The story of New Zealand’s best known writer as a peer

Janet Frame (1924-2004) is known as New Zealands best-known writer.  She wrote a three-volume autobiography.  Her autobiography, in the second volume, An Angel at My Table, shadows her life as a student and her years of incarceration in mental hospitals.  Her book, An Angel at My Table, first published in 1984, won the Non-fiction Prize of the New Zealand Book Awards.

After a suicide attempt when she was still an adolescent, she was committed to a mental hospital for eight years.  Janet Frame was a survivor, and as she wrote of herself, she experienced the “homelessness of self.”  While hospitalized, she received two hundred electroshock treatments, and she was about to have a lobotomy, when a hospital official heard she had just received a literary award.  She was released by her doctor, probably because the official realized that a lobotomy most likely would cripple her literary talents.

What’s crucial in Janet Frame’s story is that not only was she a writer, but she was a peer: she had gone through the mental health system, that had left many psychological scars on her psyche, but she had come out on the other side, in a flair of her own passionate desire to be a writer—she used her resiliency & her recovery, in her writing and exploration of life.

As I read An Angel at My Table, what roused an intense interest for me, was the kinds of stigma she faced, even as a celebrated author.  She frequently used a self-stigmatizing label referring to herself (based on what others had said) as a “lovely girl, no trouble at all.” This internalized label paints the picture of victim & the one who quietly doesn’t make any waves.  

We, as peers with a psychiatric diagnosis, still have much stigma that challenges us in the world.  It’s done in our contemporary culture in new & different ways.  It’s important to bear in mind that Janet lived in New Zealand, and spent her youthful years during the Fifties, with all of that era’s notions of stereotypical ideas and myths.

In her autobiography, Janet allows us to take a peek into her life.  A writer has the unique opportunity to artfully select the experiences, emotions, and exasperations that she wants to convey in her writing.  I know from personal experience as a poet and writer, that writing is self-reflective and writing-to-heal is a very therapeutic activity.

As peers, many of us have faced the experience of hospitalization.  One of the major challenges in returning home after hospitalization is dealing with one’s family that still has many of the same family-system issues. As mentioned before, in her family constellation, Janet was the “mad girl, Janet.”  This stigma manifested more significantly until New Zealand finally declared her “sane,”  but even continued, at times, to be an issue years after this pronouncement. For us, there’s an equally true problem: if a person is a felon, even due to her mentally erratic/diagnosable behavior, this label stays with us, and effects our future, in a major way

In one instance, Janet went with her brother, using their voices and their rights to get twenty dollars from the Public Trust Office; when Janet was hospitalized, her bank account was taken over by this government office when she was declared “officially insane.”  The issue of the State’s categorizing of either Janet’s insanity, or sanity, depending on her age and circumstances as time moved on.

In 1945, Janet was told by one of her doctors that she had schizophrenia, a diagnosis she knew nothing about.  She writes about her feelings when she hears what her diagnosis is: “What would happen to me?  No cure.  Gradual deterioration.  I suffered from shizzophreenier (Janet’s spelling).  It seemed to spell my doom as if I had emerged from a chrysalis, the natural human state, into another kind of creature, and even if there were parts of me that were familiar to human beings, my gradual deterioration would lead me further and further away, and in the end not even my family would know me.” (p. 72)

We now understand that Mental Illness may be precipitated by various catalysts: early, childhood trauma, genetic disposition, social & cultural conditioners, environmental & chemical causes, peer influences, and brain chemistry changes; thankfully, we’re now seeing more research studies that enable us to comprehend the nature of the mind, the brain, and consciousness with their holistic relationships.

Here’s a brief summary of Janet’s life through her early twenties.  Janet grew up poor; at an early age her teeth began to rot and crack; her family relied on making their own clothes or getting them in a “hand-me-down” manner; Janet also had a close, intimate relationship with her family’s rural homestead, embellished with natural beauty and provision of food they grew personally for themselves to survive; her family and close friends of the family constantly told her she should get her wiry hair straightened—she’d look better and feel more in step with society if she did so.

Clearly, Janet’s greatest pain & grief in life came from seeing her mother’s need to be the primary caretaker—something that was fitting for women not men—always doing what women were supposed to do to the Nth degree—getting food by walking into town, and carrying it back home, taking care of those plants and flowers she was growing, caring for the needs of the children and her husband, never stopping, filling her humanly-designed cup with more service, more work, and hardly any rest.

Janet’s emotional cut-off from her family seemed to be a prominent tempura throughout her life, yet with the indelible need to visit her family’s home—Willowglen—as a way to center herself and to enjoy her good memories of a once care-free childhood.

After a drawn-out period of chronic, physical weakening & illness, her mother died; her death brought up many things for Janet.  It brought up the ambiguities of anger, depression, loss, grief & joy of nature found at Willowglen; she also found much ambivalence.  For example, she writes about her anger towards sexism, and its effect on her mother.  She wonders the “what if” and “why” questions: what if her mother had had a life of her own desire & autonomy, and not the cultural footprints under which her mother had received her dose of internalized oppression? What if her mother had found her voice and her own power as a separate person?  What if she was totally empowered to be who she was?

Her reflection, no doubt, was perhaps a projection of her own fears, her own anger & depression, and the meaning of her own life; as time went on, Janet was able to integrate her  

I believe that much of Janet’s healing came from her being a “wounded healer,” a term coined by Henri Nouwen.  A “wounded healer” is a person who has been transformed by their own sufferings, and wants to share their recovery story with others.  They’re probably the most effective healers because their healings have initiated a desire to have compassion for others—they know it, been there, done that!

All of us in the Peer Support Movement, those with a Mental Illness, and their family members, can resonate with Janet Frame’s story of healing; I am a writer who has become experienced at using my writing-as-healing; one of the concepts that helps me, and is reinforced by Janet Frame’s life, is knowing and comprehending that one anti-dote for depression, oppression, repression, compression, and suppression is choosing a means of creative expression that is a good fit for us.  Transformative healing is a direct result, in this writer’s opinion, of some implemented form of expression.

I think that this form of expressive healing also has as a by-product the development of an “other-oriented” way of living life.  As we all know too well, we can create some crazy-making scenarios, get fixated, and become obsessed with our own thoughts, usually in some less-than-healthy ways, and very Foften bringing us in touch with our own delusions and consequences.

© Christopher Bear-Beam August 15, 2014

Author’s Note: I purposefully used Janet Frame’s first name throughout this blog; I felt it would be more familiar & intimate, and that we could better relate to Janet as a fully-developed human being, as indeed all of us are.

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