Wild swans: Talia Marshall on Janet Frame and the Seacliff asylum
An essay by Talia Marshall on Janet Frame: “Not mad, not bad, not sad, not autistic, the only word I can think of that comes close to her visions is matakite, Māori who can see beyond what is.”
I used to walk the lagoon at Waikouaiti. There is a track that runs through the side of it and up the middle and I would take in the glorified pond and feel a bit mad and truly untethered because I wasn't eating enough. And there were swans, but the black version which fitted snugly with my state of mind. White swans don't go with madness, white swans go with ballet. During their breeding season the dark, expressionist swans were vicious but they were still better parents than me. When my seven year old boy was there too I'd make him walk on ahead to see what kind of mood they were in. It's almost fun being chased by a big psychotic bird and at least he ended up fast, making the Otago 100m final when he was 15. I have no theories about what makes a child succeed in life because parenting literature frightens me but he is at medical school now and wants to be a surgeon. He will be a surgeon and I sometimes wonder if that's because he was erratically raised by a mother who fancies that if you cut me open you'd find fairy dust not the sorry state of my liver.
I'd heard rumours in Waikouaiti that I was a retired hooker, the retired bit was offensive because I was only 28. I was probably seen counting out $2 coins to pay for petrol and my house was on SH1 so it was obvious to rubberneckers I spent my days doing fuck all. I wore leotards a lot because apart from reading and smoking dope, dancing was my only other escape and like Lycra the words crazy and town bike can stick. Aside from my son, I was practically a virgin so this rumour was amusing to me. But I like women, and have much more respect for us than men, so it stung a bit too, the way the other mothers used to glare at me on the school run. I didn't want to be friends exactly but I definitely didn't want their husbands.
But people get funny ideas in their heads, there is no stopping them. From my stoop on the porch I re-read Janet Frame's 1951 short story “Swans” and got it into my head that she meant my lagoon when she wrote of the black swans rippling the dark behind them. Isn't that beautiful phrasing? I had a few good reasons for thinking the story was set there but reason is not really my buzz, chaos is, and beauty and the great seethe lying underneath everything that we don't have the right names for. Janet Frame came as close as any writer I can think of to naming what I'm failing to get at. Freud called it the unconscious but that won't do. It's not collective enough and I'd avoid Carl Jung at a party. I don't know what an archetype is, all I can sense is that hissing black swans want to be in a poem.
The story of Janet's time at Seacliff and her periodic bouts of distress has been so picked over I'm not going to rehash it here, the biographical details that circulate within New Zealand's literary world are already messy and mixed up with her genius. Her autobiographical writing hasn't helped either, perversely because it's so extraordinary. Even pretty Māori rock god Shayne Carter is into the way she wrote about herself.
Most institutionalised people never get to tell us what that experience is like, they lack the language or platforms to bang their drum. Even though it's become fashionable to confess what you had for dinner, some people still just want their privacy. It's a shame that our storytelling abilities have a role in deciding what treatment we receive in times of crisis because the helping professions are usually telling their own curative story over the top. What's actually going on for a person can get lost in the double translation.
We have always banished or imprisoned people for the cultural offence of losing their mind. Now the 'imprisonment' is a much more temporary, usually voluntary thing unless you've been found to be insane when you committed a crime. People in forensic units can serve indefinite sentences if they are too unwell to be in the community. In this sense, going to prison is preferable because at least you know how long you'll be there. People living with severe dementia are never going to be released from a locked unit unless they die but we don't think of them as mad so much as old and diseased, a clue that the names we have for disorder define how we are treated for it.
The gothic asylums are all closed now, the sixties blocks too, as containing madness is expensive and asylum has given its original, gentler meaning to refugees. Now we have a mental health crisis and the new, ostensibly kinder government has chucked a substantial amount of money at it in this year's budget. At last. Despite the fact it won't change the core social conditions that are contributing to it, especially our housing crisis, we are showing people with mental health issues that we care.
