Faces in the Water

Janet Frame is not a terribly well known writer outside literary circles, but she should be.  I’m always equal parts heartbroken and awed by her very personal approach to language.  Frame was mistakenly diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent eight years in and out of mental hospitals in New Zealand.  She was scheduled for a frontal lobotomy when a book of hers was nominated for a literature prize in New Zealand, and she was released.  The below is an excerpt from Faces in the Water, her “novel” about being institutionalized.

“There is no past present future.  Using tenses to divide time is like making chalk marks on water.  I do not know if my experiences at Cliffhaven happened years ago, are happening now, or lie in wait for me in what is called the future.

I know that the linen room was very often my sanctuary.  I looked through its little dusty window upon the lower park and the lawns and trees and the distant blue strip of sea like sticky paper pasted edge to edge with the sky.  I wept and wondered and dreamed the abiding dream of most mental patients –– The World, Outside, Freedom; and foretasted too vividly the occasions I most feared –– electric shock treatment, being shut in a single room at night, being sent to Ward Two, the disturbed ward.  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, while the sun –– like one of those woolly balls we made at occupational therapy by winding orange wool on a circle of cardboard –– rose higher in the sky its tassels dropping with flame threatening every moment to melt the precarious highway of glass.  And the people: giant patchworks of color with limbs missing and parts of their mind snipped off to fit them into the outline of the free pattern.”

And a hero of mine, Dorothy Parker’s review of the book in Esquire:

“It is always fascinating to read of the insane –– but there is a deeper exercise in a book which treats them not poetically or comfortably, but as they are and as they are treated.  Faces in the Water is a brilliantly written book.”

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