Faces in the Water by Janet Frame

facesFaces in the Water, Janet Frame, 1961, Virago Press 2009

Much like Joanne Greenberg and Sylvia Plath, Janet Frame wrote a semi-autobiographical novel of her time in a mental institution and handles the subject with just as much sensitivity and skill.

The life of Janet Frame is important to consider while reading this book because of the very narrow escape she made from being able to write at all. She was in a mental hospital and scheduled for lobotomy when her book of short stories won a New Zealand literary prize. She was released and travelled throughout Europe and New Zealand and published five more books.

The protagonist Istina Mavet is not Janet Frame but through her Frame illustrates her experiences in a psychiatric ward in a disturbing and poetic book. We witness the journey of Istina from civilised institutions where patients are herded on random mornings for electroconvulsive therapy, “each one equivalent in fear to an execution” to the wards where mental patients are seen as lost causes by the doctors and the nurses treat them like animals including one scene where nurses throw lollipops on the floor to watch patients scrabble and fight for them; and then straitjacket them when they do.

Frame’s use of language and the way she views the world despite it’s ugliness is beautiful. The following passage is desperately bleak yet the author manages to paint it in startling lovely imagery:

I dreamed of the world because it seemed the accepted thing to do, because I could not bear to face the thought that not all prisoners dream of freedom; the prospect of the world terrified me: a morass of despair violence death with a thin layer of glass spread upon the surface where Love, a tiny crab with pincers and rainbow shell, walked delicately ever sideways but getting nowhere…And the people: giant patchworks of colour with limbs missing and parts of their mind snipped off to fit them into the outline of the free pattern.

We know that Frame escaped from the mental institution that ended up making her illness worse but we don’t know if Istina did. That is not the point of the book however, she is a vessel which Frame uses to show us the world she once lived in. Knowing her life story means we finish the book with slightest feeling of hope that even if we don’t know what happened to Istina, we know Janet Frame did not end with her life stolen away.


Review: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg

This was a hard book for me to read. And yet parts of it were so beautiful and tragic I couldn’t stop reading even though I was terrified.

This is the fictionalised memoir of a young girl battling with schizophrenia in a mental hospital based on the author’s own experiences. The world she created is a haunting wonderful kingdom with it’s own language and gods that frequently turn on her and torments as it turns into a land of nightmares.

I do not and have never had schizophrenia but I found that several of Deborah’s issues were similar to my mental illness like the following excerpt.

She could not tell him. She could do no more than gesture feebly with her body and hand but he saw the panic she was in. “Hold on Deborah,” he said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

She waited and her fear mounted as her other senses closed to her. She could only see in grey now and she could barely hear. Her sense of touch was also leaving, so that the reality of contact with her own flesh and clothing was faint.

I write this as a warning that it might cause the same reaction to someone with similar problems. I was so frightened that I put the book down and didn’t pick it up for weeks. I am very glad that I did.

The writing is steeped in black humour as it seems the only way to stay fighting to live in ward D where the worst patients are. The language is sharp, lyrical and coldly beautiful like a vast, dark sky pricked with glittering distant stars. Deborah is so intelligent that the world she creates is filled with riddles, poetry and people as clever as she that she must outwit.

The book also writes how this affects Deborah’s family and the awkwardness, love, anxiety, embarassment and well-intended lies are the most bleak parts in the book for me. Deborah’s sister is arguing with her mother in one of her rare visits home while she is in a drugged half-sleep.

Every letter,” Suzy cried, “Every visit that you make to her! I draw, too; I dance and I wrote two of the songs for the camp follies last year. They may not be as “profound” as Debby’s pictures, but you never stop Grandma or invite Aunt Natalie and Uncle Matt to hear the new song that I wrote or the smart thing I said.

“Don’t you see, you stupid girl,” Esther said almost savagely, “I don’t have to! Praising you is bragging. Praising Deborah is–excusing–.”

The difficulty that Deborah faces is not just fighting her own mind but figuring out if she wants to live in the drudgery she sees in the real world. I never promised you a rose garden Deborah’s doctor says to her about how life won’t neccessarily be better once she is able to escape the world she has built for herself but at least it will be the truth. Sometimes the path to getting better is more difficult than being right at the bottom of the pit.

Review: Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel


Elizabeth Wurtzel writes with her finger in the faint pulse of a generation whose ruling icons are Kurt Cobain, Xanax, and pierced tongues. A memoir of her bouts with depression and skirmishes with drugs, Prozac Nation is a witty and sharp account of the psychopharmacology of an era.

This is an indulgent and brutal account of Wurtzel’s life and her troubled mind and her dealings with mental illness. It makes for fascinating reading not only because of the portrayal of clinical depression but also because of the author’s own personality. As a sufferer of clinical depression even I found it difficult to sympathise with her even as she articulated beautifully how depression can feel.

That’s the thing I want to make clear about depression: It’s got nothing at all to do with life. In the course of life, there is sadness and pain and sorrow, all of which, in their right time and season, are normal—unpleasant, but normal. Depression is an altogether different zone because it involves a complete absence: absence of affect, absence of feeling, absence of response, absence of interest. The pain you feel in the course of a major clinical depression is an attempt on nature’s part (nature, after all, abhors a vacuum) to fill up the empty space. But for all intents and purposes, the deeply depressed are just the walking, waking dead

She did come across sometimes mean and selfish but I still connected with her because I felt like she knew that. It also is one of the most honest aspects of the book which I admire her for writing. Severely depressed people can act selfish and act differently from how they usually are. However, her actions sometimes portray manipulation not effects of her illness. She calls her therapist throughout the night, claims if she does not listen to her she will kill herself and admits a few times that she is addicted to her own depression.

The ending was the one part I could not possibly believe. The author suddenly got better after having an epiphany. I felt like she had been told to stick a happy or hopeful ending on the end to get that and it gave a jarring ending to the book.

If you have gone through something like what the quote describes above then I recommend you read this book. Reading it made me realise further that the depression was not a weakness of mine but an actual illness. However if you want a complete truthful account of clinical depression I would suggest looking elsewhere.