Wednesday, December 6, 2017

'The Electric Blanket' by Janet Frame: a lesson for palliative care

On Sundays she insisted on making the meal herself, though ‘taking things easy’, she would explain, smilingly and terribly aware. Peter too felt the terrible awareness, which he regarded as a kind of inner hearsay that rippled along the grapevine of his own deep and long love; until the doctor revealed his secret knowledge as truth.
‘When, doctor?’ he asked.
‘Anytime,’ said the doctor.
So that the days ahead now became like part of a dark fruit, with wind and flesh being torn apart each day in helpless foreboding search for the bitter seed of moment.


~ Janet Frame, from 'The Electric Blanket' in Between My Father and the King: New and Uncollected Stories, Counterpoint Press, Berkeley CA, USA (2012)

'The Electric Blanket' is a short story about an old man and his dying wife. In the Journal of Palliative Care (31 October 2015;31(3):193-5), in an essay entitled Janet Frame's "An Electric Blanket": Love, loss, and "the bitter seed of moment", Frank Brennan describes 'The Electric Blanket' as "rare poetry — exquisite phrasing that suffuses the air at every bedside. In a few short sentences, Frame crystallizes the dual response of patients and their families to the news of serious illness: the “first shock of knowing and the torture of wondering.”

This story acts as more evidence for Frame's deep knowledge of and compassion for the human condition, and her rare gift for expressing truths about it. Again, also, Frame's art has relevance for issues in the real world.

My own favourite line in the story is:

"a kind of inner hearsay that rippled along the grapevine of his own deep and long love"

Janet Frame never offered this story for publication in her lifetime, but carefully preserved it (and others) and left it for her executors to publish. (I had the privilege to co-edit this collection and the joy of observing the critical acclaim the stories attracted.) In case there was any doubt about why she had withheld it, she told the story of 'The Electric Blanket' in her autobiography. She had shown it to Frank Sargeson, who (in her eyes) had damned it with faint praise. I am pretty sure that she herself knew the story was good and that one day she would be vindicated. She didn't need this affirmation in her lifetime, but I do think she anticipated it. She always regarded the posthumous trajectory as an integral part of a significant writer's career, and had made plans to ensure that her posthumous career would be an interesting and eventful one.


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