Book Review: January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her by Michael Schofield
Michael and Susan thought their daughter, January’s, high energy levels and vivid imagination were the result of her high IQ, but when she turned five her imaginary friends started to tell her to do bad things like hit her baby brother or throw herself out of windows. Soon it became apparent that her imaginary friends were actually hallucinations. What followed was a harrowing struggle to get their daughter diagnosed and treated.
It’s rare to see a memoir by a father. There are a ton of memoirs by mothers but not a lot by fathers, particularly not by fathers of daughters. Put this together with the fact that Jani (her parents’ nickname for her) has childhood-onset schizophrenia, and you have one unique book.
This is an excellently told memoir. It opens with Michael speaking about having his daughter’s diagnosis now and struggling with all the barriers toward a normal life presented not just by her illness but by the world we live in. He talks about how some people argue that it’s impossible to diagnose a child with a mental illness, let alone schizophrenia, and of course some people even suggest that Jani is possessed by demons. He gets the denial. It’s scary to see a child consumed by an illness that is completely arbitrary in choosing its victims. But he says,
Denial is not going to help Jani or any of the other mentally ill and schizophrenic children I have come to know. What they need is acceptance. What they need is for us to be telling them “your illness does not define you.” We cannot go inside their minds and “fix” them. But we can fix the world so they can live in it. (location 90)
That speaks very strongly toward the whole reason I created the Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge, and I knew then that this was going to be not just a unique read, but a challenging and good one.
After the introduction, Michael tells the story in a linear fashion. He does a good job remembering how he felt in the early days. His immense pride at his daughter’s high IQ and creative mind coupled with a determination to help her succeed and be herself. It’s fascinating to see, as an outsider, how early there were warning signs that something was not quite right with Jani but that Michael and Susan (her mother) attributed to a positive cause. I think that’s typical of parents and indeed of anyone who loves someone. They were looking for the best. Believing in the best for their daughter. They may be that moderately annoying couple on the play date who just insist their daughter with inappropriate behavior is gifted, but seeing it from Michael’s perspective makes that make sense. Most people (with the exception of parents with Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome) don’t want to believe that their child is sick. So of course you exhaust every other option first.
This of course makes Jani’s move toward violent behavior at the age of five that much more heart-breaking to read. I’ve heard and read stories and documentaries of how difficult it is for parents of young adults who become schizophrenic but at least they are adults. To have this happening to your five year old is completely terrifying. How do you control a child for whom no punishments seem to work? Who is more concerned with appeasing her hallucinations than with obeying her parents?
I certainly don’t agree with all the parenting choices the Schofields made in the first five years of her life (and for the record, neither do all of the psychiatrists), but none of their choices would create schizophrenia. Being overly lenient with your kids won’t make them hallucinate and become this violent at the age of five. This is one of those occasions where you don’t always agree with the choices the memoirist made, but you’re also not right in the heat of the battle. It’s far easier to say, “oh, you should have done this,” when it’s not your child who’s being lost to a mental illness right before your eyes.
That’s the thing about this memoir. Michael is so obviously completely honest. He tells things that happened that don’t present him in the best light. He is completely forthcoming in his own shortcomings, but he reiterates over and over how much he loves his daughter and wants to keep his family together. This combination does for this memoir what a lot of memoirs don’t have: it lends a complete sense of validity to the story as a whole. Michael is so honest about the emotional struggle of it all that even though you may not like him as a person, you respect him as a father.
This level of honesty combined with his writing ability make this memoir a strong call. A call to parents of children who are other-abled (whether mentally or physically) that they are not alone. It’s also a call to the rest of us who are not one of these parents to take a moment to think how difficult it must be and go easier on the parents and the child. I know I for one might think the next time I see a kid throwing an epic tantrum, “Maybe that child has an illness” instead of “Sheesh, do a better job, parents.”
Overall, this is a well-written memoir presenting the unique perspective of a father caring for a daughter with a mental illness. It also provides one of the few accounts of childhood-onset schizophrenia. Highly recommended to parents with special needs children, as well as to anyone who enjoys memoirs and the different perspectives reading them can bring.
4 out of 5 stars