Frances Farmer, The Actress Who Ended Up Lobotomized

January 5, 2018

Frances Farmer dared to be stubborn and they called her hysterical. She dared to have a voice and ask for more interesting roles, and they called her naive.

When she wanted to escape from that world, it was already too late. That was when they started to call her “crazy.”

Today not many people probably recognize the name Frances Farmer anymore. She’s yet another woman lost in the haze of time. 

Behind that dusty curtain where we stash the interesting stories from another time, some of which are a muffled cry for help that we need to listen to even now.

But, in the world of psychiatry, the actress‘s name is very well known. There are a few reasons for this. One of the main ones: the psychological treatments they subjected this woman to over the years reflect a dark, terrible time in psychiatry. One where women, strangely, tended to be the most direct victims

young actress Frances Farmer

Frances Farmer, A Woman Raised to Have a Voice and Be Famous

We have a lot of documentation on Frances Farmer’s life. Her own sister published the book “Look Back in Love.” In it, she talked about all the awful experiences the young actress had to go through over the years she spent in various psychiatric wards.

The research in “Will There Really Be a Morning?” sheds light on her personality as well as her family, and whether she really did suffer, as they said, from paranoid schizophrenia.

Be that as it may, as it always is with these complex cases, there’s something we can’t leave out. Her upbringing and the historical context are very important. 

We mentioned that Frances was too bold of a woman for her time. She was like that because her mother started her off early giving her a voice. Teaching her how to give her opinion and to always question things.

By the time she was a teenager, she’d managed to appear in local Seattle newspapers. She did it by giving powerful speeches about women believing in god or not, based on Nietzsche’s writing.

Later, her mother signed her up for theater classes with one very specific goal in mind. It was related to satisfying a personal desire that she never achieved in her own youth. She had wanted to became famous in the movies.

Frances got famous in college, still keeping up one of her favorite activities: writing critical articles about the day’s society.

Don’t Talk, Don’t Argue, Obey

By 1935, Frances Farmer had already been in a few movies. She’d also accomplished her main objective: to get a degree in journalism. 

But, before she started to go that direction, her mother convinced her otherwise. She told her to temporarily put her professional career on hold and focus on the world of stage. Frances agreed and her agent got her an audition with Paramount Pictures.

Frances Farmer acting in a movie

The screen test couldn’t have been easier. She had to wear a pretty dress, sit down, and look at the camera. Frances Farmer had a classic beauty that occasionally showed insolence and bold seductiveness. That was more than enough for the movie industry.

They offered her a 7-year contract. All she had to do was obey, learn scripts, and go to executives’s parties every once and a while. And, to keep quiet about whatever might happen at those gatherings.

Frances rebelled against that world. She hated the roles they gave her where she played the naive woman. She hated the press. And, above all she hated having to follow another script in her life. One where everything had to be wrapped in glamour and elegant lies.

But, she gave in. She gave in because her mother and agents convinced her. She even married an actor to raise her profile as an up-and-coming star.

The Longing For Freedom and the Straitjacket

The decline in Frances Farmer’s career started early on. She refused to shoot certain scenes. She rejected scripts and didn’t comply with the contracts she signed with her agents.

She liked to drive around at night out to escape from it all, including herself. Frances pressed down the accelerator in an impossible escape that often ended badly. She was well-known by the Santa Monica police for getting a great deal of reckless and drunk driving tickets.

But, everything got complicated when she punched one of the Hollywood executives. After that, she tried to run away again, although not very far away. The police followed her.

With screams, kicks, and pointless attempts to get free of those shadows of authority falling all on top of her, they reached an agreement. They would put her in a psychiatric hospital to calm down her rebelliousness, her personality.

an actress portraying Frances Farmer

The doctors diagnosed her as a “paranoid schizophrenic.” They treated her with their classic electro-shock therapy as well as insulin shock therapy, or the Sakel cure.

After a few months there, they let her out. Then she decided to completely break away from her life as an actress. To forever get away from that oppressive, degrading world.

But, Lillian Farmer, Frances’ mother, felt that her daughter still wasn’t cured. She thought Frances wasn’t in her “right mind.” So, with the help of the Hollywood executives, they managed to declare her mentally unfit. That allowed them to toss her back into a psychiatric ward.

Five Years in the Hole

Frances Farmer was checked into a hospital in Steilacoom, Washington. The 5 years she spent there are the ones her sister would later give voice to through her book.

They did even worse things to her than just the awful psychiatric treatments. They sexually abused and raped her over and over. Ultimately, as one of the nurses in the hospital later testified, they performed an unapproved lobotomy on Frances Farmer. The goal? To calm down her personality, her “bad character”, her “hysterical nature”…

After 5 years of being locked up, abuse and trauma, she’d never be the same again. She appeared in an occasional interview,  play, or TV series. On TV, her mere presence generated curiosity and a huge audience.

But, she wasn’t really there anymore. She’d lost her will. Her character was muted. Her true beauty, what made up the true Frances Farmer, had been stolen, surgically removed.