Review of "Wrestling with the Angel"

By Michael King
Counterpoint, 2000
Review by Carolyn Mason, M.A. on Jul 31st 2001
Wrestling with the AngelWith this comprehensive and engaging account of Janet Frame's life, Michael King reinforces his reputation as one of New Zealand's foremost historians and biographers. The book meticulously details her entire life to the present day. Roughly a quarter of the book deals with Frame's background, childhood, university years, her initial period as a writer and the time she spent in mental hospitals in New Zealand. It also includes important and interesting aspects of her family history and her formative environment. King has succeeded in writing a biography that usefully adds to the material available on Janet Frame's life. This is no small feat given that Frame's life and work have already been described in several different forms. Frame herself wrote a three volume autobiography which focuses on her early life, her treatment in mental hospitals and her discovery that her diagnosis as schizophrenic was mistaken. Some of Frame's books were strongly influenced by her own life. Frame's life has been portrayed in the Jane Campion film, An Angel at my Table. And authors such as Patrick Evans have written books about Frame and her work.

Frame's shocking experiences with the New Zealand mental health system are carefully and sympathetically described. King's account adds to evidence in her autobiography that she was never a schizophrenic, and discredits those who have attributed her creative brilliance to her supposed madness. During her young adult years, from 1945-1955, Frame spent more than half her life within mental hospitals (as they were then called). New Zealand's mental health system at the time was nothing to be proud of. She was among the many victims of a dysfunctional system which included some clinicians and nurses who were both arrogant and ignorant. Aspects of Frame's time in Seacliff seem so barbaric that they will stun those unaware of past norms in treatment. Just a few examples are the failure to ask Frame why she began screaming at her mother when she arrived to take home; the extensive use of ECT and insulin therapy; and the narrow avoidance of leucotomy. Extracts from Frame's hospital notes that King includes emphasize the dehumanizing attitude in mental hospitals of the time even more clearly than the treatment given to Frame. Nor are Frame's experiences the only ones that shock. In a letter from Seacliff mental hospital to John Money describing her experiences of the place Frame wrote; '...Ina...had been a music teacher. Music? Ina wets the bed and is struck for it and hauled across the floor. And the little brown-faced woman is slapped because when the door is opened she runs to get out. But we all do. They open a door and we run...' (King, 76). The book also records elements of Frame's friendship with Audrey Scrivener who was not lucky enough to win a literary prize and so was given a leucotomy. Other aspects of Frame's experience as a psychiatric patient are less surprising and just as problematic today. There are still problems with attaching the label of some specific disorder to a particular individual, and with understanding what the label actually means, both in general and for that person's future. People who have been diagnosed as having some particular disorder still have to struggle to get others not to identify them with that diagnosis. The one positive piece of information given about New Zealand's mental health system is that Frame's criticism of the system at that time in Faces in the Water was accepted by many health professionals. The book itself became recommended reading in New Zealand for trainee medical staff, nurses and occupational therapists.

The dysfunctional mental health system was not alone in the creation of Frame as a victim. Her infatuation as a student with John Money (at that time her psychology lecturer, but later a lifelong friend) led her to mimic symptoms of schizophrenia in order to gain more of his attention. Frame regularly had psychoanalytic style sessions with Money, which she found useful. She was also personally willing to accept the label of schizophrenic, and even a little relieved to be given a seemingly well-defined way of understanding herself. The label 'schizophrenic' offered a way of understanding her distance from and difference from her peers. It also provided a way of seeing herself as a writer. 'For a quivering student longing for identity and aspiring to be a poet, to be given the idea...that most poets were "mad", to be told "when I think of you I think of Hugo Wolf, of Van Gogh..." gave me a certainty of direction, particularly when I found out that [they] suffered from schizophrenia.' (Letter to John Money 12/12/82, in King, 449-450)

