'The omnivorous child and the vanishing family: The autobiography of Janet Frame'

significant figure in the English literary world; Truby King became famous for decreeing the four-hourly feeding routine, and sentencing several generations of infants to hours of screaming while their mothers clutched bursting bosoms and wept likewise. Far from being shapeless historical happenstances, the opening-game connections with dentistry, Katherine Mansfield and Truby King emphasise that Frame wants to begin by positioning her autobiographical protagonist very precisely: even in her pre-history, she is set up as a major New Zealand writer, orally threatened, and hungry. These qualities are represented in the autobiography as inextricably linked: Janets success as an artist depends on her being able to channel and direct her overwhelming hunger so that it becomes creative rather than destructive. The unfolding of the autobiography can be read as showing an attempt to harness a potentially annihilating greed, a sociological and documentary account of her life co-existing with a intra-psychic drama, a story of mutual consumption, how to tolerate the terrors of eating and being eaten.

In this paper, I focus on Frames inquiry into the role of infantile hunger and destructiveness in shaping the protagonists sense of self, the peculiar combination of greed, guilt, rage, satisfaction and remorse that leads to psychic growth. Food structures this autobiography at a literal level: its possible to chart Janets tortured career by tracing the different foods that she consumes [(5)][2] There is an interesting case to be made with this material about the sociology of food, home and self, the need for an individual to learn to leave the glorious profusion of home, and manage with strange, sparse and even repellent foreign foods if she is even to individuate, much less to achieve greatness. Like a particularly luscious cookbook, the trilogy describes food in gorgeous detail: breastmilk in superabundance from mother; butter, raspberries, salmon, lamb while smothered by her family in fertile New Zealand; industrial pap in England; olive oil and sardines in Spain, and so on. Moreover, the food she consumes is related, in what seems to be an essentially private manner, to the writing she does: scavenging meat scraps and chocolates at her miserly aunts house while eking out a miserable life as a student; eating ritualised counter-culture meals of rye, yeast, curds and honey while living with the writer Frank Sargeson, and recovering from her years as a psychiatric patient; learning to manage English and European foods while broadening her experience with a travel scholarship. When Janet arrives in Spain, for instance, she assures the local woman that No soy turista, soy escritora, only to scandalize them with her diabla-like purchases of mantequilla and carne. As always, she speedily learns to adjust her hunger to the local standards, so as to be nourished rather than poisoned and rejected by the new environment. But fascinating as this material is, the trilogy is more concerned with representing the psychologically primary meanings of food. A major element in the accomplishment of this project, and one of the autobiographys triumphs, is Frames handling of the lurch between psychotic fantasy and creative synthesis. Thomas Ogden suggests that overinvestment in the depressive position as the goal of maturity leads to a grey, concrete stuckness, that a sense of self and world needs to be destabilised and re-invigorated by movement in and out of more primitive stages. [(6)][1] Frames narrative oscillates dizzyingly in this way. At one level concerned with the banally naturalistic, what we ate, what we wore, what we played with, it continually flips over into bizarre associations and solutions, picking out the primitive and frightening unconscious fantasies of everyday life, showing how they are built in to normality, and emerging from each with equal facility. Food, teeth, bodies and body parts make up a good deal of this imagery, and the primary organ of the narrative is the mouth in particular the mouth with teeth. As in the trilogys description of food and clothing, Janets distrust of her teeth intersects neatly with the social history of New Zealand. She remarks in a wry aside:

(the general opinion in New Zealand then was that natural teeth were best removed anyway, it was a kind of colonial squandering, like the needless uprooting of forests). Angel, p. 80

This is an accurate enough account of dental history: Doris Lessings parents had their teeth removed before they moved to Africa [(7)][1]. It would seem likely that society of this sort might have difficulties with physical spontaneity and aggression, and in Janets case the sociological reality merges with the psychological issues very strikingly. Her complicated dental history parallels the nutritional one, but both are underpinned by a psychological story.

In the first two volumes of the autobiography, the teeth are generally the first in line for somatization. As Janet becomes more distressed, in Volume II, her teeth take on larger significance.

I saw my tiny triumphs of self-esteem fading as I angled the duchesse mirror, to contemplate the horror of my decayed teeth. There was no escape from them; they ached; my entire face throbbed I knew that the public hospital would extract my teeth free, but how could I ever think of being brave enough to make an appointment? (Angel, 94)

The focus on the dead merges with the focus on teeth, which merges with the focus on eating: what has been eaten that punishes her in this way? There is cannibalistic guilt, but perhaps the rotting teeth also actually embody the disintegrating self. Michael Eigen notes that

Feeling bad about oneself before one becomes a biter appears to be associated with a more massive wiping out of the self than problems organised around causing pain...

