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197: Frances with Jack El-Hai

The 1982 movie Frances tells the story of Hollywood actress Frances Farmer and how her struggles with mental health issues affected her career. We’ll be joined by writer and author Jack El-Hai to learn about the film’s historical accuracy.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre  01:47

We will get into some of the details in a little bit. But from an overall perspective, you take a step back, how accurate would you say the movie that capturing the essence of Frances Farmer’s story?


Jack El-Hai  02:01

Well, if I had to give it a letter grade, I would give it probably a C. And that’s because on the positive side, I think it follows the contours of Frances Farmer’s life and puts it it puts her life in a context so that the events of her life makes sense. But there are a few whoppers in it that contributed to me downgrading it down to a C.


Dan LeFebvre  02:34

Well, end of the day, it is a movie I guess C…well, it’s not an F so it could be worse!


Jack El-Hai  02:40

Yeah, it could be worse. So I guess I would say it is somewhat accurate. But no one should look to the movie Frances as an authoritative guide to Frances Farmer’s life.


Dan LeFebvre  02:53

Well, at the very beginning of the movie, Frances Farmer wins a competition with an essay denying God, the movie doesn’t really give a lot of indication of where or when, but we do get some clues of time and place. One of those is a banner. While she’s reading the essay, the banner in the background says national high school essay contest 1931. So we get a year. In the next couple scenes, we see a few more clues through newsreels mentioning the Great Depression, again, kind of that that timeframe. And mentioning that Francis was a 16 year old high school junior, and they are in the Seattle area. So we get time in place. Well, Francis and her father are watching the new Israel, Francis heights are facing embarrassment as the reporters on the real interview her mom about the controversial essay. Now I will admit that wasn’t really familiar with Frances farmer before preparing for discussion. So I felt a little in the dark around how the movie kind of portrayed this, you know, setting up who she was what was going on at this point in history. So can you give a little more historical context around Francis and this controversial essay that we see in the movie?


Jack El-Hai  04:04

Well, as you gathered, it is the early 1930s Really bad years in the Great Depression. And there are some early, you know, brief fleeting shots at the beginning of the movie of, of down and out people on the street and standing in lines and things like that. And this was also a time when communism had a probably its greatest appeal ever in the United States during the 1930s. So Francis, as a high school student did enter a contest that was sponsored by Scholastic magazine, an essay contest, and she won. So she got $100 and a lot of news coverage, the title of the essay she wrote, I don’t remember if the title is mentioned in the movie. It’s called God dies and it’s a about the conflict in her own mind and in her own experience, about believing, wanting to believe in a God who is in control of things, yet seeing in all the chaos in the world around her and all the hardship, and the people suffering. And she wrote later on that it was inspired by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. So she was a smart student, she was reading Friedrich Nietzsche. And she was a quite accomplished writer, even as a high school students. And so I think, I think it’s a good way to start the film because it tells us a lot it perhaps confusing if you have no idea who Frances farmer is, but tells us a lot about her as a young woman that she’s very bright, good writer, she’s idealistic, and not afraid of putting herself out there and being herself which is one of the themes of the movie. It’s that’s


Dan LeFebvre  06:04

interesting that there was scholastic because in the movie, they mentioned that because of this, it, she wins trip to Moscow. And I think there’s some dialogue in there kind of causes some commotion because they mentioned that she won a trip to a communist country from a communist newspaper is how they phrased it. But Francis wants to go because the return trip according to the movie, at least, he’s going to drop her off in New York City, so she kind of wants to go, she’s going to do the trip to Moscow to go from Seattle to New York City. And then that kind of leads into her life in Hollywood. She gets a job as an actor in Hollywood because things in Broadway on Broadway don’t really go the way that she wants but she sees Hollywood at least as far as the movie is concerned as kind of a stepping stone back she really her goal and goal is Broadway. Was that the movie do a good job setting up? How she built her acting career kind of went from this trip, which it granted it does kind of jump forward a few years. So I’m not really sure if it’s connected to that or if that’s something else that she’s written. Again, it kinda I’m not as familiar with with Francis’s story, the way it kind of portrayed some things like wait, is this connect? Is the trip to Moscow connected to the to what she wrote, or was that something different because it fast forward a few years. And then all of a sudden she’s in Hollywood, how did it do setting up her eventually getting into building an acting career in Hollywood.