This is why what John Kirwan has done with the Like Minds campaign is important, here is a genius with a rugby ball showing us it's okay to need some help with feeling sad and empty. He's given flinching with self-loathing at your own reflection the gravitas of his surname. You don't really hate yourself you just have the Kirwans. Because the men he's trying to reach out to are the most likely to kill themselves without seeking help from a professional first. The men who still can't, won't or don't talk about how they are feeling and leave families and friends devastated with little warning. At least it's become more acceptable to say you are anxious and depressed. Mike King is sure there is hope so get your gumboots on and add your friendly Facebook filter that advertises a bank. The relentless positivity elides the tension, I've gone to see psych services terrified of my desire to die AND that they'll make me live by utilising the Compulsory Treatment Act. The truth is people with mental health issues can be difficult to be around and we know this and it makes it harder to get help.
And despite modern notions of progress, thinking there is an angel at your table, that God has your number, that there are spirits coming for you through the invisible wires was actually much more accepted in the past. I mean consider Moses and the Ten Commandments: an orphan parting the sea and hearing voices who received his moral imperatives, his thou shall nots from a burning bush and hiking up a mountain. In story books children are allowed tigers who come to tea without being devoured by them but adults have to let the magic go. I still wonder what happened to the cartoon-like wolf that used to come with me everywhere but when my much younger sister mentioned her own wolf I got a fright.
Unlike John Kirwan, Janet Frame never volunteered to reduce stigma in an ad campaign but she did understand what it's like to be institutionalised. There is a sense of duty in her writing towards the people she did not necessarily think of as being her own kind but bore witness for. She told us exactly what it was like to be in society's bin, what gets lost is the treasure she made out of the trash. The raw materials are transformed by what the writer makes of them. And this is where fiction happens, this is the alchemy.
Istina Mavel describes briefly escaping a Seacliff-like place in Frame's 1961 novel Faces in the Water. She ends up at the train station sharing an ice cream with a nurse before they go back to the terrible prison. A mad person didn't write that, a mad person while they are in the middle of their madness lacks that distance and reflective, critical insight. This is Foucault's ideas about how we internalise power turned into a believable human encounter. Despite the fact Istina has escaped the institution that is subjecting her to shock treatments, once free it's hard to know what to do next. It's not just that the train doesn't come and she has no money, it's the fact she now houses the institution's surveillance mechanisms inside her. Faces in the Water and Madness & Civilisation were published within months of each other but Faces is much easier to read because it's not indecipherable circular logic; it's a tidier telling of life.
As a student studying mental health, I worked with an elderly man who was institutionalised at Seacliff and then Cherry Farm for most of his life. When I met him he was in another much smaller residential setting designed not to feel like an institution. He smoked a lot but his rations were erratic, and smoking was banned on the grounds of the place designed to be his home. We decided that what we were going to do together for my adult school project was go on outings. It meant the staff couldn't see me smoking with him too. But once we were out at a cafe he apologised countless times for being a messy eater and rushed to pick up my cash card when I dropped it. Even though we were enjoying a nice sunny day in Outram, outside a nice cafe, surrounded by nice people eating nice things he was back in the dining hall of his youth living in fear of being told off by the guards/nurses.
After I dropped him off I went home and sobbed. In the car, he'd known a lot of stuff, he recognised Annette King just by her voice on the radio. He read the newspaper everyday and watched the news after dinner. He could remember Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. As a student eager to test out my shiny theories about walking beside people as they changed their script I suggested to him that I could help him tell his story. His fatal reply was that he did not think his story was worth telling, the resignation in his tone crushed me, he was still a walking Asylum. To make the sobbing stop I wrote a stupid poem about the sparrows that flocked to his crumbs. I lit a cigarette. It changed nothing for him and made me feel better. During my end of year PowerPoint presentation I talked about burying his memories in the whenua of Seacliff, not in a metaphorical sense but that I actually imagined I could do this for him. I wanted to plant him a Kōwhai tree for the inevitable kererū and could do this because I had inside access to the place. My ex's English family lived in the old service part of the Asylum and ignored its pulsating energy and pretended it was a fancy estate in England while I hated them for it.
