This Side of Madness ...
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.Yet, of that nothing she made so much.
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.
Ms. Frame's 12 novels, four story collections, one poetry collection and three volumes of autobiography won dozens of awards.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.
"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 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."