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Feb 2, 2004 7:29 pm

This Side of Madness ...

Perhaps we've all heard the story of Ralph Waldo Emerson's visit to his friend, Henry David Thoreau, when the latter was in jail for refusing to pay taxes. Thoreau had refused to pay taxes to support a government that tolerated slavery and pursued the Mexican War. Emerson asked him what he was doing"in there." Thoreau returned the question:"What are you doing out there?"

I was reminded of that story again this past week by two others in the news about institutionalization of another sort. The first was the New York Timesobituary of New Zealand novelist Janet Frame.

Ms. Frame's work used her own disturbing life to weave fictional nightmares that reflected, in her words, the"homelessness of self." After a suicide attempt she spent eight years in mental hospitals in New Zealand, receiving 200 electroshock treatments. She was about to have a lobotomy when a hospital official read that she had won a literary prize. She was released.
Later, a panel of psychiatrists determined that she had never had schizophrenia. In the sort of bitterly perceptive, highly personalized twist that infuses much of her writing, that news did not please her.
"Oh why had they robbed me of my schizophrenia, which had been the answer to all my misgivings about myself?" she wrote in the third volume of her autobiography, which, with the first two, was dramatized in Jane Campion's 1990 film"An Angel at My Table."
"Like King Lear I had gone in search of ‘the truth' and now I had nothing," she continued.
Yet, of that nothing she made so much.
Ms. Frame's 12 novels, four story collections, one poetry collection and three volumes of autobiography won dozens of awards.
"As the body of her work has enlarged, one comes to understand it not just as a series of extraordinary insights into suffering and thought, but as a mighty exploration of human consciousness and its context in the natural world," the American Academy of Arts and Letters citation read when she was made an honorary foreign member in 1986.
In her novel"The Edge of the Alphabet" (Braziller, 1965) words literally crumble into meaninglessness and communication becomes useless. Even spelling becomes sinister. In"Intensive Care" (Braziller, 1970) she spells history hiss-tree to make an unsettling connection to Eden's serpent."All dreams," she wrote,"lead back to the nightmare garden."
Ms. Frame created romantic visionaries — eccentrics, mad people, epileptics — and pitted them against the repressive forces of a sterile, conformist society. Or maybe she was just reporting on her life. A continuing discussion among critics was whether her autobiographical work was mostly fiction or whether her fiction was mostly autobiographical.
The struggle with her demons created so much. All of that would have been lost had her diagnosis and the surgeon's knife freed her from contending with her inner self.

The other story this past week, courtesy of Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber, is Lauren Slater's account in the Guardian of a 30 year old experiment in which people faked their way into mental hospitals by claiming to hear voices that said:"Thud." Thirty years ago, that won admission to hospital wards, diagnosis as"paranoid schizophrenics," and treatment as non-persons. The story is excerpted from Slater's new book, Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments Of The 20th Century which is published by Bloomsbury. When she recently repeated the experiment, Slater reports, she was quickly and repeatedly diagnosed as"depressive" and given a light pharmaceutical. Despite the mental health industry's less heavy handed treatment in recent years, Slater's account tends to suggest that diagnosis is a fad and casts doubt on the wisdom of medication.

When I read the story of Janet Frame together with that of Lauren Slater, I wondered what creativity earlier methods had lobotomized and what creativity current methods have drugged. I have friends and relatives who make their peace with the world by medication and claim to be happier for having done so. I lift my cup of cheer to Janet Frame and her hard won narratives of"hiss-tree" in the"nightmare garden."

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Jonathan Dresner - 2/3/2004

The line appears to be a dramatic rephrasing of a line from "Civil Disobedience": "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly the true place for a just man is also a prison." It might be a paraphrase of something else, like: "What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."

And according to a quick web-search ( appears that his poll tax bill was paid off by an aunt, not by Emerson, but the sites disagree about whether he was protesting the Mexican-American War or Massachussetts' vote to return escaped slaves (above link says latter, this link [] says former).

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/3/2004

There was play called, I think, "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail" that used the Thoreau Emerson exchange to great effect. I saw it in 1970 or 71.

I don't think the line originated there, but, true or note, it could have been one way it spread.

Ophelia Benson - 2/3/2004

Pedantically, I looked it up in Robert Richardson's (wonderful) biography of Thoreau. He does indeed say there is no basis for the story (p. 173), also that all sorts of legends have grown up about that night in jail.

Interestingly, Ralph, like any cautious historian, didn't say it happened - he said perhaps we've all heard the story - thus showing how useful it is always to be careful how we phrase things.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/2/2004

Just offhand, because I haven't done research on this, my guess is that your English professor is correct -- that the Emerson/Thoreau story is a fabrication. But that is simply a guess. As you know, it is very difficult, sometimes impossible, to prove a negative. If there is no primary source basis for the story, one might rightly assume the story to be mythical -- but proving that it didn't happen could be a problem. There could be an oral source for the story which only lately found its way into print. If one could show that Thoreau did not go to jail for tax evasion, of course, that might seem to be conclusive. Or the formal jailing might be merely a technical detail which is itself not accurate, so that the vinyette is itself still illustrative of a different political temperament between the two men.

Van L. Hayhow - 2/2/2004

Prof. Luker:
A quick question, if you have a minute. While the story you tell of Emerson and Thoreau is a common one, I wonder if it is true or simply made up? I ask because (1) when it is repeated I never see a source for it and (2) when I was in college (late 60's, early 70's) there was an English professor whose specialty was American Lit and within that was Emerson and she taught in class that the story was not true, but was one of those that people heard, liked and therefore repeated. Do you have any insight on this issue? Thanks.

Ophelia Benson - 2/2/2004

It is very tricky stuff. Many of the comments at Crooked Timber make the same point. Medical diagnosis is inherently difficult, especially (obviously) with diseases that don't have visible (or otherwise sense-able: smellable etc) external manifestations. Back pain is a notorious example. Abdominal pain, etc - all the doctors have is patient testimony. Naturally patients can lie, be unable to say clearly what the problem is, etc. With mental illness all that is compounded. So what can doctors in mental hospitals do? Were they obviously wrong to believe the bogus patients? Surely not. Should they have instantly discharged them when they said 'I don't hear the voice any more'? Not necessarily, I would say.

It's an epistemological issue as well as an ethical one, and the epistemology of other minds is one of the most difficult issues in philosophy.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/2/2004

This is so tricky, the relationships between suffering and insight, obsession and output, therapy and erasure. Still a few thoughts.

1. It is suffering to not be able to trust your emotions, your senses. It is suffering to be told that what seems real isn't, and what seems drained of vitality, is.

2. It is one thing to point out when suffering produces art. It is quite another to suggest (which you don't do Ralph, but I have seen others who have) that one Should Choose the Suffering.

3. In a different direction. Good therapy of the more verbal variety walks helps people choose their responses to circumstances (including to some extent, choosing the emotional response). But it is very easy for a therapist to be so focused on helping a person responsd internally, that athe external factors, particularly ones involving politics or society as a whole get ignored.

When that happens, therapy becomes a tool of oppession and a suppressor of truth.

4. Finally, it is strange how labels--true or false--can be liberating. Long ago, I knew a poet who said that she had been diagnosed as "a paranoid schizophrenic in desperate need of treatment." This obviously delighted her even as she accepted it.

She is one of the many people in my college life who moved on, disappeared. I hope she is alive and well, and whether she is writing poetry in desperate fits of (in)sanity or moving along in something resembling peace, even if it takes a pill or two, well, that is up to her.

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