The treatment Frame received at London's Maudsley hospital contrasts favorably with that she received in New Zealand. Frame's tendency to use literary allusions to describe her feelings and situation led to bizarre misinterpretations by New Zealand medical staff. For example Frame's identification of her own mental state with that of a character from Tolstoy's War and Peace led ' of the general practitioners who signed the medical certificate [formally committing her to Seacliff to note] gravely that "she says she is a lot of people... One of the persons is Pierre' (100). In London such references were recognized as literary allusions and even responded to in kind. It was at Maudsley that Frame's diagnosis as a schizophrenic was finally brought under critical scrutiny. And at Maudsley she was also offered support while she developed an understanding of herself as a person who was not a schizophrenic. Psychiatrist R. H. Cawley comes out as a hero of his generation. He stands out both for his intelligence and for his willingness to offer Frame the support she needed, whether that was through regular conversations, monetary support through a health benefit or brief periods of hospital admission. He also seems to fit the model of a psychiatrist who manages both to be genuinely caring and involved while still keeping something of a personal distance.

Readers will find much in this biography that adds to their understanding of Janet Frame's works. It explains her situation when she wrote each of her books, her writing process, which varied with each work, her attitudes towards each of her works, and contemporary reviews of each of her books. These reviews often varied with geographical location. Reviews in the United States, for instance, were sometimes much more complimentary than those in New Zealand. Frame's relationships with her editors are well described, as are both the good and bad aspects of her associations with various publishing houses. Writers who want tips on avoiding being disadvantaged by publishing contracts will learn from some of Frame's costly experiences.

Frame's unusual and very special creative talent is portrayed throughout the book. To give one example from her university years: 'Each [psychology lab experiment] was [written] as a parable, with birds or other animals acting the role of the investigator, the experimenter and the observer. They were all brilliantly done, and she had the principles one hundred percent correct. Whereas other people I consulted would have failed her for not obeying instructions, I gave her an A-plus for understanding what the experiments were about.' (John Money, interview 1997, in King, 64) While I was aware of Janet Frame's published work, I was interested to learn that she has also been a prolific poet, but that much of her poetry was never offered for publication, or was offered for publication but not accepted. Like many people she used poetry as a relief from the pressures of writing books and to express her immediate concerns. The inclusion of some of this unpublished verse adds a new dimension to her persona.

King's descriptions of her interactions with other leading New Zealand authors will interest students of New Zealand literature. The book documents, for instance, Frame's relationships with Frank Sargeson, C. K. Stead and James K. Baxter and his family, along with lesser, but still notable associations with Charles Brasch, Ruth Dallas and Denis Glover. Given King's recent biography of Frank Sargeson it is not surprising that his description of the relationship between these two writers is particularly good.

King has made excellent use of many different resources in writing this book. His empathy for Frame and the many discussions he had with her have produced a book that feels independent of her and yet includes her own voice. In describing her childhood and time in mental hospitals King has provided apt quotes from Frame's original hospital notes. When quotes are not given there are references to the sources that King has used, including the notes of specific clinicians, interviews with associates from the period, Frame's published work or letters written by or about Frame at that time. The referencing throughout the book, to all sources of information, is useful and shows the amazing amount of research that was put into the book. The book also contains a good index which not only lists the people referred to in the book (friends, colleagues, family and physicians) along with brief informative comments where appropriate (e.g., under Ross, Patience: "visits JF in hospital, 324"), but also allows the reader to find references to specific mental hospitals, specific works by Frame, and her association with certain agents and publishers. However, the index is sometimes frustrating. It was not written with an awareness of the information for which people interested in psychology or psychiatry might be searching. More seriously, it has irritating gaps. For instance, not all of Frame's experiences at Seacliff mental hospital are included in the index under Seacliff.

This book is long, at just over five hundred pages, and comprehensive. And Frame's life, like anyone's, has had moments that will be less interesting to readers. I estimate that less than half the book will be of interest to those who are searching for a good case study for psychology or philosophy of psychology. The entire book is likely to be of interest to people with a developed interest in Frame's writing, an interest in what can be involved in 'being an author', and to those who enjoy biographies. Quite apart from her experiences before, during and after her time in New Zealand's mental hospitals, there is something satisfying about the life history of someone searching for, finding and accepting a way of living that differs from common social expectations.

© 2001 Carolyn Mason

Carolyn Mason has a B.Sc. in philosophy and psychology, an M.A. in philosophy (ethics) and is working on a Ph.D. at University of Canterbury, New Zealand while tutoring for logic and lecturing in a course called "How to be Rational."


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