This is Frances Farmer
September 19, 1913 - August 1, 1970
I was raped by orderlies, gnawed on by rats and poisoned by tainted food. I was chained in padded cells, strapped to straitjackets and half drowned in ice baths.”
The story of actress Frances Farmer’s life was portrayed by Jessica Lange in the 1982 movie, Frances. It is a story of the savage, brutal, wanton and unforgivable destruction by psychiatrists of one of the most talented actresses of her time.
Frances Farmer, known around her home town as the “bad girl of West Seattle” for her spirited, headstrong and magnetic personality, was the stunningly beautiful actress of stage and screen whose all-too-brief career lit up Hollywood and Broadway in the ’30s and ’40s. Appearing like a comet out of the Pacific Northwest to make her film debut in 1936 in Too Many Parents, during the next six years she appeared in 18 films, three Broadway plays, thirty major radio shows and seven stock company productions – all by the age of 27. She was soon being compared to Greta Garbo.
However, while her professional career was exploding, her personal life was
disintegrating. Suffering through one failed marriage to actor Leif Erickson, a
string of failed relationships and pressured by her career, she had already
developed an addiction to amphetamines (benzedrine), taken to help control her
In January of 1943, Farmer starred in the film No Escape, an ironic title, considering the direction that her life would take. According to one account, “Drinking heavily and relying on amphetamines, which only made her more volatile and [difficult],” she got into a fight and was arrested. In court the following morning, she was placed into the custody of psychiatrist Thomas H. Leonard. Leonard, with whom Farmer refused to cooperate, soon diagnosed her as “suffering from manic-depressive psychosis – probably the forerunner of a definite dementia praecox,” a diagnosis “which has since been dismissed as meaningless gibberish.” The next day she was transferred to the screen actors’ sanitarium in La Crescenta.
For the next seven years, Farmer became irreversibly enmeshed in the dark world of psychiatric treatment and abuse, savaged by a series of violent treatments intended to strip her of her dignity and talent.
Beginning at the sanitarium, she was subjected to insulin shock treatment, “a brutal psychiatric torture that stuns the body in addition to inflicting extensive brain damage.” Reacting badly to the insulin shock – she received some 90 of these – Farmer was no longer able to concentrate or remember lines. She realized that the psychiatrists were “systematically destroying the only thing she had ever been able to hold onto in life – her faith in her artistic creativity.”
Genuinely frightened, Farmer escaped, only to find herself institutionalized
again in March 1944, when her mother secretly swore out a complaint against her.
At Western Washington State hospital at Steilacoom, psychiatrists immediately
embarked upon an extensive course of electroshock treatments in an attempt to
break her defiant and rebellious will. When this failed to turn her into a model
patient, a new brutal treatment was added, “hydrotherapy.” Now illegal, this
barbaric practice consisted of her being stripped naked and thrown into a tub of
icy water for six to eight hours at a time. After several more months of this
torture, she was publicly declared “completely cured” —a supposed model victory
for what was then called the “mental hygiene” movement. “I think this case
demonstrates just how successfully antisocial behavior can be modified,” said
psychiatrist Dr. Donald Nicholson.
Returning home, Farmer remained terrified at the prospect of being incarcerated again and repeatedly ran away, always gathering press in the process. Stung by publicity that seemed to promote their failure, the psychiatrists contacted her mother and explained that “Frances had, in effect, ’tricked’ them, that she had merely been ’acting’ normal. She had obviously needed more ’treatment’ all along.” On May 5, 1945, her mother had her returned to Steilacoom. She would remain there for the next five years, this time descending into Dante’s Inferno.
Conditions were barbaric: both criminals and the mentally retarded were crowded together, their meals thrown on the dirt floor to be fought over. Farmer was again subjected to regular and continuous electroshock. In addition, she was prostituted to soldiers from the local military base and raped and abused by the orderlies. “One of the most vivid recollections of some veterans of the institution would be the sight of Frances Farmer being held down by orderlies and raped by drunken gangs of soldiers.” She was also used as an experimental subject for drugs such as Thorazine, Stelazine, Mellaril and Prolixin.
One of her last visitors before again being declared “cured” and released was
Dr. Walter Freeman, America’s “foremost psychosurgeon” who developed the
transorbital lobotomy (a treatment which only required the lifting of the eye
lid and the insertion of an ice pick to tear into the brain). On his second
visit, Freeman treated Farmer alone in an isolated room and although the exact
details are not known, the majority opinion among the hospital workers at the
time was that he had given her a lobotomy. Farmer would never be the same again.
In her later years, Farmer would say about her experiences: “Never console yourself into believing that the terror has passed, for it looms as large and evil today as it did in the despicable era of Bedlam. But I must relate the horrors as I recall them, in the hope that some force for mankind might be moved to relieve forever the unfortunate creatures who are still imprisoned in the back wards of decaying institutions.”
Frances Farmer, the once-beautiful rising star, died at the age of 57, destitute and her spirit broken.
Party Crashers, The (1958)
Son of Fury (1942)
Among the Living (1941)
Badlands of Dakota (1941)
World Premiere (1941)
Flowing Gold (1940)
South of Pago Pago (1940)
Ride A Crooked Mile (1938) aka Escape From Yesterday
Toast of New York, The (1937)
Ebb Tide (1937)
Come and Get It (1936) aka Roaring Timber
Rhythm on the Range (1936)
Border Flight (1936)
Too Many Parents (1936)
The name of this site comes from me sitting at the Networks Solutions site trying to buy a .com domain that wasn't gibberish. Something that also meant something to me. I had just read Kenneth Anger's book Hollywood Babylon and was touched by his telling of her story entitled "Saint Frances". I was familiar with the Nirvana song and had always wondered what it was about...and here we are. The virtual dumping ground for all the crap that won't fit or doesn't belong on my business sites. Enjoy.
"...She’ll come back as fire, to
burn all the liars, and leave a blanket of ash.."
NIRVANA Frances Farmers Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle (In Utero)
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