Jack El-Hai  07:40

The the trip to Moscow that she one was not connected to the essay, so that she wrote as a student. So this was a few years later when she’s a student at the University of Washington. And she won this trip to Moscow, on the basis of selling a lot of subscriptions to a newspaper. I don’t think it was a communist newspaper, but it was a leftist newspaper. And she must have been a champion seller because she won the grand prize. And you’re right, she was more interested, it seems in the return trip from Moscow, which would leave her in New York City, then the actual trip to Moscow, and I haven’t ever seen very much about what happened to her in Moscow. I know she did visit a theatre company in the USSR. But it doesn’t seem to have influenced her very much. And much more important was that after going to Russia, she ended up in New York City. And there she got an agent, a theatrical agent, who referred her to a scout for Paramount Pictures. And on the basis of that, and the screen test, and so on, she was signed while she was in New York, to a seven year contract with Paramount. And so it really was that trip in a sense that got her launch, she knew what she wanted, and it worked out the way she had hoped that it would. And once she was at Paramount, she’s started out doing a series of B movies. Those went well. And she graduated to some a movie she The movie shows the chair on the set with her name on it next to Bing Crosby’s chair, and that did happen. She was in a movie with Bing Crosby called rhythm on the range. And then after rhythm on the range came come and get it, which really was a a significant movie of the time I believe it was 1941 No earlier excuse me, it was it was in the mid 1930s Maybe 1936. And that put her on the map and then she later did another are a film with Cary Grant called the toast of New York. So that part of the of the movie is quite accurate in setting up how she got from being an unknown who had been doing theater productions at the University of Washington, to getting a contract with Paramount and becoming a star.


Dan LeFebvre  10:19

Okay, well, that that tells me that perhaps she didn’t didn’t come from a lot of wealth, because why go to Moscow, just to get to New York City, or winning the trip, she can’t afford essentially just to go from Washington to New York City. Otherwise, that’s a that’s a little bit out of the way.


Jack El-Hai  10:39

Right, and travel was very expensive than even in relative terms to now more expensive to get to New York City from Seattle than it would cost in today’s dollars. Her family was not at the poverty level in middle class, perhaps lower middle class, but somewhere there in the middle. And


Dan LeFebvre  11:01

when we do see Francis returned to Seattle in the movie, she’s returning as a famous movie star. So they roll the red carpet out for there’s a lady there who greets Francis and starts to give her an award on behalf of the Seattle ladies club. And then Francis cuts her off. It’s like, aren’t you the one that damned Me to Hell? Remembering the lady was was speaking out against her essay in high school. And that kind of takes takes her back. Then she goes on to explain to the lady who she was, you know, she’s the one that wrote the essay. And so how did Francis his fame in Hollywood change people’s perspective of her back home in Seattle?


Jack El-Hai  11:41

It’s a little hard to know that because that’s one of the aspects of her life that I don’t think is well recorded. I don’t think the event with the woman in the lobby of the movie theater who she reminds you’re the one who condemned me to hell when I gave my read my essay. I don’t think that ever happened. I’ve never seen any evidence that had ever happened in it’s a little two story perfect. But it to me, it seems likely that when she came back a movie star to Seattle, that people did treat her differently. And that her being the idealistic and headstrong and person seeking genuine relations with people that she was that it was not. If that happened, it was not something that she would respond to very well. People treating her like royalty because she was a movie star.


Dan LeFebvre  12:42

Okay, okay. And was there I guess to go go back a little bit. Do we know if there was any sort of that reaction to her essay of because in the movie, the lady stands up and right in the middle of the essay just says you’re gonna go to hell, I don’t remember the exact words that she says. But you know, she just tells tells Francis off right there in high school did that happen?


