THE ROAD to Seacliff twists and turns over and back again across the train tracks between Oamaru and Dunedin. In her Autobiography, Frame recounts taking that ride many times before and after her stay at the asylum, and each time, as the train passed the Seacliff station, she’d think, “the loonies were there,” though, “Often it was hard to tell who were the loonies.”
The Seacliff Asylum for Lunatics (as it was called at the time) was established in 1879 and was built to resemble a sprawling Scottish castle in the Gothic Revival style, surrounded by lush gardens. It was set on top of a hill with a view of the sea through the trees that surround the property. If you hadn’t known better, you might have assumed it was a resort.
However, the portrait Frame drew of Seacliff in her writing is unmistakably horrific. She describes the wardens as at best indifferent and at worst sadistic. Patients were beaten for wetting the bed or threatened with radical medical treatments, ranging from electroshock therapy all the way to neutering and lobotomy.
Patients were shuffled from beds to dayroom to electroshock treatment like consumer goods rolling down a factory assembly line, which may explain how Frame was misdiagnosed for so many years. In fact, at one point, her prose, with its loose stream of consciousness style and unusual metaphors, was held up as confirmation of her insanity.
The fact that Frame had actually published a book was not enough to prevent an overeager doctor to schedule her for a lobotomy. It was only after she made newspaper headlines when the book won a literary prize that the lobotomy was canceled, with only days to spare.
Seacliff’s precarious location, on the side of a hill that was slowly eroding into the sea, ultimately led to its doom. After years of cracks in the walls and foundations, the asylum was finally closed, its buildings razed to the ground. The site was then turned in a nature reserve, named after one of the asylum’s early directors, Truby King.
Today there is no parking lot for the Truby King Reserve, whose sign is half-hidden by a thick bush, and whose driveway is cut off from the road by a locked gate. I parked on the side of the road and followed a short walking path to an expanse of freshly mown grass divided by lines of concrete. After looking at an old photograph of the grounds, I realized I was standing directly in front of where the asylum had been. The lines of concrete in the grass were the remains of the building’s foundations.
The wide lawn, the wind rustling through the trees, the views of mountains and in the distance the sea, it was all lush, beautiful, even romantic — if you didn’t know what had taken place on these grounds. I kept looking around wondering what Janet would have seen and experienced here. Could she have seen the sea?
I wandered down a path looping into a small forest, where I heard the haunting flutelike cries of wild birds echoing through the trees. Up ahead, I saw a middle-aged woman walking her two dogs. Janet’s ghost? No, she’d always been a cat person.
Further on, in the middle of the woods, I saw something small and dark brown set into a rock on the ground. Leaning over it, I realized it was a tiny plaque bearing a quote from one of Janet Frame’s novels, based on her time at Seacliff, Faces in the Water:
What I love about this quote and Frame’s writing in general is the suggestion that the whole world is an asylum. Just as the patients at Seacliff ooh and aah over a glimpse of the doctor’s laundry, we too titter with excitement over celebrity scandals or the cheap comforts of the material world, like our iPads and Uggs and favorite reality TV. We fail to realize that in our obsession with things, we’ve trapped ourselves in a material asylum of our own making that prevents us from breaking through the gate to the real world, the world of the spirit, the world where we can be truly free. We’re all crazy if we buy into our digital society’s warped values, its cheap thrills, its false idols like celebrities. That’s what Frame was warning us.
After years of needless suffering, it took her first book winning a literary prize for Janet Frame to win her exit from Seacliff. All I had to do was walk through a gap in the fence to my rental car. After I drove my way down the mountain, past the Seacliff train station, and then once again looping back and forth over the train tracks, I turned off the road and walked down to the beach, where I thought back over my journey. I recalled the extreme generosity and blind faith of Frank Sargeson, the youthful enthusiasm of the Otago students parading down Princes Street in their costumes, the horribly haunted beauty of Seacliff. But what ultimately stayed with me most was the town of Oamaru, the nothingness of it and the way Janet Frame still managed to see in it enough material for a lifetime.
The world could never force me to give up writing. All I needed was a pen and the courage to put my thoughts down and face them honestly. If I couldn’t do that, it was my own failing, not the world’s.
In Frame’s honor, I unwrapped a chocolate bar I’d been carrying with me, one of her beloved Cadbury Caramelos that she’d survived on during her poor and lonely college days. I intended to have just one tiny square of caramel-filled chocolate, but it was indeed as good as Janet had advertised. In fact, it was better. So I had two. And then three.
And there, on the lonely southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island, while sucking chocolate and caramel down my throat, I said my goodbye to Janet Frame.
[A portion of Aaron’s trip was sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines, marking its inaugural flight from Honolulu to Auckland.]