Janet Frame – An Angel at My Table

posted in: chronic illness | 6

Day 13 – Book report. What’s your favourite book and how can you tie it to your health or life?

“I inhabited a territory of loneliness which resembles the place where the dying spend their time before death, and from where those who do return, living, to the world bring, inevitably, a unique point of view that is a nightmare, a treasure, and a lifelong possession.” 

– Janet Frame: An Autobiography

Trigger warning: This post discusses depression and suicide frankly. Please do not read if you are not in a good place.

In the Shadow Lands
In the Shadow Lands

It was in early 1993, in the midst of a crippling depression, that a new anti-depressant medication tipped me into the abyss towards suicide. It is remarkable to me now how little I considered the consequences as I took that overdose. With a remarkable lack of conviction, I told my husband what I had done, and the plea bargaining began with the lifeline volunteer on the telephone to get me to go with him to emergency.

I hadn’t wanted to die, but I couldn’t continue living in that place where there seemed no life – like a person haunting the one I was supposed to inhabit. So I let my husband drive me to the hospital, where they admitted me immediately. The doctor ordered a gastric lavage (rather ironically, I was an ocean scientist with a lifelong love of water suddenly drowning in it) and then sent me home to live with the aftermath.

My psychiatrist was surprised when I called him the following week and sent me to the hospital for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a last resort, following a couple of years’ of unsuccessful drug therapy. I entered the hospital longing for my brain to be startled out of the shadow lands in which it dwelled, and left, unchanged and unshocked.

Watching my travails at a distance (it seemed everyone was at a distance from me then, some deliberately – I had moved away from my family – and some separated by the trance of clinical depression – my husband), my husband’s aunt told me about a movie I would probably relate to: ‘An Angel at My Table’ by Jane Campion. Campion had based her movie on the autobiography by New Zealand author, Janet Frame.

To this day I can’t remember if I saw the movie first, or read the book, but it had the effect of startling me into a kind of stunned awareness of myself, not only as a person with depression, but as a person in fact, who struggled with the difficulties of conforming to the invisible rules of living.

At that time, I was relatively lucky that we rented a house only a few doors from the shores of a beach on Port Philip Bay, where I could walk for hours, alone in my head with the tragic cries of seagulls overhead. At that time, I rode my bike to work, where I turned in my time like an automaton – looking back, it’s startling how I functioned so normally in the depths of a personal tragedy. I often rode to the local library, and it’s there I borrowed the first of Janet Frame’s books.

Janet Frame’s ‘An Autobiography’ consists of three slender but significant volumes: ‘To the Is-land’, ‘An Angel at My Table’ and ‘The Envoy from Mirror City’. Although I lived with my husband and communicated with him, in a very real way I was alone with the spectre of ‘what had happened’, or as my shocked mother responded in a phone call, ‘that didn’t happen’. I felt alone as I dived into books by people who had been to the edge and back. William Styron’s ‘Darkness Visible’ was one of them, but Janet Frame’s ‘An Autobiography’, and selected novels including ‘Faces In the Water’ saved me.

I consumed Janet’s stories (I called her Janet, quite informally, as she was like a friend and guide) and autobiographical works with a kind of starving ferocity. I later adopted her as a virtual mentor and example of what I could achieve if I were able to assert myself as an individual with all the rights that entailed (I had no difficulty in assuming responsibilities).

‘An Autobiography’ follows Janet’s childhood through to her coming of age at teachers’ college, and the ensuing breakdown that saw her incarcerated for 8 years in New Zealand mental institutions. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and narrowly avoided a leucotomy: a standard treatment for intractably ill patients of the day. It was her writing that saved her. The acclaim for her first book of short stories saved her from the procedure. She went on to be treated by a prominent London psychiatrist, who concluded that she had never suffered from a mental illness at all.