Jack El-Hai  13:03

I’ve never seen any evidence that that actually happened when she read the essay. And remember, this is the 1930s, not the 1950s, which were a little more conservative in the 50s. In, in looking at religion and also communism, a lot of people had communist leanings in by corollary atheists leanings in the 1930s. I don’t think it would have been considered that all that unusual, certainly shocking to people who were religious. But there was a lot of newspaper coverage of her essay and not all of it was good. And the movie does


Dan LeFebvre  13:41

make a point to mention play that’s written by one Mr. Odette’s and according to the movie, Francis’s character would be named Lorna moon and play is called Golden Boy. But that deal seems to fall through in the movie as some, an unnamed rich actress invests in the movie on the condition that she plays Lorna moon. So Francis is out. I did a little bit of research and found that play golden boy, and it ran from November 1937, to June of 1938. Although the movie doesn’t mention that at all. I kind of felt at this point that there’s another part here missing from Francis’s story in history that the movie isn’t showing is there’s some, there’s, there’s some context in history that you can share with us that kind of helps fill in what’s going on here.


Jack El-Hai  14:29

Yes, is that part of Francis farmer’s history is greatly telescoped in the movie. So she was in golden boy. She played in 248 performances of it in New York. And then the play went out on a tour where she got really good notices. That was not mentioned in the movie. And then as you see in the movie, they’re moving to some performance. is in London. And what’s described in the movie did actually happen. Francis was replaced by another actress for the London performances, who was willing to put up some money to help the play along. also left out was that after golden boy and after she lost the part in the play, she did appear in other performance theater performances in New York City. So she, you know, she had a substantial theater career and theater background.


Dan LeFebvre  15:32

Okay. And that was that was after her in Hollywood, though, right?


Jack El-Hai  15:35

That’s right after she had done her verb, her best known movies in Hollywood. Then she went to New York and didn’t work with Odette’s and his Theatre Company and got replaced in the London performance.


Dan LeFebvre  15:50

Okay, yeah, the movie doesn’t show any of that. So the impression I got from the movie was she went to Hollywood because she couldn’t make it and on Broadway, and then it doesn’t really show her going back. So I just assumed that she’d never really got to achieve her goal of performing Broadway, but it sounds like she did. She did.


Jack El-Hai  16:08

It may not have been as much performing on Broadway as she had wanted. But she she didn’t you know, she did perform on Broadway and she made a splash.


Dan LeFebvre  16:19

If we go back to the movie, there’s a time in Mexico and then Francis returns to find that the studio has taken all the stuff out of her house to make room for a new actress, I guess the studio was owned the house. Then after oversleeping and missing half the day for a movie, she just blows up on set and punches the lady doing her hair and quits right there. The next scene, Francis is sleeping in a hotel. Some police burst in in the middle of the night to arrest her, she sentenced to 180 days in county jail. And she blows up again and they have to drag her out of the courtroom. It seems like all of a sudden things are just not going well for her at all. Did that happen?


Jack El-Hai  17:02

Roughly it happened. A couple of things are not shown though. She she had a bad drinking problem. And before the terrible scene where she’s yanked out of her hotel room, she there had been other incidents where she had been drunk in public and had caused, you know, cars, public incidents and public. Going back for a second to when the movie shows her coming home in the studio has replaced or moved another actress into her home. That didn’t happen. her belongings were taken out of her home. But it seems likely that her mother did that. Not the studio. And maybe it just seemed more dramatic, and more of a sign of her standing in Hollywood to have have the studios do it. But the scene, very vivid scenes in the courtroom, and of her arrest and in the courtroom. Those are quite accurate. I think even using actual dialogue that was recorded that was published in newspapers at the time and set down by reporters who are there. So that to answer your question that did happen in its basics.


Dan LeFebvre  18:23

Yeah, I imagine that sort of story would have been in the news quite a bit around that time, or did it get overshadowed because around this this time, I’m assuming this is in the 40s at this point. And there were some other things going on in the world that hit the news around that that time as well.


Jack El-Hai  18:40

Right? Well, no, it was it was much in the news. She was you know, she was a favorite of this scandal mongers in the press. And this only gave him much more to work with. So it was very well know what was happening to her.


Dan LeFebvre  18:56

I thought that was interesting. You mentioned that because more likely her mother that makes a lot more sense. And I thought it was kind of it hit me It’s strange that she’s this big Hollywood actor, and the studio owns her home. She can’t she doesn’t even have her own house.


