Monday, May 9, 2011

Week 17: Henry’s Demons, by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn

Henry’s Demons is the latest selection from my book club, picked by my friend Lisa. This is the non-fictional account of Patrick Cockburn’s son, Henry, and his struggle with schizophrenia. More accurately, it is the entire Cockburn family’s struggle, not just Henry’s, as the diagnosis and subsequent care of Henry devastates the lives of Henry himself, his younger brother, and his mother and father. The book’s chapters roughly alternate between Patrick’s narration and Henry’s narration. This technique is integral to the book’s appeal, because it allows the reader to delve into the mind of a schizophrenic. The story begins with Henry brush with death after swimming in near-freezing water and being rescued by strangers. This incident eventually led to his diagnosis of mental illness. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic and Patrick chronicles Henry’s breakdown as he starts to separate himself from reality. Henry begins a cycle of running away from his family and finding himself in socially unacceptable situations that usually involve nudity and end with him being apprehended by authorities. He transforms into a wholly different person, eschewing hygiene and claiming that nature is sending him commands. Henry is soon committed to a mental hospital, from which he continues to escape at any opportunity he can find. The family is thrust into a new reality of worrying about Henry, dreading every phone call for fear it is news that Henry has disappeared, and wondering how Henry will ever live a normal life. Meanwhile, Henry’s chapters shed some insight into his mindset during these times.  Early in the book, Henry (who, presently, is in no way “cured”) explains that he never felt that he was mentally ill. He simply thought that he was able to see and understand the world in a way that other people couldn’t. For example, he purported to have heard voices from trees. For Henry, this was a spiritual revelation and a source of great wonder – not mental illness. Therefore, to comply with doctors and take medication to quell these voices would be akin to crippling himself. So Henry refuses to take his medication, despite his family’s pleas to do so. He describes “polka-dot days”, days in which he would see polka-dots or rings everywhere, and that was a signal that a breakdown was looming. The book strikes a compelling balance between what Henry’s family is experiencing on the outside, and how Henry’s mind is functioning on the inside.  Readers will easily sympathize with Henry’s parents’ frustration at the sense that Henry’s life is irrevocably changed, and not for the better. It is a touching, interesting book, with concludes with no happy ending but leaves the reader with a sense of appreciation for the trials that this family has endured.

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