Friday, September 9, 2011

An Autobiography, by Janet Frame

Janet Frame (1924-2004) was a New Zealand author who wrote uncompromising stories that examined the complex things that go in in the minds of people in the real world.  In her autobiography, she lays out her own complex inner life for us.

Frame grew up in poverty.  Her first toy was an empty kerosene tin, which she dragged behind her on a string.  Her father was a railroad worker, and her mother was an amateur poet, who often had her poems published in the local papers.  The family moved several times, because of reassignment by the railroad company or financial problems.    The living conditions were generally filthy and decrepit.  The family was close though, and Janet and her four siblings were generally happy.  As a schoolgirl she was surprised when she was singled out as one of the "poor and dirty" children for special attention by a school nurse.

The family was plagued by tragedies.  Janet's brother George began having epileptic seizures, and the Frames went deeply into debt while pursuing a variety of medical treatments for him.  They rejoiced when the arrival of national health care allowed them to tear up their medical debts.  Then came the two great tragedies of Janet Frame's youth:  the death by drowning of her older sister Mabel, and the second drowning, ten years later, of her younger sister Isabel. Janet remained painfully shy and awkward, focusing her attention on an inner world of poetry and imagination.

In 1945, the year of the bombing of Hiroshima, Frame attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of aspirin.  She had planned on a career teaching history to young children, and was successful as a student teacher, but had several times put off the day when her teaching would be evaluated.  When it could be put off no longer, and the observers arrived in her classroom, she politely excused herself and walked out of the school and into a nearby doctor's office, where she broke down in tears.   With the doctor's help, she delayed the evaluation further, but ultimately she despaired of ever being able to face her auditors and attempted to take her own life.

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum
This suicide attempt eventually led to her hospitalization at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, where she spent much of the following eight years.  It was a miserable, uncaring  place where the inmates slowly decayed.  While there, she was erroneously diagnosed as having schizophrenia.  She was treated with electroshock therapy, and was within days of being lobotomized (a procedure which Frame calls by the alternative name "leucotomy"), when, by Frame's account, a book saved her life.

Earlier, she had written a collection of short stories titled The Lagoon and Other Stories.  As she languished in Seacliff, the book slowly worked its way through the publishing process.  After publication in 1951, the book won the Hubert Church Award for prose.  A new hospital administrator read news of the award and came to congratulate Janet, who had no idea that she had won, and told her that he no longer believed that a lobotomy was necessary.

After leaving the hospital four years later, Frame obtained a literary grant which allowed her to write her first novel, Owls Do Cry.  This book, which features a young New Zealand girl, is not autobiographical, but it contains much material from Frame's own experience and was often mistaken for an autobiography.  The writing of "An Autobiography" was partially a reaction to this, and an attempt to set the record straight.

The first section of the autobiography, called To the Is-Land, describes her youth.  The second section, called An Angel At My Table, tells of the time she spent at Seacliff.  The final section, called The Envoy from Mirror City, describes her life afterward, beginning with a trip to England in 1957 on a literary travel grant.  While in England, Frame received treatment at Maudsley Hospital, where it was determined that she was not (and had never been) schizophrenic.   After returning to New Zealand, she gradually comes to terms with her past and her personal limitations, and finds an equilibrium within which she can be content.

The autobiography conveys a sense that the author is a real person with whom you're comfortable and familiar.  You sometimes find her behavior exasperating, but you wouldn't hesitate to call her when dinner's ready.  The book feels like a long, quiet conversation with an old friend.   She confides in you, and you may actually find yourself a little reluctant to talk about the book with others for fear of violating that confidence.

A film version of the autobiography was made by  Jane Campion. The film is titled An Angel at My Table, after the second volume of the autobiography.

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