Jack El-Hai  19:12

Yeah. And she, and after the big films that she was in, she was having a lot of conflicts. On the sets of later movies that she was in she was arguing with directors a lot about her character, she thought that her parts were often over glamorized to the point that her characters were not realistic or believable. And so people began to see her as a troublemaker on the set, although everyone acknowledged her great talents to


Dan LeFebvre  19:44

do you think that’s something that was more You said she had a drinking problem. Do you think it was more in line with that? Or was it her just standing up because a lot of the roles back then were not real realistic?


Jack El-Hai  19:56

I think it’s both. I think you’re drinking problems. Her alcoholism made her unstable. And I but I also think that she legitimately in truly felt that her roles were less than they could have been because of the shallow way that Hollywood then and even later saw female roles. So she had a legitimate gripe, I think.


Dan LeFebvre  20:23

Going back to the movie, because of her present state, Francis is sent to the metal wood convalescent home. And right away a man named Dr. Simonton says he’s going to he’s looking forward to solving her predicament. How well did the movie portray Francis going from being a Hollywood star or Broadway stars, as you mentioned, and even though that’s not shown in the movie, to being sent to metal wood,


Jack El-Hai  20:48

I think it was a fair job of that. Metal Wood was actually a sanitarium called the Kimble Sanitarium not metal wood. And she was diagnosed there by two psychiatrists, with with they could then call paranoid schizophrenia. So she did receive an actual diagnosis of a psychiatric illness there. And the movie shows her receiving insulin coma therapy at that sanitarium, and which surprised me, it did happen there. And it’s so surprising to me that they would give a treatment like that at a private, small, more informal hospital, because that’s a really dangerous therapy was then and the thinking behind it was that people who suffered from mental illness, in many cases, it was thought that they needed a kind of a like a rebooting of their brain, like you’d reboot a computer. And so there were various ways to use to cause that rebooting overdosing the patient on insulin to the point of coma was one of them. There are other chemicals that were used. And that’s also the theory behind electro convulsive therapy, which we see later in the movie is just to get the brain to start all over again, and clear out whatever they thought was wrong. Initially.


Dan LeFebvre  22:26

Wow, he said that that treatment was not that common was there’s something about her case that was different that that she was given that treatment at meta one.


Jack El-Hai  22:38

It was somewhat common. If you’ve ever seen the movie, A Beautiful Mind about the mathematician John Nash, there’s insulin coma therapy in that movie, also. But it surprised me that it was done in a place like that, instead of in a more formal psychiatric hospital setting.


Dan LeFebvre  22:59

Okay, so it wasn’t not necessarily that it happened, but that it happened there. Right? Well, if we go back to the movie after a fight with her mother, who’s also her legal legal guardian, at this point, Francis is forced to go to a mental institution where she seems to undergo shock treatment. The movie doesn’t give any sort of dates or places though, can you fill in some more historical context around? What actually happened?


Jack El-Hai  23:25

Yeah, so the movie shows that when Francis is in the sanitarium that she escaped, with the help of her friend, Henry York, Henry York didn’t exist, there was no such person. And he’s, but he’s a very useful character in the film because he’s a thread that runs from the beginning to the end, and helps in terms of the plot of the movie helps Francis to get from one place to another. She did walk out of Kimble the sanitarium. But she went on her own to a relative’s house, her half sister’s house. And then Lily and her mother came down from Seattle to California. And Lillian was opposed to did not know about the insulin coma therapy, didn’t like it, and was opposed at that point to Francis getting more psychiatric treatment. So Lillian got formal guardianship of Francis and moved her back to Seattle. They they were both resistant to Francis getting more treatment. And it’s when Francis was living with Lillian in Seattle, as the movie shows that bad things started to happen. They argued a lot and they had fights leading up to Lillian feeling that the only way the only thing she could do was to get Francis committed to a state psychiatric hospital, which is a more serious case. In a place that Kimball had been earlier, and that’s in Francis wrote later that she began to see her mother as an enemy then. And so where Francis went was as the name isn’t mentioned in the film, I don’t think Western State Hospital in Steadicam Washington, which is just south of Tacoma. And it was a very, it was kind of like the archetypal, horrible state psychiatric hospital, crowded, dirty, too big, really too many patients there for anyone to get any kind of individualized treatment. And so that’s how she ended up at the state hospital. And she actually was there into two phases. One was a shorter stay. The first day was a shorter stage, she was released in 1944, to go back to her family, but she was soon arrested for vagrancy. She, her father took her to her aunt’s ranch in Nevada to stay and none of this is in the movie. And she ran away from there and returned to Lillian. And things were bad again, between them. So Lillian, arranged for a sanity hearing to be made for Francis. And at that hearing, the court recommended that she be recommitted to Western State Hospital. And that’s where she spent the next five years or so as a patient in that hospital where things really got bad for her, according to the movie.


