Bright Lights and Dark Corners: Myths, Legends and Lobotomies

Frances Farmer 1935

When examining myths and legends in American popular culture names like Bonnie and Clyde, JFK and Al Capone easily come to most people’s minds. Legends and myths are built up around actors, criminals, artists, rock stars, and presidents. All of the people listed have become characters in the American psyche and pop culture landscape. Countless movies, books, poems, and other forms of art created with these people as the subject.

When looking into myths and legends that have influenced the world of mental health, no name is bigger than Frances Farmer. Most people will recognize her name from the movie, Frances, which came out in 1982.

If the movie isn’t familiar to you, maybe you have heard the song Frances Farmer will Have Her Revenge on Seattle by the band Nirvana.

Culture Club also made and released a song about Farmer titled The Medal Song. Everything but the Girl recorded the song Ugly Little Dreams.

Here is a portion of the lyrics from Ugly Little Dreams:

“It’s a battlefield Frances
 You fight or concede
 Victory to the enemy
 Who call your strength insanity…
 What chance for such girls
 How can we compete?
 In a world that likes its women
 Stupid and sweet
 …And there’s a lot of ugly little dreams
 For pretty girls to buy
 It’s enough to make you mad
 But it’s safer just to break down and cry
 It’s safer just to break down and cry”

Autobiography of Frances Farmer

There are also two books about Farmer, one, Shadowland, considered by most people a biographical novel (a fictional account of Farmer’s life) by William Arnold, and another book Will There Really be a Morning? The second is marketed as Farmer’s autobiography and published posthumously. Matt Evans makes a great case in his article Burn All the Liars that the book has the voice of three people (three women worked on it), and it is impossible to tell which voice in the book is Farmer’s.

So why are the stories, songs, books and a movie about Farmer more myth and legend than reality? Because most of the artwork created about Frances’s life assumes that during her commitment to Western State Hospital she underwent a lobotomy. The truth is that there is far more evidence supporting her family’s claim that she never had a lobotomy than there is to support that she was subject to the procedure. The other part of Farmer’s life that draws people to her story is her involuntary commitment and the belief by many people that she was not mentally ill, but rather a strong woman with unpopular opinions.

If we leave out the sensational piece about the lobotomy, what we have left that may be true is that a woman was committed to an institution for several years but likely didn’t have a diagnosis to justify that commitment or the treatment she received while in care. This story is not new. For years women were committed to asylums for anxiety, stress, infidelity, and postnatal depression.

I agree that we should all be outraged by the possibility that Frances Farmer was inappropriately locked in an institution for years of her life. I agree that her situation is one that we should keep alive. But let’s not act like it is an anomaly. Hundreds of thousands of women had the same fate as Farmer, not all of them were beautiful, but some were. Not all of them were outspoken, but some were, and not all of them were Hollywood stars, in fact almost none were.

Frances Farmer was a patient in Western State Hospital from approximately 1945 to 1950. It was after her release that antipsychotic medication became the norm for the treatment of psychiatric conditions. Before that, some of the “horrors” of the books about Farmer’s commitment were standard procedure — ice baths, insulin shock therapy and many painful and life-altering treatments. The abuse that many patients endured during their stays at “insane asylums” is well documented and the abuse and inhumane treatment (some patients starved to death) were some of the reasons there was a shift in public opinion that began the process of deinstitutionalisation. Unfortunately for Farmer, the development of new drugs and the shift in public opinion happened after Farmer’s release.

DVD cover for the movie Frances

If we look at the myth and legend of Farmer as representative of hundreds of thousands of other women who endured involuntary commitment, and abuse even though they may not have had a mental illness, then the stories, artwork, music, poems about Farmer serve a larger purpose. If however, we are drawn to her story because she was our culture’s idea of beauty, glamour, and success and she ended up in our idea of hell, then the myth and legend have no real power.

Farmer represented the truth and reality of many women. She is a voice for all those who were left voiceless. She is a symbol of the ways society has tried to control women (look back at the lyrics of the Everything but the Girl song), and she is a symbol of our country’s disgraceful treatment of some of our most vulnerable people.

Let’s not forget the horrors that Frances Farmer faced, but at the same time let’s be aware that our jails have become the largest warehouse of psychiatric patients. We’ve kept the memory and experience of Frances alive, but there is still a lack of humanity and justice. I wonder what Frances would say about our progress regarding women and regarding the treatment of the mentally ill? If only legends could continue to act, if only myths could change the outcomes or policies of the dust that they left behind but never really settled.

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