Back in the late 30 and early 40’s when AA was in its infancy there was a young star named Francis Farmer who was gorgeous, brilliantly talented and critically acclaimed for her work both on Broadway and in films. She unfortunately had a reputation for being rebellious and outspoken, and was considered by many to be uncooperative and offbeat because of the clothes she chose to wear and the old car she preferred to drive. Maybe she was the Lindsay Lohan or Britney of her era.
Whether it was due to stress of studio life, a series of failed marriages, or perhaps she was just genetically predisposed, Francis Farmer became addicted to alcohol and amphetamines. Her drinking and using resulted where it always does—jails and institutions. But for her that was the end of it. No AA, no cushy rehab for a celebrity, no second chance.
There are several websites that tell the story of Francis Farmer’s tragic life and eventual death. I’ll quote a little from a few of them. 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 some 90 of these –.”
“In an attempt to break her defiant and rebellious will 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.
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. “One of the most vivid recollections of some veterans of the institution would be the sight of Frances Farmer being held down by orderlies and raped by drunken gangs of soldiers.” She was also used as an experimental subject for drugs such as Thorazine, Stelazine, Mellaril and Prolixin.
What happened to Francis Farmer, an addict, and alcoholic, a brilliant woman of untold capacities to impact other lives is beyond tragic. But it does shine a light on the miracle of the 12 step fellowships. It is as though we have come out of the dark ages. I can’t imagine what she would have given for 30 days in Wonderland or Promises.