Saturday, December 9, 2017

Janet Frame's Reprieve is a True Story

There are so many outrageous and fanciful myths told about Janet Frame.
People just seem to make up a new one every week.
But one unlikely tale is in fact true.
Janet Frame was misdiagnosed at the age of 21.
The incorrect label of 'schizophrenia' was attached to her through a misunderstanding and due to an incompetent medical establishment that took the word of an arrogant psychology postgrad student (her tutor) who was engaged in an emotional relationship with Janet Frame.
She became institutionalized and after years of abuse and unhappiness
she was scheduled for a lobotomy.
The book she had written before she entered the hospital system was finally published after the alcoholic editor who had accepted it but had sat on it for five years,
left that firm.
It was a book of brilliant short stories, published in March 1952, and not unexpectedly it won the major New Zealand literary prize for fiction,
The Hubert Church Award,
administrated by P.E.N.
Meanwhile, though, Janet Frame, languishing in despair,
was days away from a brain operation to try to make her 'normal'.
Medical staff thought she hallucinated. She didn't.
They thought she was delusional. She wasn't.
She was just more brilliant than anyone they had ever encountered.
She was a genius.
For most of the people around her, it was odd to even read a book let alone claim to have written one.
She may as well be speaking Martian to them.
The really mad people knew she was not one of them
(she told me this).
She also told me there were other people trapped in the hospital system,
like herself, who were not insane either, for example:
rejected wives who were surplus to requirements,
whose husbands committed them so they could be free to divorce them;
young promiscuous women who were an embarrassment to their families;
people with intellectual disabilities who would remain in the community today.
Anyway, just days away from the date of the operation,
the news of the book prize was published in the country's newspapers.
Janet Frame's doctor, Geoffrey Blake Palmer, read it, and suddenly realized that she might be better left as she was.
Janet Frame's cousin May Williamson clipped out the notices that week,
Christmas season 1952, and carefully kept them.
Thanks to her family sending me this scan,
we can see what the notice that the doctor read looked like:
The Press release was dated Wednesday the 24th of December 1952,
and it was published in the NZ Herald on Friday the 26th of December.
Frame's mother had been manipulated into signing a consent form for the lobotomy on the 20th of December. The letter she was sent did not fully explain what was to happen.
Frame's operation was scheduled for a few days later.
Frame's doctor read the news item and cancelled the operation.
All true.
"My writing saved me," said Janet Frame.

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