Books: Frame of mind

Was Janet Frame autistic, as has been recently claimed? Iain Sharp talks to someone who ought to know and who argues that what set Frame apart was not her social behaviour but her brilliance.

Most New Zealanders are familiar with the sad saga of Janet Frame's earlier years. In 1947, when she entered Seacliff Mental Hospital as a voluntary patient, the 23-year-old was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. During the next eight years she was subjected to electric convulsive therapy more than 200 times. She narrowly avoided being lobotomised in 1952. Five years later, when she travelled to London, a team of high-powered psychiatrists at the Maudsley Clinic formally rejected the diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Now, three years after Frame's death, there are fresh battles over mistaken analysis. The latest issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal contains an article by an Australian, Sarah Abrahamson of the Queen Elizabeth Centre in Victoria, arguing that Frame suffered from high-functioning autism. Startlingly, Abrahmson suggests that the world-renowned author, regarded in her later years as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, had language problems, severe communication difficulties and "no imagination".

That the article ever saw the light of day infuriates Frame's niece and literary executor Pamela Gordon, who describes it as "a ridiculous piece of amateurish pseudo-science no better than an undergraduate essay. I'm amazed it wasn't submitted to peer review before publication and quickly rejected. The editor of the Medical Journal, who's a bowel specialist and thus perhaps accustomed to crap, defends it on the ground that it was just an opinion piece. But the media have seized on Abrahamson's opinion as if it were authoritative and the idea that Janet was autistic is now gaining wide circulation.

"My daughter has severe autism. It's a condition I know about because I've had to deal with it for 30 years. I don't need to be told that people with autism deserve our respect. I do respect them. But the simple fact is that Janet wasn't autistic."

If autism is understood as a self-absorbed state largely indifferent to the perceptions of others, it might be argued that Frame's condition was quite the opposite. The shyness from which she suffered as a young woman was caused by a hypersensitivity to the reactions of others. Rather than being oblivious to the world around her, she was exceptionally attuned to small nuances.

She wittily spoofs her own social gaucheness in Towards Another Summer (Vintage, $30), the semi-autobiographical novel published for the first time earlier this month after lying dormant for 44 years. The book's plot is fairly slight: Grace Cleave, a New Zealand writer who has moved to London, nervously accepts an invitation from a literary acquaintance to join his family as a weekend house-guest. But every clumsy exchange, gesture, inference, misunderstanding and interior pang is expertly rendered. A wonderful comedy of manners, it contains some of the finest New Zealand writing published this year.

Having a history, like Frame's own, of being hospitalised in mental institutions, Grace simultaneously wants to shake off her New Zealand past yet pines for home. The longing is especially acute when she compares clean, green Otago summers to grimy London streets, where "soot left fingerprints everywhere".

Grace's childhood memories, which take up a sizeable portion of the book, are often reminiscent of Frame's three volumes of autobiography, To the Is-land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984) and The Envoy to the Mirror City (1985). Frame gives Grace's parents the same names as her own, George and Lottie. The Cleave family and the Frames even have the same address: 56 Eden St, Oamaru. Yet other details, such as the names of Grace's siblings, are altered.

"Yes, a close comparison of Towards Another Summer and the autobiographies is really interesting," says Gordon, who has recently proofread all three volumes of autobiography for a new omnibus Virago edition to be published in the UK. "In her autobiographies, Janet tried very hard to tell the truth. As for the rest of her output, you can't trust her to stick to the simple factual record because she's always up to clever bits of mischief. Towards Another Summer is the only one of her novels with a central character clearly based on Janet Frame, but even there it's not a direct one-to-one correspondence.

"When reading Janet's fiction, you have to be beware of falling into the trap that some critics have called the `biographical fallacy'. Many people think that Daphne in Owls Do Cry is a self-portrait, but that's not true and Janet resented the mistake. Istina Mavet, the central character in Faces in the Water, definitely isn't Janet either, although people tend to read that book as if it were directly autobiographical.

"Perhaps it's because Towards Another Summer is closer to autobiography that Janet chose not to publish it during her lifetime. She might have thought it would only add to the confusion. She said it was `too personal'. Really, though, it's a mixed-genre book a fictional memoir. And, oddly enough, that's currently fashionable as a literary concept. Although it was written in 1963, Towards Another Summer has quite a contemporary feel, I think. It sits nicely alongside Fiona Farrell's Book Book and Chris Price's Brief Lives."

The novel's title is a quote from Dunedin writer Charles Brasch's mid- 40s' poem "These Islands": "and from their haunted bay/The godwits vanish towards another summer". Grace Cleave thinks of herself as a migratory bird. A little silhouette of a godwit in flight is used to break the text into sections.

There are allusions to other poets: Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, John Masefield, Allen Curnow, CK Stead. Song lyrics feature prominently too. There is even mention of a couple of big hits from the early 60s, Susan Maughan's "I Want to be Bobby's Girl" and Chubby Checker's "Let's Twist Again".

For someone supposedly uncommunicative and afflicted with language difficulties, Frame was remarkably adept at storing verse in her head.

"The myth of Janet as an uncommunicative recluse has a power of its own that resists all the evidence to the contrary," says Gordon with a sigh. "Michael King even succumbed to it at the end of his biography, Wrestling with the Angel, although his book otherwise provides plenty of proof of how many friends she had throughout her life. Michael leaves us with a final image of Janet staring into her computer without the burden of human contact.

"Janet had a computer from the early 1980s. She was surfing the internet and experimenting with emails years before the rest of us caught up with the technology. For from being devoid of human contact, she used her computer to hook into the rest of the world and catch up with friends. This wasn't at the expense of ordinary social interaction either. She went shopping with Karl and Kay Stead on Saturdays. In fact, there was never a period in her life, even during the darkest years, when she was without friends.

"Yes, she was shy when she was young. But what has to be remembered, too, is the courage with which she tried to overcome that shyness. There's evidence of that in Towards Another Summer too. The bit where Grace feels like an inarticulate idiot while being interviewed by the BBC is based on a real interview Janet did. What the book captures so well is the feelings of dread and inadequacy that most of us have in such situations not freakish but normal. And Janet did manage to complete that BBC interview successfully and it was broadcast. Quite an achievement!"

Sunday Star Times