning lie. Sellwood and Frame had a brief but uproarious and chatty human encounter, as well as partaking in a calculated professional exchange. He agreed to play at her funeral after being asked by her family to do so, being known as he was to play the bagpipes and being available on the scene, and having the advantage of not being a total stranger. And he did the deed as a human being and not as a journalist, carrying out a social obligation. He had used his bagpipes to gain access to Janet, and his facility with the bagpipes was in turn used by her family to farewell her at her funeral. It was a fitting part for him to play.


Why do people make up outrageous lies about celebrities? I don't know why, but I know they do, because of my connection to New Zealand's most famous author Janet Frame. The myths and fairy-tales and the malicious gossip swirling around her life story pretty much overwhelm the actual facts of her life and of her work. People actually seem to prefer the untruths about Janet Frame and they resent anyone who tries to present them with the evidence that questions their incorrect ideas. That is called 'the backlash effect' and recently there was an excellent article in The New Yorker about it. The article was about how you really can't change the mind of a committed "anti-vaccer", and it also referred to other false beliefs, such as those held by climate change deniers, but I also related the principles in the article to the fact that the more I point out that Janet Frame was not a recluse, that she was not disordered, she was not autistic, she was just a genius, a rare and brilliant creative artist who was woefully misunderstood, then the more that those people who are interested in preserving the myths about Janet Frame, insist that I am "overprotective" and that I'm "hiding something". And they seem to exaggerate their false beliefs about her even more to the extent that she becomes in their minds a caricature of the mad genius, barely able to function in the real world.

Not everyone believes this celebrity gossip rubbish of course, thankfully. A lot of the nonsense invented about Janet Frame has misogynist overtones so I would hope that feminists might be able to see through the familiar strategies that have long been used to belittle prominent or promising women, and question the demeaning anecdotes. 

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