There are few books that I would say are necessary books, books that would better the human race. But I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this is an absolutely essential, and necessary book, for many reasons. The book is frank and reads as though Rhodes is talking straight to you, and only you.
The book deals with the sexual abuse that Rhodes suffered as a child, and his telling is as harrowing as it is humane. He tells of a boy who was energetic and bright, who suddenly was turned into an emotionless zombie. Rhodes minces no words and calls this what it simply is – child rape. One of Rhodes’ greatest skills in the book is his ability to put you in his mind set, to give you insight into what such a trauma does to a person. Rhodes calls this “the Everest of trauma” which leads to “multiple surgeries, scars (inside and out), tics, OCD, depression, suicidal ideation, vigorous self-harm, alcoholism, drug addiction”.
To say the book is solely about this though would be to do the book a disservice. The book is equal parts confession, love letter to a wife and son, and a testament to the power of music and art to heal or at the very least console.
James Rhodes is a classical pianist who’s charted at the top spot a few times, but an enjoyment of classical music is by no means a necessity to enter this book. In fact, I think even the most vitriolic hatred of classical music may be put to rest just by the sheer enthusiasm that Rhodes shows in his writing. For instance, I’m not really a fan of classical music, I knew Vivaldi and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata but otherwise I just simply wasn’t interested. However when reading the book I found myself wanting to listen to the tracks that Rhodes writes about, as his passion is infectious. If that isn’t a testament to the power of books I don’t know what is.
Rhodes opens each chapter with a short vignette from each of his favourite composer’s lives, which are often filled with despair, abuse, alcoholism and violence. From there he’ll say a little bit about the track he’s chosen, as each chapter is, rather than being conventionally titled, is named after a track. It is from this springboard that Rhodes will then go on to recount and narrate his own life. Rhodes’ being a classical pianist however, does not mean that he treats the classical music scene as a deity, rather he actively criticises it for alienating audiences and not being very welcoming in its demeanour. He deliberately flouts classical convention and often plays in a shirt and jeans.
The book as a whole is as much a loving book to a wife and son as it is an angry book, anger directed at Rhodes’ abuser and anger, primarily, at himself. Throughout Rhodes never takes himself too seriously, and the book often made me laugh out loud, but this isn’t to say, however, that Rhodes isn’t ready to shake you by the shoulders when it’s needed. He does this and oh so much more in the book.
I can recall reading some of the press surrounding the book when it released, but I never brought it then. As it happens, the book almost wasn’t published! Rhodes’ ex wife filed an injunction against the book, fearing that it may have a bad effect on their son if he were to read it. Coincidentally, the Supreme Court overturned the injunction on the book a year ago yesterday, with Rhodes commenting on his Instagram that the court case “took 14 months and $2M for absolutely nothing except stress, bullshit and lawyers. What a waste. Thank god we won…” and that’s something we can all say. Thank god the book was published, as the book is a masterclass in memoir and in the writing of mental illness and abuse.
I brought the book when I was in my first psychiatric hospital, I was on unescorted leave to go to the local charity book shop. If I was out for longer than an hour or so I was to call the nursing office to let them know that I had not absconded. When I saw Rhodes’ book in the shop my memory exploded, I had completely forgotten about the book and the press surrounding it. When I remembered this and read the subtitle – A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music – I was hooked and I rushed to the counter to buy it before someone else did. It was £1.99. Best £1.99 I’ve ever spent.
Rhodes book also holds a special place in my personal pantheon for a few reasons unrelated to the book itself. It laid unread for a while and eventually I was transferred to an NHS run hospital closer to my local area. The place wasn’t exactly inviting to say the least. Depressives were often lumped with the violent and volatile patients, and therefore we were always on edge, and I maintain to this day that if I hadn’t done a majority of my recovery at the previous hospital I was in I never would have recovered in this environment.
It was in this environment that I begged a nurse to take me into storage, so I could pick the book up and finally start reading. After a few days of pleading they relented and let me into storage, and I quickly snatched the book up. I sat in the communal area and began to read. The greatest thing about the book for me was that Rhodes sounded like someone who could live next door to me. And it was for this reason why it was so touching to hear Rhodes describing how he’s reduced to a drooling fool when he’s on psychotropic drugs, to hear about him waiting in line for meds. I was touched by this as it was happening to me, too. Rhodes’ book gave me an outlet when I could see no such thing, and his book reminded me of how it feels to love and be touched by a book. Rhodes’ book gave me a means to escape the environment I’d begun to fear I would be trapped in for the rest of my days, and for that I’m eternally grateful to him.
Rhodes book is a brilliant, lacerating, sad and funny book. It’s an extraordinary tale of an extraordinary, bruised life. There’s one word that I would use to describe this book, and the man that wrote it, and that word is heroic. This heroism is something to keep in mind as this year’s mental health awareness week draws to a close.