‘From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.’
(Janet Frame, To the Is-Land)
Janet Frame is probably the most famous writer ever to have been produced by New Zealand. Within New Zealand, many myths persist about Frame, so much so that the myth-making itself has become an interesting topic for investigation. An excellent scholarly monograph has been published that touches on Janet Frame's ‘biographical legend’ and offers some interesting insights (Maria Wikse, 2006).
Here are some short rebuttals to some of the popular misconceptions about Janet Frame.
Myth #1: The Mad Writer
Some say that this myth has long been discredited. It's true that any academic who tried to argue for this should expect to attract scorn, but the myth still crops up in the wider community. Frame's misdiagnosis was thoroughly debunked by a panel of psychiatrists in London. End of story.
‘It is a measure of the awful fascination that attends mental illness in New Zealand that the question of her 'madness' still arises in discussion of her work and that Frame herself should still be at pains to separate herself personally from the dread word 'schizophrenia' which was used to imprison and punish her for the crime of not desiring what society deemed valuable’.
(Mark Williams, Leaving the Highway AUP, 1990).
Myth #2: The Mad Fat Writer
‘Until Jane Campion's film I was known as the mad writer. Now they are calling me the mad fat writer’
A consequence of the filmic Janet being played by well-built actors, was that Janet Frame became stereotyped in the popular imagination as the ‘fat girl in a cardie’ character that appeared on screen. Janet Frame was never overweight until her late middle age. Her autobiographical trilogy, and the film based on it, only portray the first forty years of her eighty-year-long life. This mistake, although trivial, should act as a caution against assuming that any other aspect of the movie Janet can be taken as a reliable guide to any characteristic of the real Janet.
"This slim woman of average height who had striking curly reddish hair."
(Dr Robert Cawley, London, 1958, quoted in Wrestling with the Angel: a Life of Janet Frame by Michael King, 2000)
Myth #3: The Anti-Social Recluse
‘While her humility was renowned, she was a most engaging personality with a wickedly funny sense of humour and a generosity of spirit.’
(New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, 2004)
Visiting French author Nadine Ribault, who has translated some of Frame's fiction, was mystified when, on a visit to New Zealand, she encountered the popular belief that Janet Frame ‘keeps to herself’ and ‘no one meets her’. One of the clues Ribault had picked up from Frame's writing was that someone with her ‘wonderful sense of humour’ would be incapable of a total withdrawal from society. (Quotes are from Ribault's essay in Colour of Distance VUP 2005).
Myth #4: Autism?
In a startling elaboration of the myth of Janet Frame as an anti-social recluse who was unable rather than just unwilling to hog the limelight, a new theory has emerged that she may have had ‘high functioning autism’.
As Frame scholar Simone Oettli commented: ‘It’s like accusing Agatha Christie of murder!’
The autism ‘diagnosis’ can only be taken seriously by those who are grossly ignorant of Frame's life and work. The idea seems to have originated from the mistaken idea that the fictionalised movie portrayal of Janet Frame's life had a documentary resemblance to the real Janet Frame’s life. Those who knew Janet Frame well in person, or have more than a passing acquaintance with her writing, dismiss the theory as nonsense. The people who are diagnosing Janet Frame as autistic are diagnosing the Janet Frame Myth. The mythical ‘Janet’ is a caricature of the much more complicated real person.
The diagnostic wishful thinking behind labelling Frame with autism doesn’t just require a blinkered and selective reading of Frame’s autobiography and fiction, it also depends on reductive and unhelpful stereotypes of the autistic spectrum itself.
Janet Frame and John Money in 2003 with New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark
A caution about Wikipedia
We do not recommend the Wikipedia article on Janet Frame. It has errors, it is incomplete, it has a non-neutral bias, it gives unwarranted prominence to fringe theories and it quotes unreliable sources. More space is devoted to showcasing Janet Frame's rivals and critics, and in discussing fan fiction written about her, than is given to details about her own life and work. Details concerning posthumous publications are missing or inaccurate. Janet Frame's early life and her career were adversely affected by misogyny and class discrimination and these powerful influences can also be detected in the agendas of the Wikipedia editors who have dominated over the narrative evident in the article which amounts in places to deliberate misinformation. Please note that Wikipedia does contain an important and often overlooked disclaimer to the effect that no information on the collaborative encyclopedia can be guaranteed to be reliable.