Dan LeFebvre  26:35

It sounds like her mother had a huge part to play in. Sending Francis away. And I’m curious if I mean, there’s that people fight that that happens. Do you? Do you think there was legitimate reason that her mother had to sending her away? Or were they just fighting and not getting along, and her mother trying to get up, get her out of her hair essentially. And that’s the way that she can


Jack El-Hai  27:07

do that. I think there’s a something that her mother says in the movie, where she tells Francis, you know, I’m just trying to get you back on your feet. And I think that’s probably the truest summation of what her mother was doing. There. There are some suggestions in the movie that Lillian had been frustrated with her own life and really loved this love the glamorous life that Francis was leading as a movie star and wanted that again. But I think it was more about her wanting to get Francis going again. And that she didn’t like the direction that Francis life was headed in. So I think it was a little more commonplace of a mother daughter conflict than the suggested.


Dan LeFebvre  27:59

Yeah, the impression I got from the movie was very much what you said were mother kind of like the glamorous life and wanted to get back to that.


Jack El-Hai  28:09

Yeah, that’s the impression


Dan LeFebvre  28:09

you get from the movie. You said that she was released in 1944. And I’m curious, there was there was a part in the movie where she kind of puts on a performance at a hearing to determine if she should stay in the institution. Of course, they don’t know what to perform. It’s, we know as movie watchers, she’s putting out performance. They think that they’ve cured her and they send her home. Her mother and some reporters are waiting there. And this is this was kind of what I was referring to, in this particular bit of dialogue is where you know, her mother starts talking about her going back to Hollywood and going back to acting and kind of get the impression that she left she wants to go back to life for herself. But then in the movie, or maybe even that night, we don’t we don’t really see a lot of time again, but you know, nightfall, Francis leaves the house with a suitcase goes to meet Harry for a while before she tries hitchhiking. And she ends up getting picked up by the cops instead. And they forced her to go back to the institution. Was that the part that you were referring to where she was let go? Or was that a different time where then she was caught and forced to go back?


Jack El-Hai  29:15

I think that time when she gives the performance corresponds to the time when she was released in 1944 on a parole to her family. And then the part where the police pick her up hitchhiking is corresponds to the time when her mother in in actually had a sanity hearing for her and she was recommitted.


Dan LeFebvre  29:44

Okay, okay, I’m curious is that she was an actress would did that. And then we see are putting on that performance for the board in the movie. Was that an actual concern that they had of hers like to where they thought that she might be playing a role but not really being helped.


Jack El-Hai  30:08

I don’t know if anyone knows that for certain but if I were the doctors who in charge for I would have been concerned about it, but they must have been persuaded because they let her go on the pearl.


Dan LeFebvre  30:20

Definitely be something you know, that you would have. As a doctor, you’d have that in your mind, you know, is this person just putting on a performance, telling me what I want to hear?


Jack El-Hai  30:29

And I think probably a lot of patients who weren’t actors put on performances.


Dan LeFebvre  30:35

According to the movie, when Francis does go back to the institution a second time, this time she’s given a transport Boto lobotomy. And the movie explains the lobotomy as being a very simple process, you just insert the tool beneath the eyelid. I mean, it look, it’s one of those things that you can feel the pain as you’re watching them explain how they’re shoving this thing in your eye and, and up into your brain. And then according to the movie, the way they’re explaining it, just kind of move it around a little bit, get rid of some of those connections. And the doctor is boasting that he can do 10 of them in an hour. It’s super simple to do. And they’re gonna prove that they can do it so fast. And Francis is one of the 10 that we see. We don’t actually see the operation. But we assume Of course, that that that happened. Did that actually happen?


