Frances Farmer, known around her hometown 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 1930s 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 eighteen 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 weight.
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,” 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 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.
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. 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. [Read about her doctor and her operation here.]
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.
The last known photo of Frances Farmer, circa 1969, shortly before her death.