Studying Fré Dommisse by Catharina Th. Bakker

The HHH column is a blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each author will invite a new author to participate in the conversation. Last time, Lisanne Walma, postdoctoral researcher at the Open University, passed the pen on to self employed historian and publicist Catharina Th. Bakker.

Catharina Th. Bakker

Being a medical historian with a special interest in mental health care, the name Fré Dommisse was not completely unknown to me. But, only after my previous book had been published, did I really come into contact with her work. De lijfarts van de koning. Het avontuurlijke leven van Franz Joseph Harbaur, 1776-1824 (‘The King’s Court Physician. The adventurous life of Franz Joseph Harbaur, 1776-1824’), was my first biography. I enjoyed it so much – I mean, writing a biography –  that I wanted to do it again. That’s what I told journalist Frénk van der Linden in an interview about De lijfarts. I also revealed the focus of my newest biography; Mrs Johanna Stuten-te Gempt, who had been admitted to a mental hospital in the nineteenth century, and had written a book about it.

After the interview, however, two colleagues informed me rather emphatically that there was another ‘psychiatric patient’ in the biographical waiting-room: Fré Dommisse (*1900 –  †1971), a female writer with a female friend as a life companion and –  most interesting –  a psychiatric past she wrote a novel about. Independently, Joost Vijselaar, professor of History of Psychiatry in Utrecht, and Cecile aan de Stegge, psychiatric nurse and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Leiden, both encouraged me to give priority to this person. In 1927, Dommisse debuted with Krankzinnigen (‘Lunatics’) –  an autobiographical account of her psychiatric past. After doing a bit of research, I discovered that her debut was very well received. After that she wrote a few other interesting novels – one on adolescents experimenting with sexuality and another on outpatient care. She also wrote a few essays, a.o. on dollhouses. What won me over into telling Dommisse’s story was the fact that she explicitly used her fame to create understanding for psychiatric patients and ex-patients throughout the country.

Fré Dommisse
(Photo private collection Inger van Lamoen-Dommisse)

Quickly –  before I could even begin to doubt myself –  Aan de Stegge sent me some sources she had already collected about Dommisse; a thesis and two essays about her work and a few other bits. She also put me in touch with one of Dommisse’s  nieces, Mrs Inger van Lamoen-Dommisse, who still remembered a lot about her Aunt Fré. Mrs Van Lamoen-Dommisse then connected me with another niece: Mrs Elisabeth Röttgering-Heskes, who also shared many stories about her aunt. Both ladies were very pleasant company –  and their memories of Aunt Fré were extraordinarily vivid. The conversations resulted in over three hours of tape recordings and invitations for follow-up interviews. That’s how this all got started –  there was no turning back.

Not long after my sparked interest, there was a small resurgence of attention for Dommisse. In 2020, the Literatuurmuseum (Museum of Literature) in The Hague selected a few pieces of Dommisse’s work – along with three other writers – and exhibited their work online in Spoorzoeken in het archief (‘Finding traces in the archive’). As part of this exhibition, the  Dutch novelist Thomas Heerma van Voss dedicated a short essay in Dommisse’s honour. While researching, I also discovered that a curator from the museum MORE in Gorssel was interested in Fré Dommisse as well. She was preparing an exhibition of the work of the Dutch painter Jan van Herwijnen (September 2021-January 2022). Van Herwijnen and Dommisse were both hospitalized in the mental institution Willem Arntsz Stichting (Utrecht) at the same time, and both recorded their experiences; Dommisse in a few drawings, but mainly in text (in Krankzinnigen) and Van Herwijnen in pictures (watercolours). Thus, Dommisse will be represented in Van Herwijnen’s exhibition too. Furthermore, the fiftieth anniversary of Dommisse’s death prompted the cultural-academic institution SPUI25 to organize a small event on Dommisse. Finally, the Dutch Singel Publishers appear to have serious plans to republish Krankzinnigen, in the revived Salamander Series.

So it seems that the stage had already been set for my research into the life and work of Fré Dommisse. I have been working on preliminary examinations for several months and right now my research proposal is waiting for financiers.

What is so special about Fré Dommisse? In short, it comes down to three main aspects in her life; she was A) an interesting writer with B) a female friend as a life companion and C) a psychiatric past. These three aspects gave colour to Dommisse’s life. They serve as a starting point for the biography. My goal is to give Dommisse’s life a place in its literary and cultural-historical context. Using methods from cultural history and medical history (especially with regard to patient stories) I want to try to ‘understand’ Dommisse’s life and work and at the same time use it as a magnifying glass focussed on the time and culture in which she lived.

Do you want to know how this is going to turn out? Then keep an eye on my LinkedIn page. Here I will post updates about my work –  irregularly, that is.

Catharina Th. Bakker passes the pen on to Martijn van der Meer, PhD candidate at Erasmus University Rotterdam.