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A Reading Vocation

"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton

This is where I chronicle my reading life.  I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.


Book Review: January First by Michael Schofield

January First: A Child's Descent into Madness and Her Father's Struggle to Save Her - Michael Schofield

This book was absolutely riveting -- one of those books that made me want to drive long distances so that I could keep listening to it and that seeped into my consciousness often when I was away from it. But it's one of those books that grips you because it's so horrible; I couldn't imagine how difficult it would be with to live with a child as mentally ill as Jani was, constantly at the mercy of sights and sounds only she could hear. This story and family so intrigued me that I've become sort of creepily interested in how their lives continued to unfold after the book.

In this book, a lot of the struggle centers around Jani's inability to safely be around her baby brother, Bodhi, because her "imaginary friends" keep telling her to "hurt" him, and they hurt her if she doesn't. The illness literally tore the family apart because it wasn't safe for them to all be together in the same space. The tension this brings into the parents' marital relationship is incredibly painful; I kept waiting for a moment of redemption, of sweetness, of reward. But this book is not rich with reward; what keeps you reading is sheer horror as you wonder what this family will have to face next.

Ultimately they did stay together and come to accept Jani's illness, and I guess learning to cope and accept is its own reward, of a sort. A lot of people come down pretty hard on Jani's father, the author and narrator of this memoir. I can understand that, to a certain extent. It is unreasonable that he expects the rest of the world to invest in Jani as much as he does; she's not the rest of the world's responsibility. His denial that Jani really has a problem is also difficult to take, as we listen to him explain away her illness again and again as part of her "brilliance" or "specialness," as he exempts her from dealing with "the real world" because "normal" children will just never "get" her. Still, I think we all make allowances for our own children; we all want to see the best of what's there, perhaps especially when the rest of the world sees the worst. And I'm also willing to be fairly forgiving of people who are living through circumstances that, frankly, terrify me.

It is so tempting to "blame the victims," to find a "reason" why all this happened to the Schofield family, especially when you learn that their younger son Bodhi also ended up being mentally ill. And the parents definitely have their own share of dysfunctions, both genetic and experiential. Still, all things considered, I truly believe they're doing the best they can with a very difficult lot.

Despite this book looming so strong in my mind, I gave it four stars instead of five because the writing wasn't that great; there were a handful of moments that were even a little cringeworthy. Michael Schofield is a competent writer who has a particularly compelling story to tell, but he often uses the same types of phrases and analogies multiple times, and his characterizations of everyone besides Jani are pretty weak. There aren't moments of literary beauty here, but nonetheless, this is a book you'll never forget.