A patient who dreams of (or hallucinates) teeth rotting or falling out may have castration anxiety. But he may also be dramatising an earlier depressive problem assertion-aggression or mirroring an even more serious problem of self-disintegration and the inability to be.(8)

The autobiographical movement is from annihilation, through symbiosis, a collapse into self-disintegration and the inability to be and, after many vicissitudes and three volumes, towards individuation through the containing of the terrors of greed and oral aggression. When Janet finally grows up, she can come home, her family is dead, and she is no longer mastered by terrified greed. She has even learned, in London, a new word for the confectionary she has spent childhood and adolescence gobbling in secret: at the end of the trilogy, she notes that the houses in Auckland look like rows of boiled sweets (ten years earlier I would have said "lollies")(Envoy, 175).

Frames autobiography opens with its future known: the plot is organised around the destruction of the house of Frame and the triumphal survival of one neglected, dirty, and disturbed little girl._ _By the present of the autobiography, the time from which the narrator looks back, Frames family has disappeared under terrible circumstances: two sisters drowned in accidents ten years apart, a brother epileptic, the mother dissolved, her dropsical body wrecked by child-bearing, domestic labour and its own weight and pain, the father dying in isolation produced by his rage and grief. The other survivor, Janets youngest sister June, is living a commonplace life, her girlish individuality obliterated.. The roll-call of the dead which begins To the Is-land includes one last little aunt ,my namesake, Janet Frame, aged thirteen months. The autobiographer is, it transpires, the sole survivor of many dead babies, six twins plus one namesake. As well as the little dead aunt, Janet had a twin, which did not develop beyond a few weeks. Twins were hereditary in Mothers family...[Mothers] grandmother [s] two sets of twins... died in infancy. Questions about how and why all these Frames and Godfreys disappear are answered imaginatively by Janets first actions as an embodied individual: I was known as the baby that was always hungry. This piece of reminiscence, a typical snippet of slightly inappropriate family history, boring and intimate at the same time constitutes an act of recall, in M. Enriquezs sense: working on the remains of a memory-screen to create a compromise between the rememberable past and the selfs problems in relating to it [(9)][2]. Did those ancestors and babies die because she was so hungry? Did she, then, eat the babies? Frames suggestion about memory is that it works backwards; she notes The future accumulates like a weight upon the past...The years following childhood become welded to their future, massed like stone (_Angel, _p. 11). Healthy infantile oral aggression is read in terms of its future. The fact that mother breast-feeds all the children until they begin to bite is transformed by its context from simple maternal rule-of-thumb to an evil omen. The current lively reincarnation of Janet Frame has gobbled up all that have preceded her, her insatiable hunger sweeping up her twin, her aunts and uncles, her mother.

The fate of the Frame family is very close to Melanie Kleins account of childhood fantasies about the future:

A time will come... when he will be strong, tall and grown up, powerful, rich and potent, and father and mother... will be very old, weak, poor and rejected. The triumph over the parents in such phantasies, through the guilt to which it gives rise, often cripples endeavours of all kinds. Some people are obliged to remain unsuccessful, because success always implies to them the humiliation or even the damage of somebody else, in the first place, the triumph over parents, brothers and sisters... Depression may follow... [(10)][2]

Frames recall of her past and her prehistory begins Volume I, To the Is-land, by establishing just such a compromise between the past and her problems in relating to it. Kleins account of the difficulty of tolerating the guilt of such success, experienced as harm done in phantasy to the beloved objects, and in particular to the mother of infancy, provides a key to the structure of Frames narrative: the autobiographical trilogy can be read as an exploration of Janets attempt to develop the capacity to tolerate the destruction of her family without also guiltily destroying her own aggressive component of feelings and of the personality [which] is intimately bound up in the mind with power, potency, strength , knowledge and many other desired qualities[(11)][1]. The childs ambivalently regarded aggression and greed is represented as the most memorable thing about her, especially in the fantasy that even before her birth, it ensures her survival and the destruction of her twin. The mothers early management entrenches the babys inevitable conflict by imposing a set of impossible contradictions:

...while Mother believed in breast-feeding her children for as long as possible, she also took pride in our early use of cups and knives, forks and spoons. She said proudly of me that I was drinking from a cup at six weeks. When she wanted us to know that her titties were not for us but for the newest baby, she smeared a bitter substance over her breasts. (Is-land p. 21)

This Juliet-like experience shows a child expected to tolerate both a protracted dependence and a precocious independence, to be weaned with poison at the first show of aggression. The conclusion the child must draw is that aggression is dangerous, and has to be fiercely checked by the other, without protest or initiative by the child. How to resist?