But guided by the concerned looks of my Pākehā lecturers and the man's lukewarm response I experienced a lightbulb moment, except rather than feeling illuminated by my epiphany I was a hammer smashing the bulb to bits. I'd realised that despite my own experiences of wanting to die, of looking at nectarines and deciding they meant something much deeper than fruit; my periods of intense paranoia and feeling thousands of layers of connections all at once I also tend to hoover, I gobble up other people's stories. I realised I did not have much future working in the peer support field of mental health. Not just unsupervised but ever. Why would he want his memories buried at Seacliff when it was the worst time of his life? When we drove the old coast road on one of our outings he refused to look at the corner that takes you there, he stared straight ahead. Worst of all the kererū is my totem, not his.
I could have learned to manage this tendency of course, I'm not a total parasite but the other thing I'd figured out was that I wanted to write. I was nine when I wrote my first poem about an elephant but it took me years to realise that the only time I feel properly sane and by sane I mean a good kind of crazy is when I'm tap tap tapping away on a keyboard. Dancing doesn't make me feel sane, dancing makes me feel closer to the divine, besides I'd look like a sausage falling out of its fluorescent casing if I put on a leotard now.
Madness can be part of creativity but it's not the same thing, it's another kind of mimesis. Both channel the other place, the parallel world in the pool of water but only one can leave you trapped in it. Recovery is real and transformational but it requires pragmatic solutions to make it happen, it's dependent on having a plan. Like having somewhere to live, routines, achievable goals and people who love and support your successes and forgive the mistakes. Creative therapies also have their place but sometimes, and this is where it gets tricky, you think you're conducting the universal choir but your family and friends start to worry about the sounds you make.
Psychiatry is like trying to change a tyre in the dark with no head torch and no jack. It looks like an expert sitting in a chair taking notes while the flood rises and they pretend their feet aren't wet using micro-encouragers. It makes a mockery of medicine's first fixing tool, diagnosis. Diagnosis in psychiatry and clinical psychology is like playing darts blindfolded, our brains are still a mystery maybe because the soul is just its tenant. Meds have certainly helped people, some people swear by them but researchers are still not sure how they help, just that they help some people more than others. But also, if you don't know what's wrong with someone how do you fix it? After Janet Frame died, Dr Abrahamson, who had never met her, decided she probably had autism just from conducting a crude analysis of her autobiographical writing. What a fantasy, what a piece of junk science and false alchemy. I mean why is the fact that Janet Frame was a stone-cold genius such a problem for people, what does it say about them?
Writers lives are boring, writers lives suck, writers drink too much maybe partly because they have to appear at literary festivals to plug their wares, those middle class tote bag orgies that interrupt the necessary solitude it takes to produce unsellable books. This is why biopics about writers are also a lame idea because we all know what happened to Sylvia Plath she wrote the ending herself. Michael King's door stop biography and Jane Campion's rendering of Janet Frame are not the definitive versions of her life, the things she chose to share in her autobiographies are, the rest is another kind of fiction and should be read as such.
In story-based therapies they talk about thickening the narrative, it's slightly dreadful language that makes me think of custard but it's important to be able to flesh out a story, especially if you are trying to help someone that can't find the words or in my case, all you've got left of a tipuna is a tiny bible and a brooch.
