Saving the Farmer’s Daughter

frances-better.jpg“The farmer’s daughter” has been a symbol of female innocence and virginal beauty. The daughter of the Farmer family, the mid-twentieth century actress Frances, has been the subject of books and a film, Frances. Her story, both fictional and biographical, demonstrates that no one, however hard she may try, may escape the saving grace of God.

Frances (1982) drew attention to the powerful performance of thirty-three year old Jessica Lange as the exploited and tormented actress Frances Farmer, whose beauty, talent, and intelligence led to successful stage and film careers in the 1930s and 1940s. But her mind crumbled as she was unable, by her own will and intelligence, to withstand the relentless exploitation of her mother, lovers, and employers. Apart from God, the actress turned to the twin modern religions of art (as embodied by the leftist Group Theatre) and politics (as practiced by the Communist Party). Too late she found each minor god offered counterfeit love in exchange for the fame and fortune they could extract from her beauty and talent. Frances vainly sought solace in various substances, loves, and psychiatric care.

Then the God of miracles showed up.

In the film, during a gang rape in a psychiatric hospital, Frances begins to unconsciously recite the words, “We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds…”

Where did these words come from?

In the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, the character Sonya speaks of  rewards of the afterlife: “We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds, we shall see how all earthly evil, all our sufferings, are drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. And our life will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress. . . . In your life you haven’t known what joy was; but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait. . . . We shall rest.”

In the film version of her life, Frances Framer finds the Kingdom of God breaking into her life via a play she must have discovered with her flirtation with Russian drama  through the Group Theatre. God used whatever she had as a channel for his saving grace.

No more is mentioned of Frances’ encounter with the Kingdom of God until the end of the movie when she speaks with her old friend Harry:

                          I’m a faceless sinner, Harry…

                          Why do you say that?

                          I’d ask you to take me home, but I’m
                           a faceless sinner.
                               (she smiles)

The character’s arc has thus made a complete cycle from the film’s opening, when young teenage France writes both in her diary and award winning speech:

                          But still sometimes I found that God
                          was useful to remember, especially
                          when I lost things that were
                          important. ‘Please God, let me find
                          my red hat with the blue trimmings.’

                           It usually worked. God became a
                         superfather that couldn’t spank me.
                          But if I wanted a thing badly enough,
                          He arranged it.

                          But if God loved all of His children
                         equally, why did He bother about my
                          red hat and let other people lose
                          their fathers and mothers for always?

                           I began to see that He didn’t have
                         much to do about hats or people dying
                          or anything. They happened whether
                          He wanted them to or not, and He
                         stayed in Heaven and pretended not
                          to notice.

                         I wondered a little why God was such
                          a useless thing. It seemed a waste
                          of time to have Him. After that He
                          became less and less, until He was…

                          I felt rather proud that I had found
                          the truth myself, without help from
                          anyone. It puzzled me that other
                          people hadn’t found out, too. God
                          was gone. We had reached past Him.
                          Why couldn’t they see it? It still
                          puzzles me.

But, despite Frances’ wonderings, God has not been gone. God has been working to bring her into His Kingdom, despite her best efforts to avoid it. And God wins.

In her actual life, Frances rejected and found the Kingdom of God in other ways. In her autobiography, Will There Really Be a Morning? Frances Farmer recounts her high school musings on God:

 “During this time I grew deeply concerned with what I felt was the spirit of man and I began to question many things. One was God. I had never been unduly impressed with religion, but I was growing curious about it and felt that if I intended to become an honest writer I would need to know more about this strongest of human attachments.

“I did not like the idea that somewhere there was a something that could make me well or happy or rich or poor, as suited its fancy. I read the Bible, but it seemed more like a contradictory fairy tale. Prayer seemed nothing more than a potluck experiment, and certainly nothing that I would care to rely on.

“I began reading Nietzsche’s philosophical tracts in which he also expressed the same doubts, only he said it in German: “Gott ist Tot.” God is dead. This I could understand. I was not to assume that there was no God, but I could find no evidence in my life that He existed or that He had ever shown any particular interest in me. I was not an atheist, but I was surely an agnostic, and by the time I was sixteen I was well indoctrinated. into this theory.” (158-159)

In fact, the author states that she did not believe God visited her while she was confined in a mental institution:

“God did not come to the violent ward, nor did He send His emissaries, for this was the physical millennium wherein the devil reigned his thousand years. The demons and malicious spirits of lunacy ruled in the inferno, and God was not to be found.

“He was called for and begged for, but He never came. He was ever expected and still believed in, but He never confirmed His existence.