After she first leaves home, Janets guilty sense of her own destructiveness modulates into a series of strange eating disorders, a preference for the sugary, chocolaty foods of infancy, a refusal to eat in public. Her guilty relation to food, moreover, is inevitably associated with dead babies. In a powerful sequence of images, these impulses are represented in a series of hidden drawers. In the dressing-table drawer at Aunty Isys house where Janet lives as a boarder, she keeps, along with her clothes, her used sanitary towels and the wrappers from the bars of Caramello chocolate she has gobbled in private. As both eating and menstruating have, I surmise, sexual-aggressive connotations for her, Janet invents a ritual, where the used towels are carried from their secret drawer to the cemetery to be thrown away among the tombstones (Angel, p. 21). When her lively younger sister Isabel joins her at Aunty Isys, the two girls discover another room with a secret drawer, the front sitting room, where the blinds were always drawn (Angel, p.39). Here, in a decorous middle-aged parallel of Janets sordid dresser drawer detritus, Aunty Isy keeps her treasures: baby clothes, relics of a stillbirth, hidden in a bottom drawer, and, around the picture rail, rows of chocolate boxes, prizes won years ago for Highland Dancing. Responding to the symbolism of the hoarded edible babies, the girls eat the chocolates in a complicated mixing of greed, and fantasies of sexuality, and infanticide:

...each time we sneaked into the darkened front room, we remembered the new baby clothes, but did not look at them again, and as we ate our fill, we wondered about Aunty Isy and how her life had been and I told Isabel about Uncle George in bed, and the lanoline, and when we scattered the empty paper cases into the empty box we both felt distaste at what we were doing, eating Aunty Isys cherished souvenirs: eating, eating. The frill round the paper cases was like the frill, withered at the edges, of those small shells you prise open on the beach, to find a small dead heap with a black dead eye lying inside.(Angel, p. 41). [(12)][2]

The baby clothes and the black dead eye are more obviously like dead babies than the soiled sanitary towels, but all of the manifestations of fertility are destructively, greedily and ritually consumed. In a reenactment of what Janet seems to believe she did to her still-born twin, the insatiable hunger of the living girls consumes the symbolic babies. The scene is powerfully reminiscent of Kleins idea that

The child expects to find within the mother (a) the fathers penis (b) excrement and (c) children, and these things it equates with edible substances.[(13)][1]

Janet and Isabel have finally found a drawer which will satisfyingly embody the fantasy of the contents of the mothers body, the gooey soft-centred chocolates representing disgustingly and deliciously edible babies and excrement. Janets own immature drawer held only immature signs of babies (menstrual blood) and the signs of food (discarded wrappers); Mothers drawer at home has even more impotent markers of sexuality and aggression than Janets and Aunty Isys: the baby is reduced to Isabels mummified caul, and the edible things are represented by their shadows: mothers false teeth and fathers Egyptian coins, which Janet finds will not buy chewing gum. Its perhaps worth noticing that Mothers drawer in the Frame home does contain fathers penis, in the shape of Mothers wedding ring and Dads war souvenirs. The others do not, although Janet and Isabel talk quietly about Uncle George in bed, and the lanoline in Aunty Isys room. In a parallel of Isabel and Janets adolescent greediness, the barren aunts have had hungers of their own: we had sensed a kind of hunger in Aunty Pollys and Aunty Isys feelings towards us, particularly in Aunty Isys interest in Myrtle, and Aunty Pollys voiced desire to "adopt" Chicks or June (Angel, p. 40). Janet is the baby no aunt wants: her triumph as she scattered the empty paper cases into the empty box is palpable. Metabolizing the fantasies and emptying the aunts box is the revenge.

In Frames narrative, weaning does not offer sufficient protection for the bodily integrity of the mother. The mother, her own aggression rooted out of her years ago, is represented as showing evidence of increasing harm as a result of her childrens oral-sadistic attacks. She is enfeebled, dropsical, perpetually damp from cooking and cleaning, toothless, and refuses to wear false teeth (Janet remarks that Mother can never find comfortable teeth). Janet is horrified by the childrens part in this maternal erosion:

What had we done to her, each of us, day after day, year after year, that we had washed away her evidence of self, all her own furniture from her own room, and crowded it with our selves and our lives...? (Angel, p.105).

