Henry's Demons: Living with Schizophrenia. a Father and Son's Story by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn

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Henry's Demons: Living with Schizophrenia. a Father and Son's Story by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A poignant, moving account of one family's living with a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. Patrick tells most of the story, though his elder son Henry, the sufferer, has written some chapters from his point of view.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 238 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1847377036

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In February 2002 Patrick Cockburn was in Kabul, reporting to The Independent on the fall of the Taliban. While he was there he called his wife Jan at home in England, and was shocked to learn that their 20-year-old elder son Henry had been rescued by fishermen after coming close to death while swimming, fully clothed, in the icy waters of the Newhaven estuary. The police had decided that he was a danger to himself, and he was now in a mental hospital.

It was the beginning of the realisation that his artistic, gifted yet strange son had a severe mental illness. Patrick returned to England as soon as he could, to learn from his wife Jan that Henry had just had a breakdown, had been arrested only a few days before as a potential suicide after climbing the wall of a railway viaduct in order to get a better view of Brighton. A few days later he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

This book is mainly an account of the subsequent nine years or so, nine years in which Patrick, Jan and their younger son Alex had to come to terms with major mental illness in the family, and the fact that he could not be confined against his will – yet every time he got out, there was the risk that he was at grave risk of killing himself, most likely through throwing himself in the river at the coldest time of the year. It is the desperate tale of a young man who frequently made a partial recovery, only to suffer a relapse again almost immediately. Then it would be back to the vicious circle of contacting the police or whichever institution he had last been in, of being called to learn that he had been found alive, of their visiting him and his apparently showing no remorse, or any realisation that he had been doing anything unusual. Sometimes, he said, he escaped because the trees were telling him to.

This was not the only vicious circle, or no-win aspect. At one point Henry was in a secure home for his own good, to protect him from the consequences of his own psychosis. Yet the downside of this was that the prolonged confinement made him very unhappy, and merely exacerbated the psychosis. Would he not be better off wandering the countryside barefoot? Yes – and no. If allowed out, they all ran a real risk that he might never be seen alive again.

Most of the book is written by Patrick, with a few chapters by Henry, explaining the plight from his point of view, talking about his breakdowns and brainstorms, or as he calls them his ""polka dot days"", of being drained into a dark, godless world, and being tormented by forces calling him. Most of one chapter consists of entries from Jan’s diary, while Patrick was away reporting direct from Iran, and how she had to cope with one of his escapes from a halfway house one bitter January when there was snow on the ground and he was rescued suffering from frostbite.

Patrick also looks at Henry’s schooldays, when he revealed some talent as an artist and was found by his teachers to be friendly and intellectually sharp, but very wayward, disengaged and disorganised. Perhaps more ominously, he had already started smoking cannabis. (Before anyone interjects here, the jury is still out on any possible connection between the two). He also examines his own family history for evidence of any signs of psychosis or mental disorder in his forbears, but finds very little. He wonders whether his absence abroad so much of the time might have been a contributory cause to his elder son’s problems, and takes grave issue with the theory of R.D. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist who maintained that schizophrenia was often provoked by parental persecution – in other words, the family was generally to blame. He looks at the culture and prevailing attitudes towards mental illness, having been brought up in the days when psychiatric hospitals were known dismissively as ""loony bins"" (yes, I recall that rather tasteless name from my schooldays too), before such issues were properly understood. Above all, he looks at the rationale behind care in the community, which to him is a far worse alternative to the mental institutions which preceded it, and is in his view one of the most deceptive and hypocritical phases ever devised by a government.

This book is no misery memoir. It is however a very moving account of how a family can be affected by such a terrible burden, and of the potential heartbreak that any visit from the police or call from a hospital can bring, in which one has to fear the worst - that a stranger or a person in authority has discovered the dead body of their son. It ends on a note of hope, finding Henry more combative towards his illness, with his voices and visions still calling to him, but no longer sure of an answer as they were in the old days. He is currently in a step-down or rehabilitation unit in Lewisham, and entering the final strait.

The most frightening thing is that this could happen to any family. It is also deeply unsettling to learn that there are no easy answers. This is one illness for which there is no certain cure. Sometimes the condition can be managed or controlled by drugs. Time will tell whether Henry is one of the fortunate ones. In the meantime, there are some books which everyone ought to read. This is one such title, a fairly short but extremely compelling volume which I would recommend to anybody with even the remotest interest in the subject.

Our thanks to Simon & Schuster for sending Bookbag a review copy.

For more on mental health and its impact on a family, may we also recommend The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness by Elizabeth Speller

Buy Henry's Demons: Living with Schizophrenia. a Father and Son's Story by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Henry's Demons: Living with Schizophrenia. a Father and Son's Story by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Henry's Demons: Living with Schizophrenia. a Father and Son's Story by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Henry's Demons: Living with Schizophrenia. a Father and Son's Story by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg Henry's Demons: Living with Schizophrenia. a Father and Son's Story by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn is in the Costa Prize 2011.

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