What I learned from Janet Frame is how to be authentic to one’s story – to tell the truth, or the truth as one remembers it without censor or shame. Janet’s life and experiences were scattered throughout her works, not just her autobiography and she taught me how to claim my story and experiences. Over the years, many people have made me feel ashamed at the things I went through and the things I did, and moreover, ashamed of who I am, including the realm of imagination that I had dwelled in since childhood.

Over time, the burden of shame forced me to dismantle my imagination, and indeed, contact with the parts of myself that were in any way different to the norm. Over my life I learned to dissociate them as undesirables, leaving me alone: the scientist and reporter with the rational mind and cool intellect, the one who had difficulty with emotions and encounters with other people. The person who had trouble understanding how the World worked, and her place in it. When I first sank into depression, and my brain – the seat of logic – fell into ruins, I was indeed a lurker in a shadow land of my own and the World’s making.

Janet Frame taught me, through her bravery in reporting all that she felt and saw, including the things that other people could not see, that I had worth: that the sensitive, creative and otherwise different parts of me were normal by some accounts. Moreover, her works helped me to begin the process of looking inwards and reclaiming the lost stragglers that were cast into the darkness earlier in my life. I began to write and create art again, and in doing so, began a process of restoration: a process that continues to this day.

Even though I still struggle to gain complete mastery over depression, and my life is wracked by invisible illness, I live in part because Janet’s works helped me to see myself as a person in my own right, with a contribution to make. All the time I speak my truth honestly as Janet taught me, I feel there is a peaceful kingdom awaiting me: my own Mirror City, where I will find calm and connection, not only within, but with the World.

Even though Janet Frame is now gone, she is a mentor who continues to teach me with her words to stay true to myself and that my only failing would be to conform to what others expect me to be.


6 Responses

  1. Carmen Waterman
    | Reply

    I shall forever be grateful to Janet Frame for being there, with her story to tell, and her inspiration and hope that helped you to find your own voice, your own truth and the will to go on. The way you share your experiences, the depth of feelings and what you have overcome you are like a beacon of hope for others. Just as Janet was your mentor, you too are mentor to many, and help to make a difference in this world. Keep writing and always know that you are worthy and loved unconditionally and for all times.

    You are my life and make living a dream come true.

    • Jane
      | Reply

      I had always hoped to meet Janet – alas it didn't happen, and she likely would have disliked the way I admired her – she was one who liked to keep to herself. I am still extremely grateful for her writing, including the posthumous writing, which is as good as what she released in her life. From that, I can take the message that often we can sit on things too long, without trusting our own voice.

      Thank you, Sweetie. Love you.

  2. Annette McKinnon (@a
    | Reply

    Your post is my first introduction to Janet Frame. I clicked on the link and read the brief biography. What a productive life she had. I think that meaningful writing that serves as a beacon to others is an extraordinary ability and it saved her and you too.

    My solution to horrible stress at one point in my life was to consider how to murder one of two people. But in real life and in fiction that seldom works out well.

    I think that others who read your post may be inspired at the very least to read the books you recommend and in that way they will also receive help

    • Jane
      | Reply

      The biography by Michael King is a fascinating look at her life, but might be too much information for the casual reader. However, it did underline for me how much she did achieve, especially with challenges – she had many physical challenges later in her life. I agree that meaningful writing can be extremely helpful as a guidepost. I really believe her example encouraged me at a time when I had very little encouragement. Even if she maintains that she was never mentally ill, her explorations of what it meant rang true to me, and helped me to feel more normal at a very difficult time.

      I'm certainly glad you didn't resort to your solution, but I think most of us at one point certainly have little daydreams about people who have damaged or hurt us in some way. I'd have to say my over-arching desire was always to get as far away from them as possible! Thanks for commenting, hon.

  3. Storeylines
    | Reply

    Beautifully written, Jane, and I am so glad Janet was there for you when you most needed her And I'm going to look for her books! Thank you!

    • blackbirdatnight
      | Reply

      Thank you, hon! I'm sure you will enjoy her writing! I know it seems different to many people, but it speaks so intimately to me.


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