Teeth, biting aggression, baby-murder and death by water are enigmatically entangled in many images in this autobiography: a striking instance is focused on the family pets. Generations of puppies and kittens are drowned in the creek behind the house and now and then, when the sack rotted, a wet cat shape with teeth set in a skeleton grin [rose] to the surface (Is-land, p 52). Janets own baby, the tiny foetus she miscarries after she angrily terminates her affair with Bernard, shreds before her eyes in the waters of the flushing toilet. The two drowned sisters, Myrtle and Isabel, are the aggressive, beautiful, sexual, ones, Myrtle always being flogged by Dad, Isabel in disgrace at College for her outrageous clothes. Janets repeated wish to be No trouble, no trouble at all (especially by feigning a tiny appetite and never eating in public) is a response to the dangers of aggression; her spectacular sea-sickness, unable to eat for weeks on end while the ship is on the open sea, brings together the fear of water and the fear of biting and eating. The life represented in this autobiography seems to explore a conflict between the babys need to bite something hard and resisting, an object that as Winnicott says, survives destruction, [(14)][1] and the dissolving insubstantiality of flesh and relationships as Janet experiences them.

The babys biting attacks meet a mother quiet, self-effacing, providing (Angel, p. 104), but also one who can be mindlessly retaliatory, and desire mindlessness in the other My mother had been persuaded to sign permission for me to undergo a leucotomy (Angel, p 106). Punishment for the biting attacks on the breast is mother allowing bites to be taken out of the biters brain: over two hundred applications of unmodified ECT, each one the equivalent, in fear, to an execution... my memory shredded and in some aspects weakened permanently or destroyed (Angel, p 109), although the literal bite of the leucotomy is fended off when Janet wins a literary award. This episode is prefigured in several rather neutrally presented childhood episodes: the first is an explicit episode first in the parents bedroom, and then at the dentists, which Janet says marked the end of my infancy. Janet goes to the dentist after having woke[n] crying with a painful tooth to be beaten by Dad as she lay in the cot, which was getting to small for me, as my feet touched the bars at the end...his hand stung, hitting again and again on my bare backside. It seems clear that Janet represents the episode as punishment for interrupting her parents sexually, first with the eroticized beating (it warmed my bottom, she boasts), but then with the more sinister attack, one which introduces her to a threatening world of contradictions, where spoken and written words assumed a special power. At the dentists, a gentle nurse teaches Janet about lies, and forcible attacks on the vulnerable body: Smell the pretty pink towel, she says, and the little girl inhales chloroform (Is-land, 28). A few months later, five year-old Janet steals money in the first week of school to buy chewing gum and is savagely pilloried as a thief by Miss Botting, her teacher. She resists until selfhood begins to fall apart: the schoolroom was filled with a nowhere dust, and a small voice answered from the scared me... (Is-land, 32). Walking home in terror of the inevitable hiding from Dad, the narrative moves without transition to a lengthy paraphrase of the story of the child who was swallowed whole by a fox, and no one knew where the child had gone until a kind person killed the fox, and...lo, the child emerged whole, and was taken away by the kind person to live in a wood in a cottage made of coconut ice with a liquorice chimney: association as a desperate attempt to create a place of safety. The fantasy of salvation centres on death as hiding, followed by a rebirth to a mother who offers sweets and kindness, rather than persecution and starvation. But this fantasy is blown apart, too. Not long after, on her way to a new school, she finds herself in a narrow earth street, always in shade, with a formidable high clay bank on one side with water always running down the bank and across the road.The expanse of yellow clay was more like a creature than earth, the way it leaned up against the hill. It was excitingly unformed, and I used to stand looking up at it half with interest, half with fear...

This ambivalently regarded maternal landscape recalls the place of liquid darkness of pre-birth existence (_Is-_land, 9), and is damp, dark and enigmatically shapeless, like Janets own damp, swollen mother, and her damp, dark tumbledown houses. Here, the child has an encounter with another bizarre mother-figure, a sort of fairytale poisoner:

a woman came by. Hello, little girl she said. Heres two shillings I bought a shillings worth of acid drops and a shillings worth of chlorodyne lollies (a cough lolly containing chloroform) I came home and fell asleep for eighteen hours and when I woke I was violently sick. What happened? Mum asked. A lady gave me two shillings, I said_ _(Is-land, 45).

These encounters suggest a pattern of increasing fear of attack on any wish for gratification. A lady provides sweet food which leads to guilt, punishment and sickness. Desire is rewarded with contempt, poisoning and mutilation. The conciousness-erasing responses of kind ladies to infantile desire centre on the mouth, and prepare us for the massive retaliation which meets adult desire.