In 1956 my grandfather found out that Mary Marshall, the grandmother he thought was long dead had only recently died at Orokonui, one of the smaller institutions that absorbed Seacliff's eventual closure. He went and picked up her ashes and buried them in the cemetery plot he'd bought for himself and his future wife. As a young mother Mary had been caught leaving potatoes on people's doorsteps in Riverton. She probably just had postnatal depression but she was institutionalised for the rest of her life. She was at Seacliff during the fire of 1943 when 39 women died in a ward that wasn't properly supervised because of the war. Two women lived, I like to imagine Mary was one of them, one who had been there so long and was so well behaved she had a set of keys. It hurt my grandfather that he'd never known where she was, and burying her wasn't enough for him. One of my mother and uncle's shared childhood memories is of being dragged out to Orokonui to visit batty old women while their father sat with their stories.
Madness runs in my family but I'm not scared because survivors who tell their story have given us vicarious permission to tell our own. They remind you to watch out for the mad woman hiding in the attic because you never know, maybe they see you, maybe they see straight through you so why do you think they wouldn't want to retreat from the things you say about them, the ugly rumours and the petty, thin observations.
Recently Kevin Ireland and CK Stead spent a nice afternoon at Frank Sargeson's Takapuna bach, as written up by Steve Braunias in the New Zealand Herald. Living semi-legends Ireland and Stead reminisced about rubbing up against real legends Frank and Janet. Ireland describes Janet as weird again, while Stead nods, Ireland says she was as mad as a snake. Snakes aren't crazy though, it's a lazy simile, you just don't really want to mess with them, especially as Stead and Ireland described themselves cheerily as almost dead. It's perfectly normal not to speak to anyone for three days when you are a writer, especially if you're a bit sensitive and know that one day people will talk about you. And as for Frank being frightened of her he seems to have put up with worse from his lovers, it's well established that Janet just wasn't his type, that he couldn't get her to wear slacks.
Where does the self end and the world begin and how much does the imagination make both real? These are important questions that get lost in talk of her personal habits as envious old men fail to exercise their imagination in the fade of their own golden weather, like they have a choice about when to turn off the tap.
None of these Pākehā words fit Janet Frame anyway, they can't contain her. Not mad, not bad, not sad, not autistic the only one I can think of that comes close to her visions is matakite, Māori who can see beyond what is. To the Is-lands, to the land beyond the tethered I and the is.
Janet wasn't Māori, as far as I know, but apparently she was fond of us in that genuine way that can be so hard to get right, my grandfather was the same. He was happiest with us, it used to drive my Nana a bit crazy.
I've heard Pākehā mock us for giving away land for beads and blankets, for trading our taonga for nails but you can't give land away the whenua stays where it's put. Giving is the Māori way not just because it makes us feel good, it does, but because we expect something back. Pākehā ask over and over what it's going to take to belong here, well-meaning Pākehā ask this all the time. They ask questions about why they feel sick.
Māori talk about someone who is touched and out of order as pōrangi or afflicted by Mate Māori but it doesn't just refer to one sick person. Meanwhile Pākehā see us as reduced by poverty to superstitious signs when they are so clearly desperate for them, to bear the right name. In their whakamā they miss the wairua humming through the pou's forked tongue, Janet's fair warning that war comes no matter what song you sing. The waiata that moves through the spirit as much as the head and conducts itself best through water. It's the reason you flick wai around your face when you leave the urupā because water is it what helps you feel clean and releases you back to the ordinary.
I mention this only because it makes me feel like less of a parasite and because I know the mauri, the life force and the spirit is what's missing when white people use a medical lens to consider what might be wrong with their mental health.
Janet Frame was not crazy, or rather to say she was is to condemn us all to madness but it's true there will never be another writer like her. Even if the real setting of “Swans” is not Waikouaiti but some better place, she made living there for me more bearable with the clarity of her voice. Our national bird should be the bellbird, the korimakō were my grandfather's favourite singers and he always stopped to listen for them when they punctured the air and struck the bell of the bay, stopped to feel for the cows running through the paddock like water, for the cry of the seagull with its keel and kool and the impossible chalk marks on the water telling us there is no such thing as the past, present or the future there is only the turquoise bird rising from the tangerine fire of her hair.
Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism
As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.
As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.