Friday, April 29, 2005


I will write about the season of peril. I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world, drifting away through a violet-coloured sea where hammerheaded sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and polar bears. I was alone on the ice. A blizzard came and I grew numb and wanted to lie down and sleep and I would have done so had not the strangers arrived with scissors and cloth bags filled with lice and red-labeled bottles of poison, and other dangers which I had not realized before -- mirrors, cloaks, corridors, furniture, square inches, bolted lengths of silence -- plain and patterned, free samples of voices. And the strangers, without speaking, put up circular calico tents and camped with me, surrounding me with their merchandize of peril.

I was cold. I tried to find a pair of long woolen ward socks to keep my feet warm in order that I should not die under the new treatment, electric shock therapy, and have my body sneaked out the back way to the mortuary. Every morning I woke in dread, waiting for the day nurse to go on her rounds and announce from the list of names in her hand whether or not I was for shock treatment, the new and fashionable means of quieting people and making them realize that orders are to be obeyed and floors are to be polished without anyone protesting and faces are made to be fixed into smiles and weeping is a crime. Waiting in the early morning, in the black-capped frosted hours, was like waiting for the pronouncement of a death sentence.

I tried to remember the incidents from the day before. Had I wept? Had I refused to obey an order from one of the nurses? Or, becoming upset at the sight of a very ill patient, had I panicked, and tried to escape? Had a nurse threatened, "If you don't take care you'll be for treatment tomorrow?" Day after day I spent the time scanning the faces of the staff as carefully as if they were radar screens which might reveal the approach of the fate that had been prescribed for me. I was cunning. "Let me mop the office," I pleaded. "Let me mop the office in the evenings, for by evening the film of germs has settled on your office furniture and report books, and if the danger is not removed you might fall prey to disease which means disquietude and fingerprints and a sewn shoud of cheap cotton."

So I mopped the office, as a precaution, and sneaked across to the sister's desk and glanced quickly at the open report book and the list of names for treatment the next morning. One time I read my name there, Istina Mavet. What had I done? I hadn't cried or spoken out of turn or refused to work the bumper with the polishing rag under it or to help set the tables for tea, or to carry out the overflowing pig-tin to the side door. There was obviously a crime which was unknown to me, which I had not included in my list because I could not track it with the swinging spotlight of my mind to the dark hinterland of unconsciousness. I knew then that I would have to be careful. I would have to wear gloves, to leave no trace when I burgled the crammed house of feeling and took for my own use exuberance depression suspicion terror.

Two passages from Faces in the Water (1961), by Janet Frame, which I'm reading at the moment. If you haven't read a book by this amazing writer, please arrange to do so before you take leave of this planet. Janet Frame spent 8 years in mental hospitals in the '40's & '50's, went through more than 200 shock treatments, and was slated for a lobotomy when her first book of short stories won a major literary prize and she was taken off the list. Writing literally saved her life. You can read more about her here. One who could go through the hell she went through and live to tell the tale with such astounding poetry & perception has to be one in millions -- if not billions. After her release, she went on write 11 novels, two more books of short stories, a book of poetry, and her famous autobiography, An Angel At My Table, which was turned into the movie by Jane Campion. Other recommended titles I'm told are Owls do Cry, and Scented Gardens for the Blind.


Loren said...

As I was telling a poet friend the other day, I sometimes wonder if you're not mentally ill if you DON'T suffer from manic-depression syndrome.

There is so much to be sad and depressed about if you look around at the way people suffer, but at the same time you can be so much so happy for brief moments that you wonder how you can stand it.

Brian Campbell said...

I've had exactly the same thoughts, Loren -- and know the feeling only too well.