The trap of the psychiatric hospital (remembering that a trap is also a refuge, Janet notes, Angel, p.96) is not forced on the daughter. It is freely chosen over the insupportable guilt of watching her mothers obliteration at home, the biter positioning herself for the retaliatory bite.

I could think of nothing more desirable than lying in bed sheltered and warm, away from teaching and trying to earn money... and away from my family and my worry over them... away from the War and being twenty-one and responsible; not only away from my decaying teeth....Faced suddenly with the prospect of going home, I felt all the worries of the world returning, all the sadness of home and the everlasting toil of my parents and the weekly payments on the blankets and the new eiderdown from Calder Mackays, and the payments to the Starr-Bowkett Building society or wed all be turned out of our house again; and the arguments at home, and mothers eternal peacemaker intervention; and my decaying teeth...when I saw mother standing there at the entrance to the ward, in her pitifully best clothes... I knew that home was the last place I wanted to be... (Angel, p.64 - 66

The panicky way in which the weight of the world is registered poverty, War, masochism, prejudice becomes entangled with Janets sense of disintegrating guilt, literalised in the decaying teeth the hospital will strip away. The instrument of the final attack on the teeth is the last kind lady, Mrs R, a psychotherapist from an exclusive suburb... a tall angular woman dressed in fawn and brown, who arranges for the teeth to come out as a preparation for the new electric treatment. Mrs R collapses all the images of oral, psychological and neurological assault into one: like the lady who gives money, the pretty nurse and, most dreadfully, the mother who gives permission for the leucotomy, she is charming in manner, offers oral gifts, and attacks consciousness and the capacity for self-defense. The wish for a lady to help her to find a way out of this tangle of deprivation and terror is the stuff of psychotic entrapment: the extremity of loss proves to be no more bearable than the horrifying aggression. After her second sister drowns, the lost teeth merge horribly with Janets grief: my shame at my toothlessness, my burning sense of loss and grief... all I had left was my desire to be a writer, to explore thoughts and images which were frowned on as being bizarre, and my ambition... perhaps a delusion (Angel, p.95). At the literal level its no surprise that these teeth have to go, but at the level of fantasy it is difficult to avoid the speculation that Janet accepts that her precarious survival is because she can successfully metabolise the wanted and beautiful babies. Do the teeth disintegrate in a metaphorical representation of the effects of aggression on the self? Or is the fantasy that there is some poison in the family, like the bitterness on the rejecting breast, that rots the teeth that consume it?

Janet dates the removal of the devouring and rotten teeth as the final entrance into the chronic ward of the psychiatric hospital, now toothless, like her mother. When, after seven years, she is declared officially "sane" (Angel, p. 128), she gets her teeth back. Triumphantly, she has a portrait photograph taken: it shows a healthy young woman with obvious false teeth... I was alive again(Angel, p. 130). One way of reading this autobiography is in terms of its drive towards the integration of guilt and aggression, at the level of recovery. A good deal of Volumes 2 and 3 are concerned with the protagonists immersion in, and emergence from, her guilt and devastated mourning. Janets survival, her discovery of a way to tolerate the triumph over the family without the final reciprocal destruction of her own life, is figured as a readiness to tolerate having nourished herself by the metabolization of her primary world. She overcomes her fear of that worlds watery insubstantiality, its readiness to dissolve in the face of oral sadism. In the final volume of the autobiography, Janet discovers a new way to anchor herself in the world: Mirror City the world of art. It is something she has hoped for since childhood, when the family dreamed of

...the icing set with which [Mother] would someday write (the ultimate domestic literacy) words and phrases on the Christmas and new Year cakes she baked each year. Words and phrase that could be eaten! (Angel, p. 96)

The ultimate nourishment is found in writing. Writing, she says explicitly, saves her life, when her prize gets her taken off the leucotomy list; then, it offers her a sturdy target for her need for assertion-aggression, and an unfailing source of nourishment. In the last pages of the trilogy, Janet describes her creative experiences in a way which is irresistibly reminiscent of the healthy nursing relationship, where, as Toni Morrison suggests, both parties eat and are eaten. [(15)][1]

...here was I being trapped within one of the great themes of fiction the gift, the giver, the receiver and the thing received, a theme so basic it is embedded in the grammar and syntax of the language, where it lies like a trap or shaft of light.... I am awarded the Scholarship in Letters that enables me to write without financial worry... I know that the continued existence of Mirror City depends on the substance transported there... the transformation of ordinary facts and ideas into a shining palace of mirrors... (Envoy, p. 190)

Art provides a mode of functioning in which both parties, artist and work, are gift and giver, each replenishing the other, and opens the way to a source of internal nourishment where the outside world can be metabolized creatively, rather than destroyed.