Frances Farmer: Pre-Frontal Dichotomy "She'll come back as fire, to burn all the liars"Nirvana, "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" In Utero
Frances Farmer was a very successful Hollywood actress in the 1930s who spent most of the 1940s being called insane. She had a brief but mostly unsuccessful comeback in the 1950s; more or less disappeared in the 1960s and died in relative obscurity in Indianapolis in 1970.
In the 1980s a television movie and two commerical films were made about Farmer's tragic life. In the 1990s the music group Nirvana paid homage to her in a song.
No longer obscure, Frances Farmer has become a symbol of the defiant individual refusing to adjust to the hypocrisy of authority. Her tragic life story has become a paradigm of what happens to outspoken women in a patriarchal culture.
Except for the fact that some of Farmer's problems were the result of an overbearing and neurotic mother, the paradigm is accurate. The fact is, even today, outspoken and opinionated women are still thought to be crazy. One observer of the contemporary situation has written:
Psychiatry is still being used as a weapon to silence and intimidate women; our double standards of mental illness still prevail. John Wayne Bobbitt wasn't diagnosed or convicted as "insane" for raping and beating his wife; Lorena Bobbitt wasn't diagnosed or convicted as "insane" for staying with her tormenter and torturer. She was convicted of "insanity" only for trying to get the pain to stop, and, of course, for taking the weapon away from the offender. Phyllis Chesler. CHOICES Women's Medical Center, Inc., When They Call You Crazy., Vol. III, On the Issues, 06-01-1994, pp 9+.
Farmer arrived in Hollywood in October 1935 and by January 1936 she had appeared in her first film, Too Many Parents. She played the ingenue in this grade-B filler billed as "a punch-packed human drama of youngsters who make spunk take the place of love their parents forgot to give them." What's interesting about the title and theme of the film is how it ironically relates to Farmer's life. She will eventually hold both her parents responsible for the tragedy that befell her.
Frances Farmer was victimized by her family, by the entertainment business, and by the medical profession.
Why was she locked up inside the Washington State Insane Asylum in Steilacoom? Was she insane? Probably not. But maybe, once institutionalized, she was driven crazy. What was it about this very creative actress that landed her in the violent ward of the asylum, where human existence is a highly degraded subsistence?
How does one not go insane in that environment? It's difficult to know how Farmer survived. That she may have been subjected to a transorbital lobotomy a little more then a year before she was released from Steilacoom, complicates our understanding of what really happened.
Farmer left an autobiography, but its veracity and authenticity have been questioned. One account of her tragedy is William Arnold's Shadowland published in 1978. Arnold provides some circumstantial evidence supporting the lobotomy claim. But there is no certain proof. It is possible that the meekness and lack of creative spark that people observed in her after Steilacoom, was a result of the other invasive "treatment" regimes she was subjected to. Years of electroshock and chemical therapy might just as likely have quelled or defeated her creative spirit.
Frances Farmer was a creative and high-strung individual with a passionate sense of integrity. These may be excellent qualities for an artist. But these same characteristics can be seen as anti-social, especially if the people in positions of power feel threatened. And people in positions of power, as it so happens, are always feeling threatened.
There were clearly anti-social aspects to Frances Farmer's personality. There was also a very compassionate side that related to people on the outside, what Spengler called the "fellaheen." It was this compassion for the disadvantaged that informed her politics. While in Hollywood she became active in support for the growing migrant worker population in California. She gave time and money to support these political causes.
It was authority that Frances rebelled against. As a child she had seen her father essentially collapse under the weight of her mother's authority and this experience transformed a bright and sensitive child into a woman caught between the ideals of truth and the facts of reality.
And that's where this dichotomy leads: to the split in Farmer's personality between her ideals and her reality. Her identification with the world's disenfranchised conflicted with her assimilation into the dream world of Hollywood. But this dichotomy, this split had its earlier origins in her family life, where the authority of her mother went unquestioned by her timid, ineffectual and powerless father.
After considering the case of Frances Farmer, is it not possible to conclude that her sensitive reaction to the hypocrisy she observed at home and in Hollywood was a normal reaction to an unjust and crazy world? That's a crazy idea.
Regardless, the point is, Frances Farmer suffered greatly in reality to become what she has become symbolically. Her greatest role has been to play the part of the metaphor in an increasingly darkening chapter in the story of the human creative spirit.
William Arnold, Shadowland. McGraw-Hill: New York. 1978.|
Frances Farmer, Will There Really Be A Morning?. G.P. Putnam & Sons: New York. 1972.
Frances Farmer External Links
- Frances Farmer, 1914-1970
- Filmography for Frances Farmer
- Frances Farmer's "God Dies" Essay
- Life and Martyrdom of Ste. Frances Farmer (1914-70)
- Frances Farmer's Grave
- Frances Farmer got her brain chopped, y'know
- History of the Lobotomy
- Farmer Bio & Lyrics to Nirvana Song
- Link to Another Frances Farmer- College Librarian (1909-1993)