Jack El-Hai  31:25

Well, this is the scene that got me interested in this movie. Because I was it’s what introduced me to the the treatment called levada me. So did this really happen? Not to Francis Pharma. i There were about 300 lobotomies performed at Western State Hospital between the late 1940s and early 1950s, but not to Francis. And we know that for two reasons, there is no record of a lobotomy and no notation or any kind of evidence of a lobotomy in her medical record from that time. And also, in my research on lobotomies, I checked into the medical journal articles that the psychiatrist at Western State Hospital published during this time, and they published a complete list of patients who had received lobotomies there during those years, along with their demographic information, male female age, etc. And there was not one that fit Frances farmer. So from that information, it’s also clear that she did not receive a lobotomy also, although they in the movie, the doctor who performs the lobotomy isn’t named. His name was Walter Freeman. And he was a psychiatrist and neurologist who traveled all around the country during those years, giving lobotomies to patients and state psychiatric hospitals. And I researched in among Dr. Freeman’s papers at George Washington University in DC. I went through everything Dr. Friedman wrote, he never mentions Francis farmer’s name. And if he had been his patient there, if he had given her a lobotomy, he would have mentioned her, because he was very motivated to mention the successes of his patients. And if she had undergone a lobotomy, she would have been by far his most successful patient are among them, because she made a movie after after this supposedly happened. She was on TV and more theater productions, hosted a TV show, etc. So it didn’t happen. And so how did it get into the movie is the question, and it’s because the movie was based on a biography of Francis farmer, called Shadow land, written by a Seattle writer named William Arnold. And Arnold made up a lot of stuff in this book, including the levada me. And so when the filmmakers adapted Arnold’s work, they included the lobotomy because it was in the book. And there’s some litigation about this afterwards. And in that litigation, Arnold admitted that he had made it up.


Dan LeFebvre  34:30

Wow, that’s pretty not sure the right word to use. But that’s, that’s pretty, pretty strong out there. Just to go ahead and make that up.


Jack El-Hai  34:38

It is yeah. And then. So that’s one of the one of the real, great fictionalized elements of this movie. Unfortunately, it’s a scene in the movie that almost everyone remembers later after seeing it. And another scene that almost everyone remembers later is a scene in Western State Hospital, where the servicemen Come in, by arrangement with the male attendants in the hospital to come in and rape the women patients. That also never happened. There were no man attendants in the women’s wing of the hospital. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that service members or anybody else ever came in to do that.


Dan LeFebvre  35:20

How well did the movie do explaining Villa bonhomie itself because the impression that I got was that it’s more about the quantity rather than quality, I guess, would be the phrase to use. Like, they’re they’re trying to just get a lot of them done. And at least as far as the movie, it doesn’t really seem like they’re finding the best, the best 10 patients that this might really help. It’s more just, we want to get a bunch of them done.


Jack El-Hai  35:51

I think you’re right, it was it was quite accurate. I was impressed with this part of the of the movie and the accuracy of how the lobotomy is described and how the actor playing Dr. Freeman looks. He’s dressed dressed like him with the sleeveless t shirt and the hairy arms and all that and he talks like him. And what Dr. Freeman did was he went from one hospital to another, and he operated on who the hospital management provided to him. So these were patients, by and large, who are not doing well and needed something drastic done for them. And these hospitals were very overcrowded. They just wanted to get patients out. And if there was a procedure like levada me that could treat them in a way that would not require them to be hospitalized anymore. They were all in favor that so it was kind of a roulette deal who got the lobotomy in who didn’t. It was who the hospital officials wanted to present and get out of their


Dan LeFebvre  37:04

feedback, make sure I’m understanding it sounds like the bottom is almost like a Hail Mary, you have nothing else will work. And this is this is all we can


Jack El-Hai  37:13

  1. Yes, that’s that’s often how it was thought of as a last resort treatment. Freeman believe that about 1/3 of the patients he lobotomized were helped. And then the other two thirds were either left without change or made worse. And helped what helped meant is not what we would think of is helped unnecessarily but they were able to get out of the hospital and be cared for at home.


Dan LeFebvre  37:43

The impression I got from the movie in the way it kind of explained things was at least in Francis’s case, of course that we know from what you just said that obviously didn’t happen to her. But the impression I got was the lobotomy had more helped the people around her than her because she wasn’t making as much making as much noise and being as much trouble to them. And so the impression I got was more we’re gonna help, Francis but really, we just wanted to be quiet and follow along


Jack El-Hai  38:15

that that was a big element of it to make them more manageable, so manageable that they could be cared for at home. And these hospitals, you know, had financial problems that overcrowded, they had to get people out.


