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Sunday, 7 November 2010

Review: Faces in the Water, Janet Frame (1961)

Although it opens with a disclaimer that the work "is a work of fiction" the joke's on us if we give any credence to the thundering disavowal because clearly the events described in the book must be based on Frame's sojourns in mental institutions in New Zealand in the 1940s and 1950s.

It is a frightening scenario. By situating a moral component within the frame of a person's mental illness the state medical authorities opened up the door to innumerable abuses of patients, whose conditions were estimated to be, somehow, self-willed rather than pathological. To do so is to enable the custodians of the realm they find themselves in, to consign patients to punishing routines and deplorable conditions, even unnecessary brain surgery that strips them of their humanity, simply on the grounds of deeming their behaviour unseemly or "naughty". A naughty girl gets a lobotomy. To "teach you a lesson". A patient is "bad", rather than merely sick. This moral component has to be removed from all discussions of mental illness in order to adequately address the needs of people with a mental illness. If there is a moral component, there is shame attached to it. If there is shame attached to it, we cannot speak about it in a way that will enable us to appropriately deal with it as a social issue.

Frame's prose is sensationally detailed and articulate, and it indicates without question that her illness was other than what the doctors and nurses were accustomed to seeing in their charges. She remembered everything said to her and everything done to her, and only changed the names of people to suit the style of a novel. The author has a facility with prose that enables her to explore motivations in a way that makes sense of an otherwise apparently senseless world of systematic abuse and arbitrary punishments.

We are taken along with Istina Mavet, Frame's alter-ego, as she is shunted from one delapidated and unhealthy ward to an even more delapidated and unhealthy one. We feel anger when Istina's aggressive behaviour, which is sparked by her fear of the electroconvulsive therapy she is subject to, leads to her being assigned, "to teach her a lesson", to more and more unsanitary and unpalatable quarters. With each step down the ladder within the institution, Istina becomes more unstable but she never becomes resigned to her imagined fate: that she will never go home. Finally, she baulks at having a lobotomy. She retains her senses in a world of soul-destroying routines and the angry jailers that impose them.

The final pages of the book are devoted to her salvation by a number of the doctors, and the mood of the book lifts. This is the author's novelistic structure taking hold, and we go along with it, relieved that finally sanity has prevailed in a world of unspeakable degradation, a place where the rights of the individual are routinely sacrificed to the convenience of the nurses. The nurses don't come out of the book looking at all respectable, although Frame does at one point refer to how they, themselves, are treated badly by the system. But the book shows how it is the things that individuals do that make all the difference, despite their being subject to a dysfunctional system of punishments and rewards.

It's not an unmanageable stretch of the imagination to apply the lessons contained in Frame's story to a broader context to take in society in general, and all of us living in it.

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