Jan/Feb 2002 Book Reviews

Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame

Michael King
Picador, Macmillan (September 2001) 583 pages
ISBN: 0 330 36290 9

reviewed by Ann Skea

Although their work is very different, there is something about Janet Frame's life which reminds one of Sylvia Plath. Both were talented, highly imaginative women who received electrical (ECT) and insulin shock therapy for mental disturbance and were scarred by this. Both, too, saw suicide as a way out of their distress, although Frame has now survived well into her seventies.

This biography, which has been written with the full co-operation of Janet Frame, tells the whole story of her life to date. It is scholarly, and occasionally tedious in its detailed thoroughness, but it provides a fascinating picture of a highly sensitive, talented and unusual woman.

The book begins rather dryly with a genealogy and with such long quotations from Frame's own autobiography that one starts to wonder why a new biography is necessary. However, once Michael King gets into his stride and has material from sources other than Frame's own writing to deal with the view broadens and there are valuable new insights and perspectives.

Janet Frame was born into a large New Zealand family and her family ties were both her support and her burden throughout her life. Her early home life was chaotic. The family were poor and her mother's time was devoted to the care of an epileptic son for whom no suitable medication was then available and who she was determined to keep out of a mental institution. The children ran wild but were introduced early to poetry and books. For Janet, this fostered a passion for both. When she was twelve, her favorite sister, Myrtle, drowned because of a heart defect which would eventually claim a younger sister, too. And Janet, herself, was a surviving twin.

Janet was a clever child who did well at school and went on to train as a Primary School teacher, enrolling in several university courses at the same time. She was sensitive and timid, very aware of her appearance (her teeth were rotten and she could not afford dental treatment) and of her size, but it was adults she avoided, not children. Her probationary classroom experiences were good, but her problems in relating to other members of staff convinced her that she was not suited to teaching. At the same time, she developed a passionate dependence on the university lecturer who was teaching her psychology class. She began to delve into abnormal psychology, to talk of "going mad" and to "flirt" with the idea of suicide.

There is little to indicate that Frame's problems were more than acute sensitivity, an unusually vivid imagination and normal, but intense, adolescent anxieties. Unfortunately, the man she turned to was the subject of her "pash" and he was a psychologist. After counselling, he suggested she have a spell in a psychiatric ward for "a few days rest". But due to some lack of communication, the health system understood Frame's stay to be for observation and assessment, and she was mis-diagnosed as schizophrenic. It's a frightening story. This misdiagnosis dogged Frame for many decades, leading to ECT, a series of mental hospital committals (voluntary and involuntary), and years of personal anxiety until the diagnosis was overturned. Through all this, Frame managed to write and to be widely published. Her growing success eventually established for her a mental equilibrium which was periodically threatened by family demands and stresses. But she survived and thrived.

Frame's is a remarkable story of courage and resilience in the face of enormous odds. It is also a story which calls into question the nature of originality and creative genius and the way in which society defines normality and mental health. The nature, practice and power of psychiatry, too, as it is demonstrated here, gives food for thought. Certainly, for Janet Frame it has been a very mixed blessing.

This is book which will be essential reading for scholars of New Zealand and 20th Century literature. It is also a book which is of general interest to anyone who enjoys Janet Frame's work.


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