“‘Whither can I flee from thy spirit? If I descend into hell, thou art there.’ In the maggot-ridden food? In the twisted thoughts of the deformed? In the dead minds of the undead? In the cold chains that pinched the image and likeness?

“No. The ward behind the wire fence was no fit place for a God to visit.., and He never came.

“And so, in this Godless crypt of the damned, I somehow managed to survive.” (223)

Even though she did not sense His presence, God was there. Her survival and subsequent discovery testifies to His mercy.

God, in His mercy, sent emissaries to Frances.

“Almost too late, but still in time, my redemption did come. It did not arrive in a whirlwind. In fact, it was hardly recognizable at all. Unlike Saint Paul, there was no “road to Damascus” for me to experience; instead a gentle and intelligent human being came into my life and brought the tools which enabled me to rebuild my world.

“I was given a friend and finally a family, opposite me in every detail, who withstood the severe challenges I inflicted and who remained reasonable in every crisis I instigated. They were to walk with me and sometimes for me on the long and treacherous trail that led to my eventual restoration. On this journey, they taught me that one cannot compromise when building a foundation. Together we sought solid rock on which I could stand, and through their world I was brought all things.

“Jeanira Victoria Ratcliffe was a young widow of thirty when we met….Her relationship to God and her belief in Him is a paradox. Reared as a strict fundamentalist, she has no gray areas in her mind where good and evil are concerned. Either it is or it is not. “(256-257)

“All the loose ends of my life seemed to be coming together, and I remember the summer of 1968 as the season of my rebirth. And when I think on it, I am reminded of the Bible verse “… and a little child shall lead them.” (305)

“And then I saw my ‘niece’ Gina, who was twelve at the time, peek shyly around the corner of the house, and in the pure, simple voice of a child, she ran toward me, crying, ‘Aunt Frances, I didn’t kiss you good-bye.’

“I held out my arms to her and felt her nestle her cheek against mine, and in my ear, almost with the whisper of a butterfly on wing, I heard, ‘I love you so much, because you’re good.’

“And then she was gone. Skipping away, her long hair swinging behind her like a wind-tossed goldenrod. As she left, a dry sob caught in my throat. No one had ever said that to me before. No one had probably ever thought it, for that matter, and it was there, at that moment, that a heart chiseled of stone melted.

“I could not hold back the floodgate of tears, not for being told that I was loved, or even good, but because my heart pounded with the joy and humility of belonging.

“On that quiet summer day I felt the first thunderous movement of God in my life, and the soft voice of a child, the tender caress of her cheek against mine, had opened the door.

“It was a terrible and marvelous experience, and I was aware of all the evil that had surrounded me being washed away. I was overpowered with a sense of forgiveness and change.

“Life took on a new meaning. It was all-powerful. It flowed from me like a wellspring. I was reborn, and I knew that I would have to find a disciplined avenue of faith and worship. Without knowing how, without ever consciously seeking it, God had come into my life, and from that day forth, I began on a path to spiritual fulfillment.

“I had changed, and Jean knew it without ever asking how or why. And others knew it. It showed.

“I had never given great concern to .organized religion, and I was like a wayfaring stranger until, one day I found myself sitting in Saint Joan of Arc, the Catholic church of our neighborhood. I had passed the cathedral countless times, but that afternoon, as I was returning from marketing, I stopped and sat alone in the great hall. It was quiet and dark, and I studied the massive altar and understood, for the first time, the power and meaning of the Crucifixion.

“I petitioned that very day to begin my instructions and was converted to the Catholic faith. But the conversion was not without personal crucifixion; for the good father who had instructed me suggested that I make my first confession to someone in another church. He wanted me to go where I was a stranger. He was a delightful old man, and I’m sure he pictured me a certain way and preferred to hold to his own thoughts. I went to a downtown church where I was not known, and I have never had such a soul-shattering experience.” (306-307)

“From the faith I have taken the security that there is a God who loves and directs all things. I have been able to lay aside the grinding hatred and guilts. I still suffer from the past and hope that in time I can better understand the ragged pitfalls into which I have fallen. And yet, if that understanding fails to come, there is a faith now abiding deep within me which promises that I can come through them all unharmed.

 “I do not choose to proselytize, for I hold strong to the belief that each of us must find our own salvation, and the fact that I did not choose the religion of my closest friends only confirms the freedom of choice and personal discernment that was allowed me. I found my way through their love and understanding, and I elected my faith, though far removed from theirs, of my own free will.” (308)

The Kingdom of God broke into the life of Frances Farmer, both in life and on the screen. In each, she worked out her salvation with fear and trembling.

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