Dan LeFebvre  38:30

At the very end of the movie, there is some text that says Francis made one final movie, then moved to Indianapolis where she hosted a daytime TV show. And she died on August 1 1970 At the age of 56. And movie says Harry was not with her. Of course, as you said he wasn’t a real person. So she died is she lived alone. Is that really what happened to Francis after the timeline of the movie?


Jack El-Hai  38:58

No, she did not die alone for one thing, and she did a lot more. After her release from the hospital. She did a lot more than what was in that text. So she initially held a number of jobs. Some of them were menial jobs sorting laundry in a hotel. She cared for Lillian and her final days. She was a bookkeeper and a secretary and a photo studio hotel clerk. She married twice, two times after she left the hospital. And then she in this is shown in the film. She was on the TV show. This is your life with Ralph Edwards, and comes across as a little robotic. I think that’s how she was played in the context for having a lobotomy. You can see on YouTube that actual This Is Your Life episode and see that she’s not robotic at all. She’s quite glib and has normal effect and set sounds good. So I urge anyone if they’re interested in this to find that on YouTube, it’s, it’s very interesting. And then because of the her one of her marriages she moved to, she was on The Ed Sullivan Show twice. Also, she moved to Indianapolis, where she did host a TV show, and was in stage productions at Purdue University in Indiana and the actress in residence at the university. She was still drinking. She was she had at least one DUI arrest, converted to Catholicism in 1968, and then died in 1970. From cancer, but she was not alone. And she didn’t have this empty, soulless life that the movie suggests happened to her at the end. Since the


Dan LeFebvre  40:59

bottom he didn’t actually happen. But the way that she’s portrayed in the movie after the bottom, he is very subdued. Would she actually have been that way? If they had done in the bottom yonder? Not that everybody is the same in there. But is that a common after effect of that?


Jack El-Hai  41:19

Not necessarily No, some levada may patients became very uninhibited. And were a little hard to control told, you know, even prim, proper patients, before their luevano Me became people who told dirty jokes and you know, had very, very coarse senses of humor and things like that. So not necessarily, in the public mind, do we think of lobotomy patients is people who became vegetables. And that did not happen. In many instances, some people returned to work. Some people did become vegetables, but there’s a wide range. And that’s because the procedure itself was very imprecise. In what what in the brain was actually cut. And because it was a blind operation, the way Freeman did it, he couldn’t see what he was doing. He was just sticking the the, the surgical tool in and moving it around. And in some people that caused a lot of damage in some people probably cause very little change,


Dan LeFebvre  42:23

where they actually trying to do something specific or was it was Freeman, like you’re saying, you just stick the tool up there and kind of move it around. That’s the way the movie explains it to and it doesn’t really look like he’s trying to get you know, get to this one specific part, it more seems like we’re just gonna shuffle things around up there and see what happens.


Jack El-Hai  42:46

He wanted to interrupt the neural connections between a part of the brain called the thalamus and the frontal lobes. And he believed that a lot of the symptoms of mental illness were caused by overlays strong emotional signals coming from the thalamus to the frontal lobe. So if those were cut off, or weakened, then the patient would behave better. He acknowledged that it didn’t cure anything to get a lobotomy, it just treated the symptoms and make people more he hoped more likely to behave normally.


Dan LeFebvre  43:26

Okay, okay. Well, that makes a lot more sense that I’m not a doctor by any means. But the way I’ve always understood the way painkillers, simple painkillers over the counter medicine, things like that work is not that they really solve the pain itself, but they go to the brain and block it out, essentially. So you’re not feeling it. So it sounds like with a lobotomy, those. The signals are still there, they’re just dampened or cut or maybe not being sent properly or received properly.


