With his autobiography Instrumental, James Rhodes may well have achieved the impossible – writing a first-hand account of child abuse and its terrible legacy that is not just desperately needed, but is also readable and, well, even funny.
This book secured headlines for the attempts made to ban it – a challenge that was so severe it took a Supreme Court ruling in May to secure its publication. But though the implications of this trial are huge in what it means for free speech, don’t let it define what you think you know about this book for this is a stunningly frank account about not just abuse, but also the healing powers of music. This is a book that is both terrible and beautiful.
James is a popular pianist who is creating a huge following as a result of his willingness to challenge the stuffiness of his profession and make classical music dynamic and exciting. Yet he is also a survivor of child rape for James was repeatedly raped by his gym teacher, Mr Lee, when he was only six years old.
How James managed to hold it together to write about his experiences I do not know. But as this book demonstrates, James has been in and out of psychiatric wards ever since. There have been very desperate times – suicide attempts, deliberate and unintentional sabotage of relationships and friendships, and a constant battle with a tsunami of emotions that make even the simplest daily tasks almost impossible.
For as James writes “you cannot outrun this stuff. You cannot hide from it. You cannot deny it. You cannot push it down and expect it not to eventually reappear.” And this book is a powerful testament to that damage, and how abuse constantly works at destroying the victim, long after the abuse has stopped.
There are dark passages in this book, particularly the episodes of self-harm and James’ description of the adults around him unable (unwilling?) to identify the cause of the changes in the young James’ personality. And even the responses from some as James, 25 years later, finally starts to confront and open up about his trauma are god-awful.
But as much as this is a book about abuse and mental illness, this is also a book about music. For it was music that saved James in his darkest moments and it is his passion for classical music that gives this memoir its soaring sprit and its sense of hope.
James cleverly weaves this love into the book. Each chapter opens with descriptions on passages of music and composers that have inspired James – a manner that not just brings in music at key moments in James’ journey but breaks up the darkness in the writing, making the book easier to read.
On the wonderful Schumann, he writes “[he] was one of several who suffered from severe depression, throwing himself into the Rhine and then, having not managed to kill himself, sectioning himself voluntarily and dying alone and afraid in an asylum.”
Whereas on Mozart, James wryly notes “The world’s most famous composer. It’s quite an achievement and yet somehow one feels Mozart wouldn’t have given two fucks.” No, he probably wouldn’t have.
And suddenly these greats of classical music no longer seem like obscure figures from history who played for the pleasure of the wealthy and elite, but real men with complex personalities, battling huge issues. Suddenly to us they become human, even relatable. And their music becomes relevant all over again.
For those who have seen and heard James playing live, this format may not be much of a surprise as this is very much the way James lays out his concerts. His passion to drag classical music out from the stale and deliberately prohibitive classical music halls leaps off the page as he continues his criticisms of the classical music establishment and talks about his challenges in widening its audience.
And he is funny. James is funny and this book is funny. It’s a dark humour, yes, but come on, anyone who can observe about Schubert’s Piano Trio that “this is the soundtrack of a man so depressed he started out his student days training to be a lawyer” deserves credit for that.
That James has found a way to build a life for himself beyond the abuse is extraordinary. But this isn’t a rose-tinted view that all obstacles can be overcome. Even at the end James confides that “I’ve no idea if I’m going to survive the next few years.”
For child abuse isn’t ever something you get over or leave behind. And at a time when parts of society is still trying to tell victims they have taken too long to come to bring their abuse to light, that you can’t cast aspersions on the dead, that not every accuser should be believed, James’ book could not be more timely.
We need this book. That James found it within himself to write these words down on a page, to endure again what must have been unbelievably traumatic to write and to edit, we should be incredibly grateful for.
Instrumental by James Rhodes available in paperback from October 1, 2015. Also available in hardback and e-book.
James is also touring to accompany the book. His Instrumental show, including readings and anecdotes from the book and live performance, will tour throughout the autumn and winter. Dates and venues listed on www.jamesrhodes.tv
Cover art from Canongate Books.
Photos of James Rhodes © Dave Brown