"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." -- Frances Farmer
"Our favorite patient, a display of patience, disease-covered Puget Sound" -- Nirvana, Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle
Frances Farmer (1914-1970) was a talented and beautiful American actress whose life was utterly destroyed by misdirected psychological treatments by supposedly trained psychiatrists.
Frances was born in 1914 in Seattle, Washington. She was a beautiful and creative young woman, soon becoming known around town as the "bad girl of West Seattle," due to her spirited behavior and strong personality. By 1935, she had become strongly interested in acting and so she found her way to Hollywood, where she made her debut in the 1936 film 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. She accomplished all of this largely on her own by the age of 27, and was on her way to being one of the major film stars of her day. In fact, she was often compared to the legendary actress Greta Garbo.
Unfortunately, the price of fame quickly became very high for Frances. After the ending of a failed marriage to actor Leif Erickson, followed by a string of additional romantic failures, on top of her career that put a huge demand on physical appearance and weight, she slowly became addicted to amphetamines (benzedrine, to be more specific), which were able to keep her weight in check and take away some of the emotional problems she was having.
In January 1943, Frances appeared in a film entitled No Escape. On the set, she was drinking heavily and using a very large amount of amphetamines. This mixture of alcohol and drugs made her quite volatile. Out and about on the town after a day of shooting, pumped full of benzedrine and alcohol, she got into a fight and was arrested. In court the following morning, she was placed into the custody of psychiatrist Thomas H. Leonard. Farmer refused to cooperate with Leonard, so he soon diagnosed her as "suffering from manic-depressive psychosis, probably the forerunner of a definite dementia praecox." This diagnosis is quite literally meaningless gibberish, as it was openly denounced later by the psychiatric community. The following day, Frances was put in the screen actors sanitarium in La Crescenta, California.
The next seven years of Frances Farmer's life can best be described as hell.
Frances was subjected to insulin shock treatment, a brutal psychiatric torture that stuns the body in addition to inflicting extensive brain damage. Sickeningly enough, this was a technique that was widely accepted at the time. Frances reacted badly to the insulin shock, so they kept giving her more shock treatments, eventually totaling near 100 insulin treatments. As a result, Frances was unable to concentrate or remember lines. This treatment basically destroyed the only thing she had ever been able to hold onto in life: her faith in her artistic creativity.
Once Frances realized what was happening, she escaped from La Cresenta, only to find herself institutionalized again in March of 1944, when her mother secretly turned her in to authorities. At Western Washington State Hospital at Steilacoom, Washington, psychiatrists immediately embarked upon an extensive course of electroshock treatments, in conjunction with the ongoing insulin shock, in an attempt to break her will so she would quietly submit to the treatments. When electroshock failed to turn her into a model patient, a new brutal treatment was added to her already horrorific regimen. The doctors introduced Frances to a new technique called hydrotherapy. This technique, now mercifully outlawed in the United States, involved the patient being stripped naked and thrown into a tub of icy water for six to eight hours at a time. Once this was added to her regimen, it more or less broke Frances's will for a while. The treatments went on for several months, breaking the woman down, until she was declared "completely cured." What is even worse is that her new lack of interest in life, her lack of concentration, and her broken spirit was considered to be a supposed model victory for what was then called the mental hygiene movement. At a court appointment in 1945, Dr. Donald Nicholson, invited to comment on this type of treatment and how it impacted the Frances Farmer case, said, "I think this case demonstrates just how successfully antisocial behavior can be modified."
Frances was returned to the care of her mother in late 1944. Frances obviously was terrified of the prospect of returning to the hospital at Steilacoom, so she responded by running away from home and talking to the media about her experiences and fear. In response, the psychiatrists contacted her mother and explained that Frances had basically tricked them into thinking she had been cured by acting normal in the sanitarium, and that it was clear that she needed more "treatment." So, on May 5, 1945, her mother had her returned to Steilacoom, where Frances would remain for five long years.
Conditions inside the sanitarium were straight out of a horror film. Patients with all variety of psychological disorders were crowded together in communal rooms. At meal time, the food was tossed in onto the dirt floor where the inmates would fight over it. Frances, still a beautiful and somewhat famous woman, was the target of a great deal of attention and abuse. In addition to a return to the hydrotherapy, insulin shock, and electroshock, workers at the hospital would rape her regularly and would often prostitute her out to soldiers from the local military base. She was also used as an experimental subject for drugs such as thorazine, stelazine, mellaril, and prolixin as they were being developed, resulting in unknown psychological and physical side effects.
As if this wasn't nightmarish enough, things actually managed to get worse.
In 1950, Frances was visited by Dr. Walter Freeman, who was known as America’s foremost psychosurgeon at the time. Freeman was known as the inventor of the transorbital lobotomy. The transorbital lobotomy is a treatment which only required the lifting of the eye lid and the insertion of an ice pick to tear into the brain and divide the two brain halves by destroying the connections between the two. On his second visit to see Frances, Freeman treated her alone in an isolated room. What went on in this room was unrecorded, but many of the hospital staff at the time believed that Freeman had given Frances a lobotomy. Soon afterward, she was pronounced "cured" and released.
Unable to act due to the damage done to her mind, Frances lived out her final years in relative obscurity. She put in an appearance on the television program This Is Your Life in 1958 and hosted a local television program in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she had relocated after these events. But the fire was gone. She died in 1970 of cancer, a life destroyed by psychotherapy run amok.
Her story was popularized in the 1982 film Frances, which starred Jessica Lange as the actress. She was also immortalized in the 1993 Nirvana song Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle, from their album In Utero.