Jack El-Hai  43:56

You’re not going anywhere. Funny, you mentioned pain because Labatt to me was also used at this time to treat people who had chronic pain. So that they, many of them said afterwards, that they still felt the pain but it didn’t bother them as much. So was it used for more than mental health treatment? Beyond the the pain part? No. Well, there were a few Freeman didn’t do this, but a few other psychiatrists who tried the bottom is to treat criminal behavior. And that was very unsuccessful. It’s commonly believed I found that lobata Me was used to end homosexual behavior in people. I’ve not found in all the research I’ve done on this subject. I have not found anything to support that and I know Freeman didn’t perform any lavato mace for that reason, but it was by and large to use for psychiatric illness treatment.


Dan LeFebvre  44:59

Well, let’s see. Say that you were in charge of making the movie, what’s something that you would have done differently?


Jack El-Hai  45:07

Well, if the movie is about Francis farmer’s strong spirit, and her efforts to be herself and and to overcome what Hollywood wanted her to be, I think one thing that I would have done was, would be to keep this imaginary character Harry York out of it, because he’s always appearing to rescue her, move her from one place to another, help her out. And it makes her seem dependent on him at times. And I think she’d come across as more we’d see more of the essence of her strength without Harry in the movie. And, and but that characters played by Sam Shepard, who does a great job. So it’s this is not a rap against his performance at all. But I think Francis’s character would be stronger without him.


Dan LeFebvre  46:10

So let’s say that they’re like somebody listening to this, they they’ve watched the movie, and they don’t know, they haven’t done any more research. They don’t know anything else from history. But you mentioned at the beginning, that didn’t get to see so not real reliable as far as a biography of Francis farmer. So let’s say somebody wants to learn more about Francis, what’s something that you feel they should know about the real story that the movie doesn’t share?


Jack El-Hai  46:37

It would be what we talked about a little earlier that after her release from Western State Hospital, Francis had a life. She was in a fulfilling life, she certainly had her problems. But she was not an empty shell. And it bothers me that people might see this movie and think of the 20 years she lived after her released from the hospital as just empty time when she was going through the motion motions. She wasn’t that she had important people in her life, and people appreciated her. That to me is sad. And I that’s an impression the movie gives that I don’t think it’s good.


Dan LeFebvre  47:22

Thank you so much for coming on a chat about Francis. You mentioned him earlier, Dr. Walter Freeman, you wrote a fan fascinating book about him. For someone listening to this, who wants to dig into that area of history, can you share a bit more about your book, and we can get a copy.


Jack El-Hai  47:37

My book, The lobotomist is a biography of Walter Freeman. And he was the main developer and promoter of lobotomy from the mid 1930s, until his death in 1972. And so I cover all aspects of his career, including, since he didn’t have Francis pharma as a famous patient, he did have one other very famous patient, Rosemary Kennedy, who is the sister of President JFK. And he gave her a lobotomy early in her life. That was a terrible disaster, that procedure disaster for her didn’t go well at all. And she was one of the patients left in more of a vegetable kind of state. afterwards. If you’re interested in hearing more reading more about this, the PBS American Experience series did a excellent documentary based on my book, which is also called the lobotomist. And I’d recommend finding that and watching that, and that story led me to another book that I did afterwards called the Nazi and the psychiatrist about a psychiatrist who knew Walter Freeman, who, who went on to study the German, the top German prisoners at Nuremberg, after world war two who were being held for trial, the people like Goering, and Hess, etc. And about his experience there in Nuremberg, and how that greatly affected him. So that’s another related book,


Dan LeFebvre  49:18

the concept of Dr. Freeman is is fascinating to me, just the idea of you were saying earlier, like two thirds of these aren’t going to end either gonna be bad or no change. So you’re looking at, on a good day, a third success rate, and to be someone who’s pushed pushing that as this this can be a cure, but you know, that it’s only a third of them are gonna work man, he had to have been a fascinating person. To give that


Jack El-Hai  49:50

context. Freeman began performing lobotomies in 1936. At that time, the success rate of anybody who was committed to a psychiatric hospital was probably one or 2% Most people got out of those hospitals by dying. And there there were no effective treatments. So frame in Freeman’s Mind 33% was a lot better than 2%. And definitely something worth trying and he kept it going for decades.


Dan LeFebvre  50:22

Wow. Yeah, well, I guess when you put it that way 33% is better than two. That’s for sure. Thank you again so much for your time, Jack.


Jack El-Hai  50:58

My pleasure, Dan. Thanks for having me here.



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